403 W. 12th Street, Los Angeles CA 90015 (map); 213-746-0050; corkbar.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Downtown gentrification delivers yet another stylish space that serves up a burger that lacks substance.
Want Fries with That? Nope—the burger comes with a salad. Yes, a salad.
Prices: Corkbar Burger w/salad, $12
Notes: There's a nicely curated wine selection. Have a glass, enjoy the decor, and get your burger someplace else.
I take no pleasure in writing a bad review of a burger. Separate from the unpleasant work of bashing someone's (one assumes) labor of love is the (almost) equally unpleasant fact that all of those biting signifiers are there to represent a real-life, unappetizing mouthful of food. Alas, not all burgers are created with love, or even if they are, as in the case of Corkbar, the labor can lose out to its design; and it's my job to say so.
Located in the midst of Los Angeles' Downtown gentrification, Corkbar is, as the name suggests an establishment with a penchant for wine. Along with the impressive list of local (that is, California) vino is a gaggle of dishes that have quickly become a genre unto themselves: gastropub fare. Fancy grilled cheese? Yup. Short ribs, Hangar Steak, and Mac 'n Cheese? Check, check, check. And, of course, the fancy-pants burger. Now, being a part of a culinary trend isn't a problem unto itself. The menu, like Corkbar's breathtaking interior, is actually quite appealing; it's in the preparation of the food where things fall apart.
As I mentioned the wine that is the organizing principle of Corkbar is impressive. Dozens of options are offered by the glass and bottles decorate the soaring interior space with earthquake-zone, nose-thumbing elan that is as beautiful as it is ill-advised. The owners have, to their credit, put together one of the more visually appealing, new restaurant spaces I've seen in a long while, but I came for the burger and, sadly, that's where their designer impulses let them down.
Chef Albert Aviles has put together a menu that seems nicely suited to a wine bar. So much so that they even put suggested pairings on the menu. I opted out of the Petite Syrah suggestion in favor of a Coke, but it's hard to imagine my burger would have been any better with (only one glass of) wine.
The Corkbar Burger is roughly a half-pound of what I was told was a mix of meats though there was some confusion (or obfuscation) about exactly what the mixture was. It's served on a challah bun from La Brea Bakery and comes with lettuce, tomato, onions, and some house-made pickles. They also throw a "roasted tomato burger sauce" into the mix.
The toppings were all fresh and pleasant, though that simple "onion" was actually more of an onion jam and that roasted tomato burger sauce was reminiscent of some more common, sweet burger sauces. That said, on all these counts there wasn't too much to gripe about. The challah bun was, as you might have guessed, too sweet and flaky to properly match a burger, but even that less than optimal choice was still not the design flaw in this sandwich. The real culprit here is the meat.
The patty was such a dessicated, hardened mass of ground meat that it was more of a slab of wan meatloaf than a burger patty. The grind was fine to the point of fast food mealiness and, even worse, came out rubbery. It wasn't just that it had been cooked well past my requested medium rare, but clearly it had endured a massive pre-seasoning.
As Kenji broke down for us in his brilliant post, nothing will undermine a good patty more than an early salting. I'd guess that's just what happened to my burger. The effect is fatal. Despite all of the fresh ingredients, my burger tasted like a frozen-aisle Salisbury Steak sneaked into the bun. A close-up look at the patty reveals a striking resemblance to the pre-salted rounds Kenji cooked up in the Burger Lab.
My suspicion is that Corkbar's burger failings aren't a result of a lack of thought, but perhaps a classic bit of over-thinking. When making a burger the impulse to throw numerous techniques together can lead to a fantastic re-interpretation, but it can also lead to mistakes that are designed into the sandwich. Therein seems to be Corkbar's fatal flaw. The restaurant demonstrates a commitment to detail, but sometimes the devil is in the design.