"Gyenari should rethink this American-style 'gourmet' burger and look toward the Korean side of the fusion equation."
9450 Washington Boulevard, Culver City CA 90232 (map); 310-838-3131; gyenari.com
Cooking Method: Charbroiled
Short Order: A tragically hip lounge and Korean barbecue restaurant misses the mark with a burger in the midst of an identity crisis
Want Fries with That? No, no, and no. I had the regular fries, rings, and sweet potato variety--and none made an impression
Prices: The Burger, $10
<!-- Notes: Lunch, Mon.–Sun., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner, Sun.–Thur., 4 to 10 p.m.; dinner, Fri.–Sat., 4 to 11 p.m. Non-burger-related note: The burger may be a miss, but they've got a couple of dinner specials on the Korean BBQ and Shabu Shabu that could make a night out recession friendly -->
I look for burgers everywhere. I seek them out in the greasiest of spoons, and I look for them hiding on the menus of fine-dining restaurants. I give them all a fair shake (even if they won't serve me one with my burger). I take pleasure in the looking, not just the finding. It's a burger hunt, if you will.
I'd wager you've done some hunting of your own. You've long since stopped worrying about who is looking down an upturned nose at your lack of adventure or your disregard for good health. You know ordering a burger doesn't have to mean either. On any given day, I'll try anything (usually more than once) and my cholesterol is just fine, so today I'll be having the burger.
One of my favorite places to discover a great burger is a restaurant that serves a cuisine not usually associated with this American original. I've sucked down a filthy and delicious* one at a teriyaki joint in Hollywood, and I've loved the cheeseburger hiding between the carnitas and pibil at my local (and truly excellent) taco stand.
When I heard that a Serious Eats reader had found a rose among what one could fairly describe as the thorny situation of a Korean-California fusion lounge, my burger senses started tingling. Maybe that's just the place to find a great burger hiding in plain sight. Gyenari is a not quite spanking new member of the restaurant revival in Culver City's downtown, and it's home to equal parts Korean tradition, California freshness, and designer restaurant. Is there a burger star here waiting to be discovered? Who knows?
Well, as of the other day, I do.
Strange Bedfellows Do Fusion
At first blush, Gyenari (pronounced jin-AR-ee) is another Los Angeles nightspot disguised as a restaurant. This is an all-too-common ailment in a city that makes stars of the (self-imposed) starving. The food is all glitz and giggles. Star chefs team with star nightlife impresarios, and then the publicists do the rest. Eating out becomes just another way to be seen, but, of course, the glitterati don't want to be seen actually eating (lest they end up looking just like us).
While Gyenari looks the part, its lineage is a bit outside the box. A group of unnamed Korean investors teamed with Robert Benson, the principle behind Jack & Jills Too and a 20-odd-year veteran of the Claim Jumper chain. Um, yeah, not quite star power, but when I checked the website of the restaurant I found they describe the décor as "modern" and "sleek." I immediately felt less guilty about my prejudices.
Alas, there is a burger (now in a few variations) on their menu, which means I have to open my mind and my mouth and make an assessment. I ordered The Original Half-Pound Prime Burger, cooked medium-rare, from my server who is dressed in all black. Benson calls the look "ninja-style." Sure, OK. Anyway, you get a choice of fries, rings, or salad with your burger, which makes the $10 price tag surprisingly affordable, considering how built-out the space is. I ask for half rings, half fries.
The restaurant interior is decorated in three basic colors: gray, black, and yellow. This would read like a science fiction movie set were it not for the exposed brick walls and soaring ceilings webbed with ducts and support beams. It's actually relatively pleasing despite the noticeable "chill-out" soundtrack that seems to be exhorting me to remember to act cool. I can't do that, so I just keep quiet and eat.
Before my burger arrives, it is preceded by a bowl of beef broth in a metal (something like bronze) pot. It, too, comes with the burger and serves to remind you that this is indeed a fusion restaurant. It's at once salty and bland which seems like an achievement of sorts; just not the sort I'm interested in. I nibble on one flaccid daikon slice that is hiding at the bottom of the bowl before I give up.
Burger Is as Burger Doesn't
The burger arrives looking good. The perfectly round and shiny challah bun is surrounded by my rings and fries. In fact, the plate is too small for all of my food, but I know how to fix that. I take a hefty bite. The Original comes with grilled onion, tomato, arugula, Wisconsin cheddar, and garlic aioli. I can't taste all of those flavors, but there is certainly a lot of flavor. The meat is juicy and gives off that carbon whiff of a high-heat broiler. The in-house grind is a bit fine for my taste. The aioli has been slathered on with a profligate hand, which is unnecessary against all this fat. That said, it's certainly got a good mouthfeel.
The patty itself is listed as eight ounces of prime chuck, which, for me, usually means a too-thick burger. In this case, it's formed slimmer and broader than its cousins. I appreciate this. The menu lists the bun as challah, but mine lacked any of the smooth texture and subtle sweetness that I grew up loving. My bun is pretty mealy and almost stale. It received little or no heat itself before the patty came on the scene.
Speaking of the heat of the patty, the arugula is placed underneath it. This is always a mistake. Almost all greens wilt under the heat of a patty; arugula shrivels. The tomato is too thin to merit mention, but there is a small vegetarian star lurking, and I'm not talking about Anne Hathaway. The thick-cut and grilled red onion is offering up a savory and sweet mix that adds a lovely flavor. I pick up the hint of bulgogi marinade. I ask about it, and, sure enough, they've shared a grill. I immediately think that Gyenari should rethink this American-style "gourmet" burger and look toward the Korean side of the fusion equation. It's the high point on an otherwise mediocre burger. The fries and rings don't distinguish themselves, either. The only interesting tidbit was that the beer-battered rings were the closest thing I've had to a zeppole in Los Angeles. Interesting, yes. Good onion ring, no.
I'd like to have told the story of going to a too-chic-for-a-geek (like me) restaurant that serves Korean food and a surprisingly great burger, but no such luck in this case. The Korean food at Gyenari may be passable, but the burger itself is a pass. This burger expedition didn't end up with a find, but that's OK; I always enjoy the hunt.
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