Ink & Elm
1577 North Decatur Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30307 (Map); 678-244-7050; inkandelmatlanta.com
Cooking Method: Flat top
Short Order: A really good burger that's perhaps guilty of trying too hard
Want Fries with That? The potato wedges could be special with some tinkering
Price: I & E Cheeseburger, $12
Much has been made in the local press about the apparent "split personality" of Ink & Elm, a newish spot in the Druid Hills area. Walk in, and on one side there's The Tavern (with capital Ts, as per all of their materials), and through a doorway is The Dining Room. The two spaces feel vastly different, each with its own menu. Some reviews even refer to The Tavern as "Ink," and The Dining Room as "Elm," playing off the name that's a somewhat-vague-but-definitely-heady nod to Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect who designed this part of town in the 1890s.
Ink & Elm is pretty up front about wanting to be both "casual" and "comfort-driven," yet "refined" and a "destination." That can be a tough twofer to pull off under one roof. So it's not surprising that Ink & Elm's signature burger has a little Jekyll-and-Hyde thing going on, too.
Now, I've occasionally been accused of needlessly flowering up my writing. There are instances when I use high-value Scrabble words to say something I could get across with Easy-Reader-speak. I don't always eschew obfuscation. (See what I just did there?) The danger in doing that is that sometimes the verbiage gets in the way. Even I found myself wishing for simpler, more straightforward language after reading the printed description of the I & E Cheeseburger :
I'll touch on each of those elements as we go. But based on the menu verbiage, the I & E Cheeseburger ($12) felt like it was leaning more toward "refined" than "casual." That seems fitting, given the setting (it's on the menu of The Tavern only), which borders on sterile more so than belly-up-to-the-bar-and-stay-a-while. What I got, though, looked like classic hearty pub fare/comfort food through and through.
The beef is a chuck/brisket blend of grass-fed Certified Angus from Brasstown Beef in North Carolina, ground and hand-shaped in house. It's hit with sea salt and fresh black pepper, then cooked to order on the flat top. The patty is a six-ouncer, but over an ounce of that isn't beef at all. Stephen Sharp, Ink & Elm's executive chef, adds ground hickory-smoked bacon to the blend. The bacon comes from S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, a family-owned farm in Virginia. Sharp loves the "subtle smoked flavor" of their pork, and incorporates it into the beef at a 4:1 ratio "for richness."
It sounds awesome. But neither the menu nor my server explained that the bacon—clearly listed in the menu as an element of the I & E—is ground up and folded in with the beef. So when I popped the lid, I just assumed that the kitchen flat-out forgot to add it on top. And at no time during dinner did I think to myself, "Hey, there's a subtle smoked flavor and richness to this burger...I'll bet the bacon is IN THE BEEF!" It actually wasn't until a follow-up email exchange with the restaurant that I learned about the pork-in-patty placement. If you're going to go to the extra trouble of a cheffy touch like that, I feel like it should probably be touted right up front, and it should unquestionably come through strongly in the taste. To me, it didn't. Seemed like a missed opportunity all the way around.
Perhaps part of the reason that the bacon maintained a top-secret cover was the combination of other strong ingredients at play here. Certainly, the thing that jumps out most from that menu description is "Velveeta fondue," right? Gotta admit, I wasn't sure what I'd be getting—a simmering pot of liquid gold and a long skewer for dipping? But I guess "fondue" is just Ink & Elm's way of saying "super-mega-ultra-melted."
I love me some Velveeta— it's used unabashedly in one of my Top 5 Burgers of All-Time. Sharp told me, "I wanted the meat to stand on its own; other types of cheese would have taken center stage. I grew up eating Velveeta. I mean, it IS 'the cheesiest', right?" (Actually, that's an old tagline for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, not Velveeta. Perhaps I nitpick.)
Fondue could be seen as just a cute, playful way to suggest that this cheese will be totally ooey and gooey to the extreme...or it could be seen as a little head-scratching when used to describe a burger topping. (I'd already been faked out by no strips of bacon; should the cheese also be an X factor?) Still, it's very tasty and incredibly creamy and satisfying, making for a rich, warm, and ooey-gooey-good burger overall. It just left me wondering about the sell job. If it's casual comfort food, why confuse me with how you describe it?
Dilly pickles: I'm not a pickle guy, never have been. But these were good, and I actually kept them on the burger. They're shaved super thin, and they're a sweet dill rather than salty. Kudos for taking the unexpected route.
Arugula: Interesting choice. Not sure I've ever had it on a burger, actually. My first thought is, "It'll be too bitter." There's a noticeable bite, for sure, but it's balanced out by the creaminess of the Velveeta. It does get limp and wilted in a hurry, sandwiched between the griddled patty and the fondue, so the first bite is markedly better than the last when it comes to the greens.
Worcestershire aioli: Chef Sharp supposedly wanted to add an umami component to the I & E Cheeseburger with this spread. I didn't detect it. At all. Perhaps it was covered up by the Velveeta and the dilly and the arugula. Or maybe it was just so under-the-radar subtle that it was working without me knowing it, 'cause I was absolutely plowing through this burger. It's the kind that once you start eating, you're reluctant to put down.
Benne bun: Huh? I've been writing about cheeseburgers professionally for five years, and I had no idea what this means. Search the AHT archives, and you know how many times the word benne has appeared? Zero. So I Googled it. It's the Bantu word for "sesame" that's apparently used mostly in the Carolinas, stemming back to the 17th century when sesame seeds were brought over from Africa during the slave trade. So it's a sesame seed bun. And these (from Alon's Bakery) held up exceptionally well to the squishiness of the I & E as a whole. Not too dense, but they didn't fall apart either. An altogether excellent choice that doesn't need to hide behind obscure nomenclature.
If I wanted the I & E Cheeseburger to not try so damn hard, I'd say the opposite about the accompanying potato wedges. These felt like an afterthought of a side. First of all, there were only five of them to a serving, looking a little sparse on the plate and causing the mental fry-per-burger-bite rationing to kick in almost immediately.
Chef Sharp triple blanches his Kennebecs to ensure "a perfectly crisp wedge that remains light and fluffy on the inside." He uses wedges because that's what he ate growing up, believing "you can taste more of the potato." Maybe too much, for my palate. Mine were, in fact, perfectly crisp on the outside, but were neither light nor fluffy on the inside. It was a bit like biting into a just-a-smidge-underbaked potato that you haven't mashed up with your fork yet. Suddenly, five wedges were plenty. (The garlicky dipping sauce didn't do anything for me, either.)
The thing is, I actually really enjoyed Ink & Elm's Cheeseburger. But it reminded me of one of those people we all know who is always a little more dressed up than he needs to be and feels the need to use words in everyday conversation that no one else uses...or understands. Funny thing is, a lot of those people are completely cool and down-to-earth behind the trying-too-hard facade. And that's how I felt about Ink & Elm in general (at least The Tavern). There's no shame in being a neighborhood joint. Go ahead and be refined. Be a destination. Be a little high end. Embrace that side of your personality. Just don't turn off those of us who want to get to know you as the casual, approachable guy cranking out killer comfort-food burgers behind the bar.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT, pizzas for Slice, and desserts for Sweets, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for The Gaslight Anthem. Or both.