Monday, December 17, 2012

Damn you, Moxie.


When you visit the website for Moxie's and you click on "About Us," the following schtick literally starts off the description: "Moxie's Grill & Bar operates 63 premium casual restaurants in seven provinces with yearly system sales over $200 million." If you're a construction worker, oncologist, folk museologist, executive coach, etc., you probably have no idea how "system sales" differs from just sales.

Moxie's mantra? Starts off: "What makes Moxie's unique and different from others? At Moxie's we believe our most strategic competitive advantage is the company's culture." That's pretty cool. It's straight out of a marketing textbook and completely alienates the diner, but I get it. This is an attractive statement for hooking potential franchisees who will take this Calgary-based premium casual chain eatery across Canada. If anyone from Moxie's reads this blog post, please check out Milestone's or McDonald's website to learn how to design for a good first impression. Pro tip: tuck the corporate stuff behind the diner's site.

The point I'm trying to make is that Moxie's is a restaurant run by those who spin and count beans, and unabashedly so. These are not food people running the show, but most Canadians are not likely to care. The urban surfer of the blogosphere might shake their heads in bewilderment, but the growth of so-called premium casual eateries makes sense. I lived in England for a couple of years and these eateries are everywhere; hell, even most pubs are chains. You have chain tapas joints and chain Parisian-style bistros and chains that are called "Pizza Express" which are surprisingly more upmarket than the name suggests.

It wasn't much to look at.
Sometimes it is about convenience - many outlets are located in suburbs. Suburban couples may want a quick date night without the kids and without a $200 babysitter bill. Sometimes it is because the food is unchallenging and consistent. There are lots of people who don't care for, or have not been introduced to, good cuisine and just want menu items that they understand. So in this light, Moxie's fits well into the evolution of Canada. The Moxie's location that I visited for this review (Riverside and Hunt Club) was only a ~5 minute drive from my office. They do brisk business lunch because the consistent, unchallenging food leaves the kitchen at good pace.

So I'm an urban yupster that likes to meet the cattle rancher providing the stuff that goes in my meat grinder. By definition I'm not supposed to go to a place like Moxie's. And I'm certainly not supposed to like the burger they serve me.

But dammit, I did. I don't know if this was the real deal, a fluke, or a set-up but the burger was actually good. I chose the Mediterranean burger, which included basil pesto, feta, and goat cheese.

Read on after the jump.

Monday, November 19, 2012

I flirted with excellence and she slapped me in the face

If you want to skip the sappy personal stuff, click through the jump.

I come from a tradition of solid home cookery. Growing up, my mother was expert with a spatula, writing a popular cooking column for the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin and running a successful wedding cake business for over ten years despite having a tactile allergy to chocolate. Ron Eade once did a big piece on her latkes that caused her to briefly be known as the "latke queen of Canada" because it was republished in newspapers across the country. My father was - and continues to be - a passionate backyard griller who probably ranks meat cooked on flame as one of the ten best things that Earth has to offer. He doesn't have a broad repetoire but what he does make, he makes with great pride.

So needless to say I am a very, very lucky guy that grew up ridiculously well-fed, and with the appreciation of quality, from-scratch food. It was only when I moved to the United Kingdom for grad school that I bothered cooking for myself, but when I did I went all in. In a year I went from boiling pasta to making paella valenciana, feijoada, Belgian rabbit stew with a rabbit I cleaned myself, and my very favourite dish, khoreshe fesanjan. I discovered food through my friends; each new culture brought their ingredients to the table and I used them with very, very mixed results.

I'm proud of what I accomplished because, as you probably know by now, I only have the use of one hand and two functioning hands is pretty important in the kitchen. Some things simply overwhelmed me because of my disability. Cleaning an octopus was the worst. I have problems removing fish skin and butchering a chicken properly. Scrabble would have been easier hobby.

I'll be honest though; even with my disability aside, I'm kinda just okay. I don't compare myself to Ottawa's extraordinary cadre of so-called "amateur" foodie-bloggers that our community is so lucky to have.  FoodiePrints; The Gouda Life; Sheltered Girl Meets World; If Music be the Food of Love, Play On; RoughChop; Simply Fresh - these are just a few places among many where you can read and see an unpretentious love for cuisine and drink. They travel and document everything from casual wall-holes to epic concoctions only for the faint of heart. As for recipes, they do a great job alternating between the quick, weekday gourmet foods for the 9-to-5ers, to serious projects for veteran home cooks. And, unlike yours truly, they can operate a camera at a level that exceeds a four year old.

I first wanted to join their ranks. This was a step in the evolution of me as Homo coquendam that started from childhood but I got gun shy, so I decided to just write about burgers. Given that I was occupying  narrow culinary space, I wanted to do right by the burger. One way of achieving that was to do an absurd amount of research like Kenji did, develop a signature blend, and following that a burger of untold magnificence that would shake the very foundations of burger history.

This was okay.
Attempt #1 was a home-ground oxtail and brisket burger with tomato and tarragon salsa (aka, tomatogon), manchego cheese, Belgian endive and topped with a Maudite reduction.

So was it excellent? Meh, not really. It was just okay; could have been better. The flavour combinations were very good but texturally, I failed to consider the need to grind the meat finely enough. I flirted with excellence and she laughed me off because despite all my swagger my fly was open (proverbially). It was a (again proverbial) slap in the face because despite my experience I let myself down.  That's okay though. Life's about learning from mistakes and moving on.

You can read on for instructions and learn from my mistakes.

Monday, November 5, 2012

When life hands you lemons, you make burgers

My wife and I had a peculiar evening last week. We were trying to get from our place in Little Italy to IKEA in the west end, but the universe was having other thoughts and decided to throw up a few roadblocks. We took longer than we had anticipated to leave, there was an accident on the 417, and subsequent traffic was miserable. Thing is, this was supposed to be prefaced by a burger and beer at the relatively new Big Rig Brewery. We attempted to at least scrounge a review by stopping at Mill Street, but it was packed to the gills. Nearly ready to give up and get some neighbourhood pho, I spoke words that very rarely leave my mouth: "Sweetie, let's go to the Market!"

