R + D Kitchen
1323 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica CA 90403 (other locations in Newport Beach, CA and Dallas, TX (map); 310-395-3314; hillstone.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A great patty and homemade bun make for a great start, but the toppings are over-the-top.
Want Fries with That? Pass; these fries are too oily to match their skinny-cut style
Prices: Cheeseburger $13; fries $4
Notes: Make sure to specify exactly what you want on your burger or you'll confront a battalion of toppings.
The Hillstone Restaurant Group has just about perfected the upscale casual (mini) chain restaurant model. The have multiple concepts and dozens of locations across the country that all seem to find their niche. The most well-known brand, Houston's, has a renowned burger that was reviewed here at AHT by Nick Solares. The results were mixed, but one thing that stood out was the in-house grinding of the meat. It's a relative rarity in the burger business despite (almost always) making for much tastier patty.
So when I learned that Hillstone's R + D Kitchen in Santa Monica handled their beef similarly, I thought it was worth a closer look. I headed over to the upscale strip of Montana Avenue near the ocean and found a burger that has tons of potential, but is in need of some editing when it comes to the toppings.
The R + D Cheeseburger is classic looking burger that is piled so highly with toppings each half needs a couple of stakes to hold together. Along with the lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, and cheddar cheese is a battalion of condiments. Mustard and mayo adorn the top half of the bun and on the bottom is a slathering of hickory sauce. Here in LA we have a lot of devotees to The Hickoryburger over at The Apple Pan. I'm not one of them. While the R + D version leans more toward traditional barbecue sauce and its cloying smokiness rather than the more savory one at The Apple Pan, I don't much like either version on my burgers.
The bun is a homemade egg bun that gets a smattering of sesame seeds and is quite good. The texture is pliant yet solid enough to hold up to the beef and the flavor isn't overburdened with the sweetness of brioche buns. The problem is that not much could stand up to all the toppings and condiments. It's such a morass of flavor that the burger, as served, doesn't deliver all the salty, juicy goodness it otherwise could.
You see, the patty at R + D is actually quite good. As I mentioned, the beef (100 percent chuck) is ground in-house and sourced from Allen Brothers, who make sure it's all U.S.D.A. choice. The double-grind technique R + D employs—the first pass at a coarse setting and the second a bit finer—makes for even fat distribution among the 80/20 patty.
The seven-ounce patty came out with a nice crust, and despite the patty being rather slim, it was cooked to a good medium rare. The patty got a nice seasoning that brought out the clean beef flavor—flavor that came out better with some of the toppings removed, which is how I ate the second half of my burger. Speaking of burger halves, R + D cuts every burger in half. One imagines they do it for aesthetic reasons, but I wish they would have mentioned it beforehand so I could have opted out. (The cross-section shot above is how your burger will look when served if you don't.)
Further, when it came to all that extra stuff on my burger I also found myself surprised. Take a quick peak at the menu. Notice anything missing in their description? Yeah, no mention of mayo, mustard, Hickory sauce, or even pickle. I wish I'd known what I was in for so I could've asked to be in for a little less of it.
The fries were skinny cut and not too appetizing, but I did enjoy a couple of the sides. The Deviled Eggs were traditional and well-executed, but the star was the slaw. Traditional cole slaw got a couple of extra ingredients (parsley being the stand out) and a restrained portion of mayo that made the kind of surprise that I'll get behind.
My meal at R + D was largely what I've come to expect from the restaurants run by Hillstone: good (though not great) food, truly excellent service (the manager, Calvin, was a standout), and a price point that raises an eyebrow. The burger is $13 without any sides. That means a burger and fries will set you back $17, making you casual meal decidedly upscale in price. Of course, I'll pay a few extra bones for a great burger, and R + D might just have one hiding under all those toppings.