[Photographs: Jeff Schlesinger]

The Spotted Horse Tavern

26-28 Church Lane, Westport CT 06880 (map); 203-557-9393; spottedhorsect.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Consistency issues aside, these burgers feature outstanding meat and buns with mostly good toppings
Want Fries With That? Delicious skin-on shoestring fries come with the burger
Price: Grass Fed Angus Burger, $11.95; Black Truffle Burger, $13.95; both w/salad or french fries

Let's gut an over 200-year-old building, decorate the interior with reclaimed woods and discarded farm items, build a U-shaped bar and serve organic tavern cuisine, nestle it amongst high-end retail shops in downtown Westport, Connecticut, and name it The Spotted Horse Tavern. Sound like a plan?

Enter seasoned Fairfield County restaurateurs Kevin McHugh, Pete Menonna, Tommy Febbraio, and George E. O'Connell. They purchased and updated an early-1800s building to give a farm country atmosphere thanks to the wide rough-cut planks on the floors and walls made of reclaimed barn siding—one adorned with a large double gate that McHugh found during his travels. Overlooking the dining area are large photographs of the restaurant's namesake spotted horses. On any night the bar area's five tables and 15 stools bustle with 30-somethings, while the dining area's 50 seats host a full demographic mix.

The menu offers a wide variety of organic choices from sandwiches and salads to roasted meats and poultry. For burgers they offer the basic Grass Fed Angus Burger ($11.95), an eight-ounce patty with lettuce and tomato, plus the Black Truffle Burger ($13.95), which includes caramelized onions, black truffle butter, a sunny-side up egg, Bel Paese cheese, lettuce, and tomato. You can add toppings for $1 each. I added bacon and American cheese to my Grass Fed Angus Burger.

The Spotted Horse purchases its meat from Saugatuck Craft Butchery, a local butcher known for its high quality organic beef. The half-pound, 19 percent fat patties are composed of coarse ground short rib, chuck, and sirloin. They're seasoned with a touch of salt and pepper and are hand-pattied immediately before being grilled on the indoor gas-fired grill.

The highlight of the burgers is the incredible meat. It's one of the most deeply flavorful and rich patties I've ever tasted. The well charred patties are slightly crisp on the outside, while the interior offers a slightly hand-pressed texture. When cut in half the meat releases just a bit of juice, which the bun easily absorbs. This may be my new standard for how a good burger patty should taste.

The Spotted Horse's bacon is excellent—several rashers of thick and crispy hickory-smoked bacon add a good amount of smoky-saltiness to the Grass Fed Angus Burger. (Make sure that it actually arrives with the hamburger, as I was zero for two in my visits. In each case the server ran to the kitchen and brought the bacon on a small plate, leaving me to build-my-own bacon burger when I'd rather receive it already built.) The substantial amount of American cheese (also missing on one occasion) is melted and creamy, although it adds nothing to the overall flavor.

The sunny-side up egg on the Black Truffle Burger is great. The firmness of the fried egg white contrasts well against the meat and the oozing yolk adds an incredible lusciousness. The small amount of Bel Paese cheese is, like the American cheese, well melted and creamy but is just too mild. The "caramelized onions"—as described on the menu—aren't luscious, soft, and sweet, but are, to my disappointment, crunchy and overly pungent. They're better described as grilled. Likewise, the black truffle butter doesn't enhance the overall flavor.

The burgers are encased in brioche buns from Billy's Bakery in Fairfield. The buttery, sweet buns contrast well against the beef's rich flavor, but again, consistency is an issue. The bun on my bacon cheeseburger was thick and round while the bun on my Black Truffle Burger was crushed, almost as if a plate were placed on top. Likewise, on some occasions it arrived toasted (my preference and the preference of the owners), while on another it arrived untoasted. I'm told that the kitchen is working on consistency in all of these areas.

The accompanying skin-on shoestring fries were perfectly fried to a crispy exterior and a soft and moist interior. They were delivered salted and piping hot with a little cruet of ketchup.

Consistency aside, The Spotted Horse serves a richly flavored hamburger with some great toppings in a relaxed, yet vibrant atmosphere. If you order the appropriate toppings, and check carefully that your hamburger arrives as ordered, this is a great destination for the hamburger lover.

About the author: Jeff Schlesinger's first memory of hamburgers is carrying a single dollar bill to White Castle for a 6-pack (around 10-cents each), fries, and a Coke. Many years later he still enjoys the flavors of a great hamburger. His wife of 32 years and two daughters make sure he balances his love for hamburgers with plenty of exercise and other great foods in their home town of New Canaan, CT. Read more from Jeff at Jfood Eats and CTbites.

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