I don't like the Market much, for reasons that are entirely my own. (It's not you, Market, it's me.) It's crowded with young'uns and malcontents, crappy drivers and BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM rabble rousing they call music these days. That's its identity and Ottawa needs that area, but few things draw me there. I'll put up with it for Murray Street - the restaurant and the street itself - which seems to be avenue that calls most to dames and fellas rather than characters from Jersey Shore.

It's taking a long time for me to get to the burger, eh? I'm liking the sound of my own typing today.

But lo, amidst much darkness there lies a gleaming jewel of food and beverage known as Brothers Beer Bistro. There you may delve into an artfully-crafted beer menu and order yourself artfully-crafted brew served with a side of artfully-crafted food. Located in the digs formerly occupied by a Japanese restaurant at 366 Dalhousie, Brothers has a slick yet understated decor and offers some of the best service you'll ever have. The kitchen serves up gourmet spins on comfort food, including one of the best burgers I have had in the capital.

This should not come as a surprise. After all, Brothers was up for one of the OpenFile/Ottawa Citizen best burger awards, despite it being a horse too dark for the proles. To many it seemed like this place came out of nowhere to earn accolades without even concentrating on the burger as a medium.

Just how was it so good? Read on after the jump. Unfortunately the dimness of the place meant that the pictures aren't very good. Sorry!

Friday, August 31, 2012

The place where everyone knows your name ain't Cheers

Twenty-five years ago this month, Jim and Mike Theossidou started a restaurant in the west end of Ottawa. Having arrived from Greece when they were children, the brothers Theossidou used a restaurant concept that reflected their own lives: Greek basics meet Canadian basics. The result, named in honour of the famed American painter, was Rockwell's Restaurant, located in the Merivale Mall. It serves good food 24 hours a day nearly every single day of the year.

Here I am! Rockwell like a hurricane!

Twenty-five years in the restaurant business is quite the accomplishment, especially without having to deviate from an overall concept. Rockwell's has endured the growth of Merivale from a boulevard to a teeming retail artery busting from the seams with motorists. Merivale Mall, a holdover from some extant era where small, interior-corridor shopping centres were profitable, hasn't fundamentally changed in character from the early 90's, and there is a certain steadfastness that it shows among the booming big boxes that surround it.
There are places like Rockwell's scattered across Canada; local joints that rear their neighbours on good quality, simple food for years such that they become an institution. People from elsewhere in the city might drive by a hundred times and passingly wonder what it's like in there, but surely they have 100 places that they still haven't tried and they won't use up limited restaurant budget on a place in a run-down strip mall.It's a shame, really. Despite the risk that a dive's food might match the surroundings, I always find reluctance to take a risk to be a bit tragic.

Here's the skinny on Rockwell's. When you walk in you'll be surprised by a decor that is updated, clean, and has just enough elements of cheese to be charming. The staff will smile, or if you're lucky welcome you with a bellow from behind the bar.  There are no pretentions with the service or the food on offer. We're talking sandwiches, deep-dish pizza, inexpensive steaks and roasted chicken. Rockwell's spices it up with Greek staples like souvlaki and moussaka that look really good. I actually felt a moment of regret for ordering a burger when I saw the moussaka come out of the kitchen. They serve up a great greasy breakfast deep into the lonely hours of the night for hard working shift staff or insomniac west-enders. The diversity of diners is really striking, from high school students to elderly couples and young mothers.

I didn't really have any expectations about their burger other than big and greasy. There are a few burgers on offer and usually one available on the specials at lunchtime. I opted for the Swiss mushroom burger, an old diner star that can be incredibly good or just meh.

Read on to see if the joint still has its magic after twenty-five years.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When a little goes a medium way: The Black Thorn

Ah, the Byward Market. High rents, spiky tourist traffic and the endless desire to be on trend characterizes Ottawa's busiest entertainment district. There are some Ottawans that pointedly eschew any of the Market's establishments under the pretense that they will be "busy" or "overpriced." It isn't true of course; I happen to believe that you have to take the good with the bad in a popular entertainment area. I think we fare quite well in the proportion of good places to avoidable ones. Historic Québec City or the Old Port of Montréal grapple with lucrative tourist traps feasting on the legions that go for their respective coolness.

Amy and I went to see the excellent Van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada with two friends of ours. Looking for a quick bite for lunch, we settled on the Black Thorn pub on Clarence, as it was close by and we had a serious case of museum legs. That's how a lot of people feel about this place; it was lovely decor, has an extended patio perched on one of Ottawa's prettiest squares, and has a respectable compendium of alcohol on order. I think the Thorn aims a bit loftier than the Irish village assortment of pubs in terms of decor and food offerings; their dinner menu certainly carries a level of sophistication that's just a bit higher than their competitors.

It's pretty underwhelming upon presentation.
I have to say that my expectations were hovering in the basement, given that this market staple is owned by the same folks that now own the Earl of Sussex, where I previously had a disappointing burger. It took reminding from my friends that I write a burger blog and must suffer the lesser to appreciate the greater. I can't just eat at Absinthe Cafe every night; both my financial future and the integrity of my craft forbid me. But here my expectations were kept basement-dwelling as the burger on the menu was pretty boring - it was a simple beef burger with garnishes and the dreaded "house burger sauce" I hear so much about. That's it. This won't be a very long review; you'll probably be able to finish it while riding the 95 between Bayview and Lebreton (check out my Ottawa reference).

Simple burgers like that rely heavily on the quality of the meat, bun and garnishes. Someone who selects specific cuts, grinds the meat themselves, bakes the buns in-house or at least procures the best and erects a two-mile "no iceberg" zone can pull this off. The Black Thorn? That dedication was so improbable for a pub that it was bound to be a disaster.

