San Francisco: A Pungently Good Burger at Heirloom Cafe
2500 Folsom Street, San Francisco CA 94110 (map); 415-821-2500; heirloom-sf.com
Cooking Method: Griddled and then roasted
Short Order: A burger with shallots and pungent Époisses cheese in the grind may scandalize purists—but it's delicious
Want Fries with That? Heirloom Cafe doesn't serve fries
Price: Burger, $12
Notes: Burger doesn't appear on the menu, but can be ordered at any time
Earlier this year, Food & Wine honored Matt Straus as one of the top sommeliers of 2011 for the wine list he curates at Heirloom Cafe. So it's not terribly surprising that he provided himself a rather provocative pairing challenge with Heirloom's burger. The beef in the patty gets ground with shallots and a decidedly pungent Époisses cheese. I can imagine the groans of the more puritanical AHT-ers out there upon hearing this ingredient list, but I would beg them to give the Heirloom burger a try because it's one of the tastiest burgers I've had around San Francisco in quite some time.
Inside a non-descript exterior, the vibe at Heirloom is distinctly precious. The wallpaper and light fixtures give the room a Victorian flair, the table displaying the cheese course is decorated with a bouquet of fresh flowers, and the burger gets sliced in half before arriving at your table. It's an environment that made perfect sense for the mother-daughter group outing filling one half of Heirloom's communal table the night that I visited. Yet the prices stay mostly mid-range, the staff is friendly and casual, and when my order came up, Straus (who was expediting), took it from the cook and playfully slid it down the marble countertop to my seat overlooking the kitchen. So, yes, the restaurant is a little precious, but not stuffy.
Sitting at the counter, I got to watch my burger cook from start to finish. The cook generously salted the hefty patty before putting it onto the griddle. The meat only stays there long enough to develop a crust, and is then roasted in the oven to finish. No one asked me how I wanted my burger cooked, but it appears that medium-rare is standard at Heirloom. When burgers came out of the oven, they were briefly rested on a kitchen towel to absorb excess juices that might run all over the plate, a decision that I first feared was a questionable choice of aesthetics over taste. But the patty I ate certainly did not lack for moisture, so I have to conclude that the cook knew what she was doing.
On first look, the meat in the burger that Straus propelled down the counter to my seat appeared way too compact. (Thankfully, it was far more tender to the bite than to the eye.) And with the shallots and Époisses mixed into the beef, it's true that this patty did come off a bit meatloafy. But if those seem like caveats, here's my bottom line: the burger at Heirloom is powerfully flavorful. It's impossible to discern exactly where the taste of the meat ends and the funk of the cheese begins, yet the final flavor of the thick and juicy patty is undeniably beefy. I'm a huge fan.
Given the distinct flavor profile of Heirloom's burger, Straus and his staff are right to think that standard ketchup and mustard aren't entirely appropriate. Instead, both the top and bottom bun on the burger were spread with a sweet and slightly winey onion jam, with a little bit of arugula sitting beneath the patty. The English muffin bun from Sconehenge had been buttered and given a long sojourn on the griddle until it developed a rich and crunchy outer lip. The end result was a very well-composed burger.
The burger at Heirloom comes with some hardly-pickled carrots, but the plate is otherwise bare, and fries don't appear anywhere on the menu. If you are searching for a capper to your meal, try the chocolate chip oatmeal cookie ($2), which comes out soft, gooey, and comforting.
This is a burger that has been infused with fancy French cheese and served in a restaurant known for its stellar wine list. Though I'm sure Matt Straus could have recommended an excellent bottle of aged grapes to complement my dinner, I chose to honor my burger's more downscale roots and pair it with a tall glass of beer. No matter what you choose as your counterpoint to Heirloom's burger, it tastes pretty damned delicious.
About the author: David Kover is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and food enthusiast. He'll eat smelly French cheese whether or not it's ground into a burger.