A Hamburger Today
Los Angeles: MessHall Cooks Up A Very Good Burger
4500 Hillhurst Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90027 (map); 323-660-6377; messhallkitchen.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: This American comfort food restaurant delivers the goods with a very good and straightforward take on the classic cheeseburger
Want Fries with That? Yes! These fresh-cut, skin on spuds are expertly prepared
Prices: Mess Burger (w/fries), $15
The recent opening of the new restaurant MessHall in the Los Feliz neighborhood here in Los Angeles initiated a little more than the usual pre-opening gossip. MessHall was opening in the same location that was once home to of one of LA's most beloved and historically significant restaurants: The Brown Derby. Now this wasn't the one that was shaped like the hat (The Brown Derby had multiple locations), but it was certainly a celebrity haunt and the chain that gave rise to the Cobb Salad. (Ok, it's not exactly the Freedom Trail, but it's a certain kind of history.) In any case, the question became would MessHall be a new restaurant worthy of the location's significance.
Actually, MessHall isn't all new. First, one of the owners, Bill Chait, is a partner in restaurant that had been in the space most recently: the bland Louise's Trattoria. Along with Chait, co-owner Rob Serritella reworked the interior with an eye to the past. MessHall is stripped down to expose the original steel and beams that date back to 1929 (back when the place was called Willard's Chicken Inn, opened by legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille). It's a beautiful space that betrays professional restaurateuring.
They call their burger the Mess Burger ($15), and it's anything but. Chef Keith Silverton (of Dominick's, Smitty's Grill, and the Spider Club) takes charge of the simple dish with the use of high end ingredients and some pro moves. As you'd imagine, MessHall fancies itself a farm-to-table, American comfort food restaurant, but don't let the cliché put you off. This burger is one in a line of ordinary high-end blandness. This one delivers the goods (though you will pay for it).
It starts with eight ounces of some seriously prime beef. My patty was a honking, big beefy round. Silverton adds some slow-cooked onions, Vermont cheddar, bread and butter pickles, and what they describe as a smoky sauce. The bun is a fresh-baked traditional burger bun with a little more bready substance than the commercial variety.
The patty was a beautiful object lesson in big time grilling. The char was pronounced and burned in with the speed of a properly heated grill. This meant that the middle cooked to the medium rare of my dreams. Add to that some hefty salting and fantastic juiciness and you get a burger that's worth the inflated price tag.
I also loved the sweetness from the slow-cooked onions against the sharpness of the cheddar. The pickles were a fun addition as they showed up with a hint of sweet tang. The sauce was smoky as advertised, but not in the heavy handed, acetone manner of liquid smoke. The bun was less of a star, but certainly far better than the usual brioche disasters that burgers in this price point are usually burdened with. If there's room for improvement on the Mess Burger, it's certainly on this count.
The fries were, like their burger counterpart, a example of a pro chef knowing his technique. They came out perfectly crisp on the outside with smooth, creamy interiors. The choice to leave some skin on added a nice earthy quality.
Certainly it's a stretch to imagine MessHall becoming anything like the historic institution that the Brown Derby once was, but perhaps that's more of a comment on the changing landscape of Los Angeles than the restaurant itself. A well-run, professional restaurant that makes a very good burger isn't going to make history, but it's not a bad present.
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.