Only, it wasn't. Click past the break to find out why.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The goat that was meh: Clocktower Brewpub

North America: the marriage between burgers and pubs is not as healthy as we might like. This is a completely unscientific statement but my hypothesis based on nothing is that most pubs just don't serve a very good burger. The exceptions are flocked to, but for some reason the majority just don't seem to get the picture that overcooked beef cardboard  gives a terrible legacy to a fallen creature.What should be such a culinary no-brainer is not.

The problem is that I like pubs. I lived in England for two years and spent a lot of that time in pubs. Studying. Lots of studying. (Love you mum and dad!) Many English pubs offer poor burgers as well but for some reason I gave that a pass because most pubs served pretty bad food regardless if it was traditional local fare or imported Americana. When I go to a pub I want a burger because that fat-carb-protein mix is a perfect culinary foundation for an evening of responsible drinking. Then I get disappointed. That said, as part of my great burger quest I insist on hitting up some of Ottawa's notable pubs to see how they fare.

One of these things is more shrivelled than the others.

Amy and I went to the Westboro location of the Clocktower Brewpub, an outpost of the Ottawa brewpub institution located in one of the many new condos perched above Richmond. I love Clocktower's beer, and have been happily drinking it since my Carleton University days. A large location inside, it has this rather grand patio that stretches between a gym and a Running Room location, each with posters not exactly congratulating you on ordering your third kölsch. There we sat and ate burgers amongst the Lulu-clad regulars.

They actually offer six burgers for those looking, all fairly standard fare but a nice selection nonetheless. I had the so-called "Angry Goat" burger, which included a 7oz beef burger topped with herbed goat cheese, hot peppers and spicy mayo.

Was it angry? Read on to find out!

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Beast of Toronto: Holy Chuck Burger

Amy and I took a whirlwind adventure to Toronto to see family and friends. I put that reason first to assure my family and friends that indeed we did not visit just because I wanted a burger review from the GTA!

Making a decision of which joint to go was the tough part. From the Burger's Priest secret menu to the very upscale Bymark Burger, the selection here is outstanding and I don't envy the task ahead for some of the 416/905/647/etc burger bloggers out there. The craze has completely enveloped the city. The deciding factor was that one of our friends is pescatarian and so we had to choose a noted burger joint that catered to her tastes in a creative manner.

There she is, freshly unwrapped. A very nicely built monster.
We settled on Holy Chuck Burger, a new but fiery competitor in the great jungle of Toronto burger joints. Open for less than a year, this modern diner at Yonge and St. Clair places its kitchen out in the open and its meat grinder in the fore of that kitchen. Chances are they are grinding your meat as you're staring at their menu considering what spin on the burger you want to try. It's quite the menu indeed. You can get a burger 'twixt two grilled cheese sandwiches or topped with a braised veal cheek or steeped in maple syrup and topped with foie gras or ground up with bacon, etc.

I of course settled for their signature burger, the "Holy Chuck", which is a double cheeseburger topped with thick-cut bacon and caramelized onions. There is a little note that follows the menu item asking the customer not to add any toppings on it, and since I'm not very contrarian I ordered the burger as-is.

So read on if you're a Torontonionian or TO-bound and want to know what the chuck's up with this cliche.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Eating a mystery: the case of the Wakefield nut burgers

As you know I like a little splash of fact in my prose.  I tell you how long a burger joint has been around, and that the place before it served amazing roti ten years ago, which you find interesting but not very useful given that you left your flux capacitor at home. Despite that, y'all are reading my blog in greater numbers.

So there once was a guy in Wakefield named JD who cooked up a delicious vegan nut burger called the Nutstravaganza patty, but I know little about him or his product because there's little online footprint about JD. At some point he rebranded himself as a company called Nut & Noix Co. and renamed the burgers "the Nutburg," but there's still bubkus about them online. It's all a great, big, tasty mystery.

A colleague of mine from that fair village on the river was a fan of these burgers, knew that I penned this here blog, and brought them in for me to try. They were delicious so I decided to write about them anyway, despite not having facts about the person responsible for their creations. This isn't normally my modus operandi. I like a bit of context around my burgers.
Their Internet presence is lacking, but they've got a sweet box!
(Photo by Pascal Berthiaume)

Nut & Noix Co. doesn't have a website or an updated Facebook page for their wares, so I can't point you in their direction nor tell you where the burgers are offered in Ottawa beyond The Red Apron on Gladstone. Otherwise jump on the highway and head to the Wakefield, stop for a grilled cheese sandwich at Le Hibou, and then to the Wakefield General Store to nab some nut burgers. It's a bit perplexing how this small business can idly coast under the radar given this age of self-promotion, but there we are. Nuts with a bit of mystery.

The Nutburg is made from a crushed and spiced blend of cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, mushrooms, onions and carrots crushed into a patty maybe 1cm in thickness. There's no soy to be found here, which is a good thing, because soy plants are Triffids looking to devour the planet. (I'm largely kidding-ish)

I probably should have made this a vegan prep to give props to my plant-dedicated friends, but when I tasted a bit of it raw I immediately thought to top it with "halloumi," the Cypriot cheese that is one of my favourite foods of all time. I also topped it with a thick slice of tomato, shiitake mushrooms and some Somerford & Hall Ontario vine-ripened ketchup, served up on a multigrain bun.

Read on after the break to see how it cooked up.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Sunday drive to Ashton

On top of being a big fan of burgers, I am also a big fan of driving. Amy can tell you that my opinion of a perfect holiday includes hours of open road and little traffic. We prioritize the car in our financial decisions, ensuring that we can drive something nice in exchange for a reduction in other entertainment expenses. This is why the title of this blog is Mike Likes Burgers and not, say, Mike Likes Caviar or Mike Likes Foie Gras.

Jeremy Clarkson, the irascible host of the extremely popular motoring show/ode-to-idiocy Top Gear, once said that the custom of taking weekend drives into the country was dying. As this tradition died, he worried that car culture would follow with it, because if not the gentle drive among winding lanes one would associate the car with the commute to work. But it shouldn't be. Other than a bicycle, where you need many more days to cover the same ground, you need access to a car to venture out and see the beautiful country around the cities that most of us live. Ottawa is no exception.

