Call it a sign of the hard economic times. From New York to Los Angeles, celebrity chefs and their customers in some of America's most renowned and pricey restaurants are embracing the humble hamburger as the new star of haute cuisine.
But don't compare the new burger to the combinations of low-grade meat and synthetic buns that you might expect from one of America's ubiquitous fast-food joints.
Whereas thrifty customers can buy one of the popular meat sandwiches at most chains for under a buck, their gourmet counterparts can cost up to $20 and are made of gourmet ingredients that can bring tears of delight to the eyes of a foodie.
The trend can be traced back to Daniel Boulud, the prize-winning French-born chef whose introduction of the $29 db burger at db Bistro Moderne in Manhattan last summer sent a shock wave through the world of cuisine.
Boulud's creation was made up of a 5-cm-thick patty of ground sirloin filled with boned short ribs, foie gras and black truffle and was immediately hailed a burger breakthrough by restaurant critics.
Despite its hefty price tag, the snobby sandwich soon accounted for a quarter of sales at the fashionable New York eatery, spurring a string of imitations from executive chefs around the country. These beautiful burgers all have three things in common: fine ingredients, high prices and customers who value the gourmet hamburger so highly that they almost never eat them with their bare hands.
Perhaps the Boulud burger's most serious competitor for the gourmet burger crown comes from the unassuming "Office Burger," which costs a mere $9.75 at a Santa Monica bar called Father's Office. In a recent survey Esquire Magazine's widely regarded "Man About Town" column bestowed this carnivore's delight with three fries, half a fry more than it awarded to the db burger.
The burger's legend is so great that when the Los Angeles Times was rebuffed in its request for the recipe, it put together a star team of reporters and chefs to come up with the secret ingredients. Their findings: The perfect burger was a mix of chuck, sirloin and dry-aged New York steak topped with Swiss Gruyre and Maytag blue cheese, enhanced with a bacon onion compote and laid tenderly on a bed of arugula in between the soft covers of a toasted mini-baguette.
Other restaurants have competing claims to the perfect burger, but the greatest concentration of the pretentious patties seems to be in Los Angeles, which likes to regard itself as the world mecca of burger lovers.
Thus the Alex restaurant on trendy Melrose Place boasts an over-the-top handful of hand-chopped, dry-aged Angus beef, Applewood smoked bacon, balsamic-glazed shallots and melted brie for just $18. A few kilometers west, Whist in Santa Monica offers the $16 Viceroy Burger that is made of hand-chopped Angus beef topped with relative restraint by homemade pickles and whole-grain mustard.
Even the posh Chadwick's, its interior a restrained blend of handmade wood fittings, expensive vases and luxurious silk cushions, was forced to put a hamburger on the menu when customers kept asking for them. Now its chopped sirloin burger, topped with aged cheddar, grilled red onions and homemade pickles, accounts for 20 percent of the lunchtime receipts.
Figures like that indicate that the new trend in cuisine is popular among diners. "The gourmet burger is the right food in the right place at the right time," says food critic Wilma Mason. "It is the quintessential American food, it is made from excellent ingredients at a relatively affordable price and it is something that everyone loves."