The Sublime, Secret Burger at Bastide in Los Angeles
8475 Melrose Place, Los Angeles, CA 90069 (map); 323-651-5950; bastidela.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: One of LA's elite dining rooms slouches toward burger stardom with their secret menu item
Want Fries with That? Yes— these cut-to-order, (super) skinny fries make you realize what In-N-Out is aspiring to
Prices: Bastide Burger w/fries, $24 (dinner)
Notes: You won't find the burger listed on the menu and your server won't tell you about it, but, hey, that's what we're here for. Ask for the burger and, if you are feeling adventurous, what else Chef Joseph has up his sleeve for that night's unlisted specials
The allure of knowing a secret seems fundamental to the human psyche. Special information that we're promised not to share, or not supposed to have been told, organizes a particular kind of desire. I remember when I once heard a tasty tidbit that initiated all manner of fantasies of a sub rosa, Los Angeles economy that only a privileged few were let in on.
This tidbit was told to me over a decade ago when my waistline needed fewer salads than my current state would suggest. In-N-Out was the order of the day—and night, and next day. A coworker who was a Los Angeles native listened to me wax on about the virtues of a Double Double and politely offered a little advice: "Ask for it 'Animal Style.'" I got a shiver of excitement. The idea that it would be exciting to know about the "secret menu" at In-N-Out seems quaint in light of their current stance on the matter, but at the time I was thrilled to be in on a Los Angeles burger secret.
When I heard that Bastide, one of Los Angeles's finer fine-dining establishments, might be dabbling in a similar off-menu covert affairs involving a burger, it didn't take long for me to check in on it. What I discovered had to be shared.
Bastide has been around for a number of years, and while the originating chef garnered a lot of ink for his creative and skillful food, the experience was invariably described as special. As it happens, "special" is fine very occasionally, but most of us want something more, well, ordinary for most of our meals out. In my experience, the restaurant's rarefied atmosphere and masochistic price point left me contemplating the value of that kind of eating experience.
But those days seem behind the restaurant. The owner, legendary commercial director Joe Pitka, has turned his space, decorated with artpiece lighting fixtures by Ingo Maurer into one of the more beautiful in town and brought on the wholly likable Dario Dell'Anno as manager and sommelier.
The new chef, Joseph Mahon, calls himself a cooking gangster, but is really the type you'd run to when you needed the authorities. After training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he did time with both Boulud and Bouley in New York City and then David Myers here in Los Angeles before heading out to run his own kitchen. His manner is casual, but when I suggest his new menu be described that way, he's quick to correct me: "'Accessible' is how I like to describe it." Indeed, that's what he done. His menu raises the level of recognizable dishes with expert technique and the finest ingredients. His burger is a fantastic expression of that ethos.
The house made brioche bun is thankfully more brioche in name than in texture. What Mahon and his baker have managed to do is create one of the better burger buns in the city. The meat is sourced from Creekstone Farms and is a blend of chuck, short rib, and flank. He adds some Bibb lettuce, dried (for flavor intensity) tomatoes, caramelized onions, and thick cut bacon. His cheese is a equal measures Fontina and Petit Basque. The aioli is the one bit of flourish that makes this burger Mahon's own. He adds a bit of Sriracha to it so that familiar-looking pink spread isn't Thousand Island, but rather an aioli with a kick.
The burger announces the flavors in waves. The Sriracha aioli is so distinct and seemingly out of place that you can't help but notice it straight away. Of course, things aren't always as they seem. The heat of the Sriracha creeps up on you and in a way that adds complexity rather than distraction. It complements the fat and meaty appeal of Mahon's patty. The cheese is gorgeous blend of smoothness and the lettuce and tomato are welcome additions. The drying of the tomato means the water content doesn't interfere with the rest of the burger, and the flavor is concentrated and reminiscent of homemade ketchup. The thick cut bacon is delicious in its own right, but, as is usually the case for me, I find the smokiness too strong a flavor.
In this instance, there was a specific reason I wanted it separated from my burger. Mahon's beautiful blend of beef is something to behold. The rich flavor of the short rib and flank matched against the clean, fattiness of the chuck was sublime. It's all held together by a truly excellent bun that is reminiscent of the commercial variety in the best possible way—spongy and vibrant, yet still bespoke, I found myself smitten by it.
Mahon has managed to make his burger both entirely familiar and something deeply special. Of course, "accessible" is a relative at a place like Bastide. The burger and fries will run you $24 and that's anything but an ordinary price. What it is for most of us is a special occasion meal, but now it's one I might ask for with regularity. And, at Bastide, even knowing to ask is a bit of a trick. If you arrived for a dinner you wouldn't (and still won't) find it listed on the menu, or even mentioned by your waiter. At best, you might have gotten lucky enough to see another guest eating it and thought to ask for one. But now you don't need luck. The secret is out.