I'm the third generation to love extended country drives, so I took the opportunity on Father's Day to jump in the car with my dad and head west. This is serious food country, where every second farmer welcomes visitors to buy their meat or vegetables and others have large signs stating the culinary end uses of the oats you're driving by.

We drove primarily around the Mississippi Mills area, the unified municipality that covers Almonte, Pakenham and others. We stopped in Ashton Station, a little village that is actually two little villages. Ashton Station Road, which bifurcates the place, is a boundary of the City of Ottawa, so people who live east of the road actually live in the capital whereas those west of the road live in Lanark County. Getting the snow cleared in the winter must be a pain.

At the headwaters of the river Jock is an old lumber mill now converted into a brewpub. The Old Mill at Ashton, as it's called, is somewhat of a supergroup of country pubs. It is owned and operated by the venerable Hodgins family, who run Patty's Pub and Quinn's on Bank street. The brewery in the basement, which just started up last year, opened under the tutelage of Lorne Hart, former owner and brewmaster of the late Hart Brewing Company. Based in Carleton Place, Hart brewed in craft style before all the cool kids did it, but sadly had to bow out of the business in 2005.

The new publicans didn't do too much to the place when they took over two years ago; it's still a traditional English-style country pub. You fall in love with the place quickly.  Soccer scarves hang from original wooden beams. There's the warm fire place, a patio overlooking the river, and a long bar with secrets whittled into every misshapen nook. Brendan Hodgins is an affable host willing to share a story or fine details about the homemade brews on tap.

The pedigree of the joint placed high expectations on the burger, known as the King burger. It was a 1/2 pound beef monstrosity with bacon, cheddar, fried onions and mushrooms, lettuce, tomato and onion on a whole wheat bun. So was it worth a stop on the road?

Yep. Read on for the deets.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Ottawa Citizen and OpenFile Ottawa's best burger poll

So the Ottawa Citizen and OpenFile Ottawa have posted their best burger poll today, and I encourage my readers to dive in and vote. While I disagree with the composition of the list, the poll was structured based on popularity and the crowds have spoken. I applaud the Citizen and OpenFile for the initiative. 

I get asked constantly what the best burger in Ottawa is and I regularly shy away from answering the question. There is no best burger, because I'm in a different mood everytime I taste a burger, and my palate is in a constant state of development. Also, I have something like 120 more burgers to try in Ottawa, so it would be simply unscientific to declare a "best" burger at the moment, despite the popular drive for me to do so.

Please vote for your favourite in the list and have a great weekend, especially all you dads out there!

Love your city: Locavore elk burgers

My wife and I love the Ottawa Farmers Market, which is unfortunate, because we often don't have the time to go and then we land up feeling regret at the end of the season. This year we made a pact to visit more often, and we did in fact do so last Sunday. If you live in Ottawa and you haven't been, please do so. You would be amazed by the number and quality of local producers and quickly tantalized by the cooked grub on offer such as the farmers breakfasts. Inspired by a recent initiative by Kelly at The Gouda Life and her farmers feasts, we took the opportunity on a hot and sunny day to collect goodies for a local-themed burger.

As you can see, my normal modus operandi on the blog is to give a witty introduction to a burger with some useful information peppered in for good measure. This section takes roughly one half to one third of the entire post; the rest is either a restaurant review or recipe (ie, what you actually came to read).  This post is going to work a bit differently. First, I'm going to introduce the burger that I cooked up last night and then devote the rest of the digital real estate to each component and the story behind them.

So here goes: I had a 6oz elk patty from Elk Ranch, with Glengarry Fen cheese, sauteed Swiss chard, topped with strawberry and balsamic jam by michaelsdolce and served on Art-Is-In dynamite white baguette. Of course, to qualify for Locavore status one must show that each product came from 100 miles away or less, which mine does... mostly.
Who knew our city was so sexy?

Let's take a closer look after the break.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reunion with an old buddy: Earl of Sussex Pub

Twelve years ago, I had my first legal beer at the Earl of Sussex Pub. Back then it was a dive-y hole wall bizarrely occupying some of the richest real estate in Ottawa: the corner of Sussex and Murray St. Their plushy, worn highback chairs gave one a perfect vantage for watching tourists gaggling about the National Gallery courtyard. Shelves were stacked with weathered books (RIP Nicholas Hoare) you could take home with you. Saturday nights were mostly empty except a handful of patrons in their fifties wearing socks and sandals and listening to dubious live folk music. It was almost always empty actually, which was just bizarre for such an amazing location; it could have been a watering hole for tourists, bureaucrats, politicos and market locals, but it wasn't.

Earl of Sussex was awesome, and back in 1999 a lot of Ottawa was not awesome. Sussex shops were spotty and prone to high turnover. Café Wim - that darling Dutch coffee shop - made you wait interminably long for an espresso. Ottawa outside the core was a cuisine desert, save lone oases like the bacon-stuffed double Wiener schnitzel at Dalmatia.
I promise no English aristocracy jokes.

Oh what years Earl and I had together. My nose was glued to the window there when the Take the Capital protests clamoured by in 2002. The patio was the battleground where I debated politics with NDP staffers in 2003 (I won). I watched Greece win in 2004 and Sens lose in 2007. I got cheerfully drunk with friends, family, strangers, bosses, and girlfriends. Amy and I lived around the corner for six months, enjoying the dawn of our beautiful relationship over their nachos and beer (you read that right; I am the luckiest guy in the world). And I'm just coming in at the middle of the story; the Earl has been around for 31 years, which is also as long as I've been around.

