Los Angeles: Good Ingredients Don't Add Up to a Good Burger at Cooks County
8009 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90048 (map); 323-653-8009; cookscountyrestaurant.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A good new restaurant falls short with their high-end burger
Want Fries with That? Yes; professionally rendered spuds, but at $5 per order they'd better be
Prices: Grass Fed Burger, $13, fries $5
It wouldn't be fair to say that Cooks County is anything but a very good restaurant. The new venture from chef Daniel Mattern and pastry chef Roxana Jullapat is of a certain class of Los Angeles restaurant that has come to define contemporary California cuisine. The seasonal, regularly changing menu is obsessively locally sourced (the credit roll of farms at the bottom of the menu puts most farmer's markets to shame) and is that peculiarly Californian admixture of Mediterranean influence with the occasional Eastern flourish. Ingredients are the stars here and the idea is to follow them based on seasons that you barely knew existed (spring gets divvied up into no less than three versions). You could show up to Cooks County any number of times in a month and feel as though you barely know the menu. Rather, what you'd learn is the cooking aesthetic of Mattern and Jullapat. This aesthetic revels in the freshest and highest quality ingredients and a homey, bistro vibe. In this capacity, they've certainly built a quality restaurant.
Of course, some of those impulses defy great burger making. The backbone of a burger greatness is borne out of its familiarity; its constancy. Just by putting a burger on their menu (albeit for only brunch and lunch), Mattern and Jullapat know these traits are something that make for restaurant success. Unfortunately, when it comes to contriving the alchemy of meat, bun, and cheese, they aren't able to tease out a great burger from (mostly) great components.
The first flaw of the Cooks County's grass fed burger is apparent even in photos. Yes, it's a towering and beautiful version when composed on the plate, but great burgers need to be held. This burger can barely stand up on its own. A wooden spike holds the thing together, but when its time to go hand-held even my two meaty mitts can't hold this behemoth together. The problem isn't that it's too big—I've seen bigger that hold together—it's that this one falls apart because of a too firm bun and ingredients that look to have been measured on their own merits (of which there are many) rather than on how they come together.
The burger consists of a half-pound of rich, medium-ground grass fed beef that shows a plentiful 80/20 ratio. The tomato (labeled a desert tomato) is so delicious and full of flavor that a spot of olive oil and salt would make it a salad on its own. The grilled onion had an expert and perfect char, the lettuce crunched like spring, and the white cheddar was beautifully melted. The homemade aioli was as rich and creamy as the aioli of your dreams.
Alas, Jullapat's homemade brioche bun looked like a star, but its brightness faded when I bit into it. It lacked any sponginess so what little hope this burger had of staying together was entirely dashed. To the knife and fork it was.
It's been quite some time since I've been forced to eat a burger with a knife and fork and, as you'd guess, I don't prefer it. Sampling each of the components on their own was easy, but getting the sense of cohesiveness that makes for a great burger was utterly lacking. You'll notice that my patty came out on the rare side. Normally this would put me off, but the high quality beef and a hearty char made it ok by me. The meat had a hint of earthiness underneath the clean beef flavor that gave it a high-end patty profile. That said, if you do give this burger a try, I'd suggest making very clear your preferred temperature.
The fries were expertly prepared, fresh cut spuds. The exteriors were crisp and played nicely with the creamy interiors. They weren't a revelation, but certainly very good. Then again, at $5 for the order they'd better be. This is an aspect of a meal at Cook's County that's worth noting: It ain't cheap. My burger and fries clocked in at $18 and that was before I had my fancy Empire soda or an order of Jullapat's very good (though not great) homemade baked goods.
Mattern and Jullapat have conspired to make a very good restaurant. There are a lot of things to like about Cooks County; I just wish the the burger was one them.
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.