Los Angeles: An Overdone Burger at Cafe Stella
3932 West Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90029 (map); 323-666-0265; cafestella.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: This otherwise charming French cafe serves an overwrought fancy-pants burger that isn't worth your time
Want Fries with That? Yes; if only they could make a burger equal to these tasty, skinny-cut fries
Prices: Stella Burger w/fries, $12
Cafe Stella sits in the cool-kid heart of Los Angeles' hipster, Eastside neighborhood of Silverlake. It's at the intersection of Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards that has come to be known as Sunset Junction. The Junction was the site of the first protest against police harassment of gay establishments (two years before the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City) and one of the legendary A Different Light bookstores. These days the area has traded in its protest movement bona fides for a healthy dose of hipster consumerism, but its Bohemian roots are still apparent.
Cafe Stella's opening about 13 years ago was one of the sparks for this transformation. The stylish Stella would become the preferred watering hole to the creative types who had a little extra money and a longing for some authentic French fare. In this capacity it's hard to argue with Stella's appeal. The traditional bistro food and Parisian cafe vibe are among the best versions you'll find in Los Angeles, so when I heard there might be a tasty burger on the menu I listened up. I stopped in for lunch (the burger is a daytime menu item) the other day and found a burger, but it was far from tasty.
My burger senses were tingling as soon as I read the menu's description of the Stella Burger: confit tomatoes, fennel-onion jam, and a blue cheese center. It left me thinking there was danger lurking between the buns. And then I found out about said bun: ciabatta. While I'm happy to trumpet my Italian heritage and the debt the world owes us for our cuisine, the ciabatta roll isn't (generally speaking) well-suited to a burger.
The confit tomatoes was the lone part of the description that piqued my interest. I'm a true believer when it comes to this preparation of the tomato in general, and certainly when it's specifically for a burger. Fennel and onion jam, however, doesn't alight the same anticipation as fennel is such a strong flavor. Then there's the blue cheese. It's Maytag blue in this case and it fills the middle of the hefty eight-ounce chuck patty with an 80/20 meat-to-fat ratio. Since blue cheese is often the downfall of a cheeseburger due to its powerful flavor, I usually opt of it. In this case, you don't have that choice. Stella prepares their patties in the morning and all burgers have blue cheese centers.
Sometimes my long developed preconception of burgers is defied by the inspired reimagining of a chef. This wasn't one of those cases. The first problem with the Stella Burger is the ciabatta bun. It's a crusty and tough bread that is uncomfortable as sandwich bread (unless you like having the roof of your mouth rubbed raw), and since it doesn't form to the contents I was constantly repositioning my fingers to hold the burger together in order to get all of the ingredients in one bite. The lettuce (not mentioned in the description) was limp and soggy from the heat of the tomatoes and beef. The fennel-onion jam was, as I'd suspected, too redolent of the fennel to balance against the rest of the sandwich. I wouldn't be surprised if some fennel seeds are added to the mix considering the amount of anise flavor I picked up.
The tomatoes were the best thing about the toppings and burger in general. Cooking them confit is a technique I wish more high-end places would embrace as it brings out their flavor and adds some nice fat to the plate.
Finally, there was the patty. This bulbous hunk of beef came out almost well done despite my medium rare order, but perhaps that's not surprising considering the blue cheese center. To get that cheese to melt means delivering substantial heat all the way to the center of the patty and thus risk overcooking. The meat had the consistency of meatloaf and, while they claim they don't season until right before they hit the grill, it had the tightness of a pre-seasoning. Finally, as expected, the blue cheese infused the patty to the point that it lost all of that delicious, clean beefy flavor that I crave.
Mercifully, the burger is served with a very nicely rendered helping of french fries. Stella's version doesn't embrace the crispiness aesthetic with both hands, but I found the flavor fantastic and made them the centerpiece of my lunch after I tasting the wan burger.
It's too bad that Cafe Stella doesn't make a better burger because so much about the restaurant is pleasing. The interior, specifically the bar, is a beautiful replica of a Parisian cafe and many of the other menu items are solid and not too pricey. Stella would be a great place to grab a burger and a glass of wine, if it weren't for their less-than-stellar burger.
About the author: Damon is one of our roving burger reporters and food writers. When he's not eating more than is warranted or healthful (and then writing about it) he can be found writing and producing for television and film. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.