Thankfully, twelve years of incredible hit Ottawa, fine food sprouted out of our sidewalks like weeds from my front lawn, and we are left with the Ottawa today, an Ottawa with a culinary maturity so developed that it even sports a blogger who writes about nothing but hamburgers. The Earl moved on too, with various local businessfolk trading shares of it and subtly prodding it in one direction or another. The books are gone, the ugly carpet is replaced, the chairs are new, there's no more bad folk, they're open later and the crowd is younger.

We haven't eaten there in two years, and since then my palate has honed its excellence at detecting winning burgers.  So it was nigh time to take their burger to the test. The Sussex burger is a 7oz all-beef patty with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and "burger sauce" on a soft white kaiser bun. I added cheddar and bacon to it.

How was it? Read on and I'll tell you.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Grinding your own beef burger with a food processor: a tutorial

A few weeks ago, a regular reader that I admire a lot (Alison Fowler, check out her work), mentioned to me that she was curious about grinding her own meat but didn't have a meat grinder of her own. I insisted that she didn't need a meat grinder to share in the joy of home-ground meat, and that a good-quality food processor does the trick. For condo dwellers like yours truly, items like barbeques and stand mixers take up precious real estate where coffee makers and deck furniture need to go, so you do with what you have.

I managed to squeeze all necessary instructions to Alison within a single tweet but since then I've had a few other inquiries about the method, so I decided to devote a post to it. After the break, I've put up a tutorial in pictures on how to successfully grind your own meat.

Now, why bother doing this when good ground beef is readily available? Two reasons. First, the texture is amazing, a serious improvement over store-ground meat. Grocery stores are aiming for the typical consumer, which they believe likes a finer grind. I use a very coarse grind, and it's won over everyone I've cooked them for. Second, you can play around with the cuts that you want to experiment in protein and fat content as you like, mix meats together or add in smoked products such as bacon. It doesn't take very long either; from steak to dinner time took a total of one hour and five minutes.

Today I ground up a piece of sirloin acquired from my go-to butcher, Saslove's Meat Market on Wellington street in Hintonburg. This meat was as left-wing as you get: local, grass-fed, growth hormone-free, antibiotic-free, sang kumbaya and ate roses (a lie), all the good stuff that despite my jokes I believe in. But Mike, you exclaim, I thought you're against using sirloin as burger meat! Well, fine readers, you are absolutely right. I did rail against the practice a couple of months ago right here on this blog. However, I am also experimenting with every cut a bovine has to offer to see what are the optimal cuts to use, balancing available fat, protein and cost. Also, as you'll see in a moment, my food processor burgers aren't exactly your run-of-the-mill mush.

Remember when working with meat to regularly wash your hands and work surfaces, and don't contaminate the utensils used to cut non-meat ingredients with your raw meat-slicin' knives. Raw beef won't kill ya - in fact it's darn tasty - but as you grind meat you increase the available surface area for errant bacteria to grow, so it's better to practice good food hygiene than not!

So grind on, burgerventurers!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Vegas Vacation, Part 2: Burger Bar by Hubert Keller reaches near perfection

(This is burger #2 from my recent Las Vegas adventure. You can read about the first one here)

We don't have any celebrity-chef restaurants in Ottawa, although as the stars of several of our hometown chefs (go Johnathan!) rise perhaps that will soon change. Several foodies that I have spoken to ritualistically shy away from restaurants owned by the self-promoting, empire-building type, figuring that while good, they will be expensive for the quality. We actually visited two such restaurants in Vegas: American Fish by Michael Mina (which was amazing but falls outside this blog) and Burger Bar by Hubert Keller.

Hubert Keller fits the celebrity chef bill nicely. An Alsatian chef living in the United States, he is the owner of Michelin-starred Fleur de Lys in San Francisco and Fleur in Las Vegas. He appeared on Top Chef as a judge and Top Chef Masters as a competitor, has a bunch of awards on his mantle, and rocks a killer hairdo. Chef Keller has a love affair with burgers too, which puts him high in my books. Fleur offers the famous $5000 "Fleur burger 5000" on its menu, which is actually a luxe burger served with a bottle of 1995 Chateau Pétrus. He also wrote a cookbook about burgers.
The stuff of memories.

I was very excited to visit. Fellow blogger, foodie and friend Christine raved about it, Vegas Burger Blog praised it as one of the city's best, and a good heap of professional reviewers gave it top marks. So it was clearly time to visit this temple to meat-on-bun. On the other hand, this was still the Vegas strip, I was a bit burned by my experience at Holstein's, so I had to keep my expectations in check.

I should note that readers in the US don't have to go to Vegas for Burger Bar: two other locations in San Francisco and St. Louis serve up the good stuff with pretty much identical menus.

What an unassuming place for a celebrity chef joint. It is very much a sports bar; service was professional but casual, TVs in the booth were playing the NBA playoffs, milkshakes and beer took prominence over cocktails, and the music was lost in 1987. The menu at BB is also pretty simple: there are a few chef-designed options to choose from, but the emphasis is clearly placed on designing your own burger, with an incredible assortment of meat and veggie patties, toppings and buns on offer. Since I needed to follow my guidelines, I had to choose a pre-designed item from the menu, and what better choice than the burger named after the man himself?

The Hubert Keller burger is a 6oz bison burger with bleu cheese, sauteed baby spinach and caramelized onions on ciabatta, with a red wine and shallot reduction served on the side, for $22. Was it good? Very. Why? Read on.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Vegas Vacation, Part 1: Holstein's

Welcome back, dear readers! I have returned from Sin City having visited two of the Strip's most lauded burger establishments. This is not just a small local blog highlighting the great burgers of Canada's capital; no, I fully intend this little corner of the Internet to have an international perspective. Hopefully I can bring back some research to inform our own burger scene so I put this fierce and narrowminded dedication to good use!

Las Vegas is an interesting visit for burgerati because you can't walk ten steps without hitting a place flipping patties, but like most of the town you should be highly suspicious of the quality. In the dense tourist clusters of the Strip, West Strip or Fremont Street, everyone is hustling to bleed you of your hard-earned cash in exchange for mediocre product. You either have to go in with a keen eye and all your wiles charged 100%, or just shrug and let the city's seediness wash over you and accept the consequences.

