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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I'll Gladly Pay You Tuesday

May is a festive month, good reader: National Hamburger Month, to be exact. If you’re like me, the minute you heard this wonderful news was the minute you ran out and bought a matching hamburger-themed ascot and thong set, with a watch shaped like… give up? A hamburger!

Also if you're like me, you fear National Hamburger Month is a sly scam scripted by the fatcats at Hallmark Greeting Cards, Beef Magazine, and White Castle. But even so, The Porkchop Express aspires to good sportsmanship. And if White Castle–the official sponsor of National Hamburger Month, no less–is telling me to hop on the burger train, who am I to argue? They are the self-described House of Crave, a pioneer in steamed beef technology, a corporation that (if you trust their sales figures and nutritional table) spread more than 7.7 million pounds of fat to American butts and guts last year alone.

White Castle is also one of our first burger chains, so they know a thing or two. They date back to a simpler time—1921, in Wichita, Kansas—when an artery clog was the cardiological equivalent of a hangnail, and burgers cost only a nickel. Which got me thinking… they couldn’t have been the first to throw beef on a bun. How long have people enjoyed the juicy, salty goodness of a well-made burger? From whence, this quintessentially American food? And is it even American?

The deeper I dove, inquisitive reader, the murkier the seas. Hamburger history is rife with conflict, high drama and intrigue, and this surprised me. Because really, we’re not talking about The Count of Monte Cristo, or splitting the atom, or even rolling croissants. This is a sandwich that practically makes itself.You know that old saying, that if you give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters they will eventually reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare verbatim? The same theory applies to the hamburger. Just replace “infinite” with “two or three,” and “typewriter” with “pounds of ground beef.” Gather your monkeys, give 'em the meat, lock 'em in the kitchen, and wait a couple hours: a foolproof recipe if ever there was. Still, many non-monkey human-people stake vehement claim to inventing the burger.

Who to believe?

By most accounts, Ghengis Khan got the ball rolling. We know that Mongolian Tartars enjoyed ground beef in the Middle Ages (hence steak tartare). And sometime before the 14th century, they introduced the toothsome grind to northern Germany, where it struck a chord—particularly in the city of Hamburg. The “Hamburg steak” (with onions) became a low-brow hit, and the rest is history. Contested history, at that.

German immigrants probably brought chopped beef to America in the 19th Century, and restaurants like Delmonico’s may have served it as early as 1834. But these were still variations on the Hamburg steak theme; things get far more touchy when bread is added to the mix.

Texans say Fletcher “Old Dave” Davis was the first to make hamburger sandwiches in Athens in the 1880s. Hogwash, say the good folks from Seymour, Wisconsin, who stand by local legend Charlie Nagreen and his 1885 flattened-meatball-on-bread. But heaven forbid you mention this to chaps from Hamburg, New York, who laud the Menches brothers (of Ohio) and their Erie County Fair burgers of 1885. Not to be left out, Louis’ Lunch claims to have broiled the first burger (on toast) at their New Haven, Connecticut counter in 1900.

All of which points back to the monkey theory; clearly, it was only a matter of time. And since I'm not from Seymour or Hamburg or any of those other places, I could care less who got there first. But almost 9 in 10 Americans eat burgers, making it the country’s most popular sandwich. So no matter who had the idea (and there were quite a few), it was bright. Bright enough to turn this Pork Tuesday into a beefstravaganza.

* * * * *

The next time Ms. Slab asks what I want for dinner I’ll say “hamburger, please.” And when she brings me one, it better damn well be stuffed with short ribs and foie gras. Even if she blows me off, I wont let it die. I’ll appeal to her competitive spirit, and mutter something like: “but that’s how Daniel would do it.”

This whole exchange is utterly improbable if only because Ms. Slab does about negative-five percent of the cooking in our house. But in another world, a magical land of truffle-lined sidewalks and beef-rib lanes, I might pique her curiosity. She might even ask, Daniel who?

The Daniel in question is one Monsieur Boulud, Frenchman, restauranteur and Bon Appétit chef of the year. I also have a hunch that he moonlights as Channel 4 sportscaster Len Berman, seeing as they bear an amusingly strong resemblance. Stronger, I’d wager, than his burgers do to anything you’ve ever thrown on a grill.

Mild-mannered sportscaster by day, maestro of haute cuisine by night?
(L-R: Len Berman and Daniel Boulud)

Daniel has several restaurants in Manhattan, Vegas, and Palm Beach. His DB Bistro Moderne isn't the fanciest of the lot, but it does serve one of his most storied dishes: a burger. The Original db Burger.

Or at least, that's what it says on the menu. But this is one of those times where science and logic fail. The thing looks like it should: a nice fluffy bun, some red and green stuff hanging from the sides, and a plump patty sandwiched in-between. But I'm just not convinced.

At the very least, the DB stretches the burger to its exaggerated limits. Literally. Just take a gander, you need serious jaw to get a bite. And when you do, the taste is... really not like a burger. More like a steak and a glass of wine and some beef stew all at once.

So what's the story?

Everything is done in-house, from buns to beef. And what a tasty toasted, buttery, brioche-styled, parmesan poppy bun: light enough to absorb all those flavors, and hearty enough to hold it all together. No small task, what with a patty of this girth.

The patty. Well, this is what all the fuss is about. The heart of the burger isn't burger at all, but a piece of foie gras surrounded by shortribs braised slowly in wine, black truffles, and love. I wanted the foie gras to melt more than it did, to share its rich flavor with the other ingredients. But its consistency was far too firm and buoyant to travel so smoothly. The ribs were really the star, a wonderful concoction that enhanced the burger's beefiness in surprising ways. Flashy, fancy-pants moves aside, this was a delicious, well-conceived addition.

There are other fine touches: tomato compote, nice Frisée, and oh those fries. Even better than McDonalds. Parmesan gives them a nice saltiness, and a great texture. I'm really not sure how they work it–fry the potatoes, dust them with cheese, then fry again to a golden crisp?–but it's worth experimenting at home. Wash it down with refreshing hybiscus iced tea, which looks like Red Kool Aid but tastes like a sweet-and-tart flower. Then sit back and enjoy a coffee with their fine petit fours, including the small marshmallow you've always wanted in your s'mores.

Decadence is a hard thing to pull off properly, especially with a dish as down-to-earth as the burger. And this is clearly not the place to satiate a standard craving. Nor, do I suspect, is it something the National Hamburger Month braintrust would approve of. But if a delicious, blatantly un-American twist on our proud pastime piques your interest, head on down. The service is attentive but not overbearing, the decor peacefully understated, and the burger... well, as far as I know, our French friend may be the first to have taken this American classic to such silly heights. Touché, honh honh, and well done monsieur.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab


DB Bistro Moderne
55 West 44th Street (betw. 5th & 6th Ave.)
Midtown, Manhattan, New York (212) 391-2400
The Original DB Burger: $29.00

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