My wife and I celebrated our second anniversary in Las Vegas and wanted to limit burger visits to two so I had to be judicious. The first choice was Holstein's in the Cosmopolitan, and the second was Burger Bar by Hubert Keller in Mandalay Bay. These two entries are aimed at tourists, who will likely not venture off the beaten path, and will only have Strip options to choose from for sake of convenience. Vegas locals should go check out Erik Chudy's venerable Vegas Burger Blog for your perspective, because you are eligible for local discounts at most of these places (eg 20% at Public House) so your value estimates will differ from the fanny pack'd hordes.

Holstein's is located in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and shares much of its DNA with its surroundings. The Cosmo is - depending on your perspective - hip and sexy or gaudy and obnoxious. As a result, Holstein's belts out house music, employs very attractive staff, and serves up cocktails with as much gusto as its 100+ beer selection. It is owned by Block 16 Restaurants, a Vegas-based restaurant conglomerate that owns five properties in the valley with similar-feeling schtick, from the hip Barrymore Lounge to LBS Patty Wagon food truck.

Holstein's offers a nice range of sliders and full burgers with different meats and topping combinations, cooked to order. The beef is grass-fed and most of the toppings organic, and prices range from $14 for straight-up to $28 for wagyu and foie.

Bull-gawk-eye view
I was excited to try Holstein's for a while now, especially one curiosity on the menu that I felt was a really interesting concept. The Korean "Bull"gogi burger is a sweet soy marinated beef patty with kimchi slaw, chili mayo, kalbi glaze and a fried egg on top, for $16.50. Was it as intriguing as it sounds? Read on after the break.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

On travel hiatus until June 1

Hey kids! I'm soon off to Las Vegas with my belle to celebrate our anniversary and undertake some serious burger-oriented research. I'll be back June 1 with at least two Vegas burger reviews to share.

Hasta la vista and see y'all in a week!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

In the House of the Green Fairy: Absinthe Café

One of our favourite spots in Wellington West is Absinthe Café, a contemporary restaurant where locavore meets modern European. The design reminds me of an upscale Prague bistro - attractive staff, lots of mirrors everywhere, and a nonchalant pride placed into every dish. I feel like this is a symbol of Ottawa's budding food maturity, but you have real food writers like Don, Jen and Claire; Katy or Kelly to remark on stuff like that. I'm just a guy that writes about burgers.

This is the first burger I've eaten under the "Likes Burgers" rubric that costs over $20. There is an irrational threshold of expectation that exists for ground beef that costs more than a Queen Liz. I feel like Mark Carney would chide me for making a financial decision like that, but I did effortlessly in the name of a blog that makes me no income in return. Irrational, I tell you. If dollars are the conversion of a unit of work into a unit of bling, than this burger would have to be nearly three times "better" than a Hintonburger, or else the price gap must be made up by service and sundries such as amuses bouches and bread. You expect that a chef would have to work around two to three times harder than his/her Hintonburgundian comrades.

And then there's opportunity cost, which my economic-minded readers will know, is defined as "that sinking moment of inner confusion when you realize that you just ordered a hamburger in one of the top restaurants in your area code." What wonderful creation could you be eating instead of that burger? Can a burger be that good as to outweigh a choice of something less traditional?

The object of my affection.

So now that you've slogged through three paragraphs of neuroses, you're wondering if the burger - called the Benevolence Burger - at Absinthe Café is worth it. It's an all-beef patty with house baconnaise, house-smoked bacon, aged cheddar, lettuce, and tomato on a house-baked brioche bun.

So how did it turn out? See how many times I used the word "house" up there? Remember that when you read on after the break.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Quickie: Salmon burgers with salmoriglio

I'm not always in the mood for a huge bacon cheeseburger, and I'm expecting next week in particular to be red-meat-a-licious, so I decided to take it easy this weekend with a salmon burger recipe. It was topped with one of the greatest condiments ever designed.

So in case you've never heard of it, there is this incredible sauce called salmoriglio. Salmoriglio, which is the Italian name for what Sicilians call "salmurigghiu" (how cool is Sicilian?), is a fresh and vibrant dressing with elements that would match a lighter burger perfectly. Its genius is a mix of lemon and fresh herbs, fresh garlic and the best olive oil. In Sicilian cuisine it is often used as a brine for fish, but it can be added to any light protein, blanched vegetables, or new potatoes.

A delicious meal for summer.
Recently, I made wild sockeye salmon burgers with heaps of this glorious stuff, grilled red peppers, salmon skin, Bonnie and Floyd washed-rind sheep's milk cheese from Fifth Town on a Portuguese-style bun. It was incredible.

There has been consternation for several weeks now that Fifth Town is about to cease production. I just want to reassure the cheese-loving population of Ontario and beyond that our beloved LEED Platinum purveyors are in restructuring, a process which may lead to a sustainable company in the future. Don't mourn before the patient is deceased.

Stay tuned this week for my review of Absinthe Café as well as another recipe. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Deliciously hip: the Hintonburg Public House

A few weeks ago, the esteemed rag New York Magazine published a thought-provoking and often hilarious review of Brooklyn's artisan food producing community. As centre of the hipster universe, Brooklyn's artisans tirelessly labour at making foods in their respective "old-fashioned" ways, producing delicious products the most inefficient means possible. It is based on the credence that hard work is to be respected, and gives the product a je ne sais quoi that exists beyond what can be sensed.

This is an ideological position, not really a rational one because the act of tasting and enjoying is a biochemical process; you can't taste "work," you can only smell and taste its product in the form of molecules. And yet so many insist that simple, fresh and earnestly constructed food tastes better than its lab-designed, processed competition despite the latter having millions of dollars and brilliant minds designing it to blow your socks off. Is it actually true, or do we just want it to be true? Weren't the Top Chef judges fooled by Connie's blueberry pie crust in Season 1? Where does molecular gastronomy fit in that continuum? It's an interesting debate in the food world that I don't believe is completely resolved.

The Hintonburg Public House burger is an embodiment of the hard work, painfully-wrought school of thought, a northern outpost of Brooklyn mastercraft. Everything is house made. Everything took a long time to do.

The HPH is a flagship for the encoolification of the district for which its named. It embodies the neighbourhood in every way: the furniture is reclaimed, plates and cutlery are scrounged antiques, and the menu is casual with a twist. Its cool vibe, good food, local brews on tap and forgiving pricing has made it an instant hit, such that the wife and I have tried three times to eat there to no avail. Rather than eat with the cool kids, we decided to go early bird to beat the rush so I could finally sink my teeth into their famous burger.

What is this cool cat? It's a beef patty with Russian dressing, thick-cut smoky bacon, grilled onions and pickles on a white bun. This is a new burger, recently added to the menu and replacing previous incarnations that were somewhat more controversial. There are lots of bits and bytes on the Internet debating the merits and drawbacks of the former burger with pickled vegetables on them.

Is this new offering any good? Read more to find out.

Friday, May 11, 2012

LAFF Series #2: "The Major" - a burger full of Wow

The Locavore Artisan Food Fair - spring edition is tomorrow and as I promised last month I will be making burgers before and after to highlight some of Ottawa's great artisan food producers.

This burger is full of said "Wow".
Today's creation highlights Major Craig's Chutney, 613's premier chutney producer since 2009. Chutney is a condiment, snack or side dish of chopped and stewed fruits and vegetables mixed with spices that must master a balanced flavour profile. The North India chutney is based on a recipe by owner Andrew Craig's great-great grandfather, who developed an appreciation for this delightful meld of flavours while working for the East India Trading Company in the 1880s. Then, he boarded a DeLorean, set his chronometer for 2009 and with a tizzy of the flux capacitor travelled to the future to bestow his secret recipe to his descendant Andrew. I might not have all the details correct. Needless to say we've all been richer ever since.

I set out to craft a burger around North India's rich, chunky texture and sweet and spicy balance, and ended up with something fairly conservative. I went right back to Indian food for inspiration and the result is a burger I fondly call "The Major." It's a 125g (4.5oz) lean pork patty with Indian spices, onions and garlic, topped by a slice of caramelized fennel bulb, yogurt and Major Craig's North India chutney on a white bun. It was awesome.
The Major at attention

You can buy Major Craig's chutney online through their website or at numerous fine food boutiques across Ottawa. The preferred means of purchase of course is to come out to the LAFF this weekend.

I wasn't surprised at how well the flavours came together. When you're that good, they call you Major.

Instructions after the break

Monday, May 7, 2012

At Harvey's with my dad

It took me about three posts worth of content before I started telling folks around the office that I was writing a blog about burgers. The ideas was met with great appreciation and now I count several colleagues as loyal readers. My bosses up the chain know too, coming for advice on a Friday about where they should go for burgers on the weekend. One even offered up a parable that inspired this post.

Like many parents, he takes his daughter periodically to McDonald's as a treat and she really enjoys it. A few months ago they found themselves in the west end near a Harvey's and rather than drive around to find the nearest McDonald's. He bought her a burger, she took one bite, and firmly declared that she never wanted to go to McDonald's again. After relating this story to a few friends of mine, each had reminisced about the same experience that they had with their fathers. Was I tapping into a special central Canadian tradition?

My father used to take me to Harvey's as a child as well. We would go to the slightly ramshackle location at the corner (apex?) of Baseline and Merivale, which has since been rebuilt, and scarf down a burger and onion rings, eating inside on those ridiculous swivel-chairs because dad's MGB was too low for drive-in windows. Needless to say I had the same reaction twenty-something years ago than my boss' daughter had: 1) I couldn't understand why other chains wouldn't let you order your own toppings, and 2) while the toys were all well and good I preferred eating the better burger. Looking back, that realization was clear step towards adulthood. On our epic roadtrips through the US I would always pine for Harvey's and feel a bit sorry for my American cousins for not having access to this wonderful place. Eventually I grew up, became a yuppie food snob and turned my nose up at fast food offerings.

One of the better looking burgers from a fast food joint. Look, real bread!
Founded in 1959 in Richmond Hill, Ontario, the chain quickly expanded in the face of heavy competition until it was purchased by Cara Food Operations, an air and rail catering company, in 1977. Today there are about three hundred location of Harvey's and they are clustered almost entirely in eastern and central Canada. Typical of the GTA, the original location was demolished to build condos. Locations are scattered across Ottawa, in both urban and suburban communities. Dad and I lunched at the location on Bank and Riverside.

Harvey's is similar to Five Guys in the sense that there are few gimmicks and the customer chooses their desired toppings. The chain offers a regular burger - single or double - a premium "Great Canadian Burger" (GCB),  chicken burger, veggie burger and hot dog.  Seeing as I'm a pretty great Canadian, I opted for the premium option with a side of onion rings.

Did it meet my unreasonably high, childhood-reminiscing expectations? Read on after the break.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Come on to My House, Cafe My House

I consider myself to be somewhat of a Renaissance burgeratus, an open-minded omnivore looking to any form of protein, fruit or vegetable to form me a patty that may be consumed burgeresque. Orthodox carnivores may scoff at my ideology, but I say to them: cannot the simple soybean be magically transformed into cakes of firm, moist protein? Can this cake not be cooked well?

The simple truth is this: most veggie burgers are as boring and bland as most meat burgers. Most restaurants that carry veggie burgers don't make it themselves and serve you frozen boxed stuff of middling quality. A good veggie burger is not easy to make because while good meat stands on its own, veggie burgers need extra prep and coaxing to become something above the ordinary. Coupled with the fact that vegetarians are ultimately a minority and you can see why most pub cooks serve up the frozen stuff. As a result, one of my missions with the blog was to highlight some of the best veggie burgers. As it happens I found one in Ottawa.

I don't think that many Ottawans would expect that Bank St. south near Alta Vista would be the home of one of the city's finest vegan eateries, but lo, Cafe My House (1729 Bank) is comfortably nestled in the land of strip malls and Middle Eastern bakeries. This neighbourhood is where urban design went to die, a shadowy world of anti-retail where the road is elevated above the outlets so as to try and make you forget them, and drivers are coaxed into believing that the strip of road is actually a highway, so when you stop and turn into a parking lot the guy behind you slams on his brakes.

I put up with this schlock of urbanity to try Cafe My House's vegan tempeh cheeseburger (VTC), owner Briana Kim's killer app to get avowed meatatarians to try something sans death for once. She is a delightful woman completely committed to offering her oft repeat customers a fresh, healthy and complete vegan culinary experience regardless of what kind of -vore they are. Wanting to get a vegan burger up on the blog sooner than later, I headed out for a quick business lunch to grab a VTC to go, but not before having a chat with Briana about what goes into the perfect veggie burger.

Turns out, it's a lot. An incredible amount of thought has gone into the flavour and texture profile of this burger, enough to rival some of Ottawa's top tier. Will a bright light out of retail Mordor emerge as one of Mike Likes Burgers' top picks?

Keep reading after the break to find out.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Five Guys Phenomenon in Canada

Fast food didn't become what it has become overnight. Once upon a time there were ma and pa burger and fry joints dotting North America, where families made an honest living out of cheap eats for their community, and took pride in maintaining a certain level of quality.  Now we have centralized cooking facilities, heat lamps, cost optimization procedures, pink slime, and salads more unhealthy than double burgers.  The big boys swallowed ma and pa. Diners became cutesy themed restaurants or survivalist holes in the walls. In 1986, four brothers from the Metro DC area opened an old-fashioned burger and fry joint going completely against national business trends and immediately gained success. They incorporated and in 2003, began to franchise.

The Five Guys Burgers and Fries that exists now is big. Really big. They opened 200 locations in 2011 alone and are set to open the same in 2012, putting them at over 1,000 locations overall. They are the fast food phenomenon of today much like Subway was in the early 1990s, built on simplicity and a fierce dedication to saturated fat.

Since I started Mike Likes Burgers I have had countless requests for a Five Guys review, and quiet, aghast challenges to my legitimacy as a member of the burgerati when discovered that I haven't been there yet.

Immediately looks better than most fast food.
The only difference between Five Guys and their competitors is that they aren't selling you anything innovative; in fact, what they are doing is the opposite of innovation, because Five Guys is a hearkening back to fast food before it got creepy. There are no gimmick products, just a burger with bacon and/or cheese, hot dog, veggie sandwich or a grilled cheese. Toppings are to order from a good-sized list, Sides include french fries and... french fries. Decor includes bags of potatoes and jugs of peanut oil. It's a 21st century spin on a drive-up with a level of authenticity and joie de vivre that some of its older competitors such as A&W should have, but don't.

Ordering a regular burger means you'll get two patties while a "little" burger nets you one. Patties are fried in their own considerable fat in the exposed kitchen and it's implied that you should watch the show. The restaurant is unabashed about how tremendously unhealthy these burgers are and so be it.

I ordered a cheeseburger topped with grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, tomatoes and barbeque sauce. The location was on Greenbank north of Strandherd. So what did I think? Find out after the break.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

LAFF Series #1: The Morsel Burger

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I am taking the opportunity to promote the upcoming Locavore Artisan Food Fair by crafting some burgers that showcase some of the delicious offerings of the LAFF vendors. I won't be able to get all of the vendors in before May 12, but I figured that the local love should continue afterward as well.
It arrived by stork.

The first burger up is the Morsel Burger, named after Morsel Specialty Dessert Catering. Morsel only recently burst onto Ottawa's dessert scene. Owner and baker Robin recently returned from years of travelling the world with her partner, gathering some incredible culinary intelligence along the way. That said, she is as proficient with her more down-home traditional recipes than the exotic ones. So when a freshly baked large zucchini loaf arrived at my door wrapped like a bouquet of flowers, I was overjoyed. Even before making the burger I sampled a "modestly" sized piece. Moderately sweet, moist and full of flavour it was baking excellence in every bite.

The burger was a chicken burger with zucchini pesto, tomato, and sauteed shiitake mushrooms on two slices of Morsel's zucchini bread.  It is a careful balance of sweet and savoury flavours.
It tastes as good as it looks.

Figuring a dessert into a savoury burger was somewhat of a challenge and I have to admit only partially successful. Every foodie fails to achieve their vision from time to time; and while I certainly can't say that the Morsel Burger was a failure - the results were delicious - I will offer some lessons learned in my instructions after the break.

Keep reading!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Taste for Burgers: Burgers on Main (Somerset)

A Taste for Life is an annual event where an ever-growing group of restaurants will donate 25% of each diner's food and alcohol bill to HIV/AIDS charities across Canada. For Ottawa's event, proceeds went to two incredible charities, Bruce House and the Snowy Owl Foundation. Both of these charities and their volunteers work tirelessly to help Ottawans living with HIV/AIDS and rely on events like a Taste for Life for support. You can tell that our community is supporting this worthy effort because restaurants this year were packed. If you missed it this year, definitely participate next year, and remember to book ahead because seats went quickly.

On this occasion, Amy and I took the opportunity to join in the fun and choose a spot I've been eyeing for months now: the downtown Ottawa location of Burgers on Main.

Located on 343 Somerset, just east of Bank Street, BOM is situated in a lovely heritage home that was the former location of the ill-fated second iteration of Friday's Roast Beef House. Considering that my meal at Friday's was the worst I have ever had in Ottawa since I grew teeth, even if these burgers were horribly charred slabs of wood they would be an improvement over what existed prior. Thankfully, not only was my burger good, it was very good.
The Main of the House

Opening a downtown location, especially one on a street that has been challenged by  restaurant turnover lately, must have been gutsy for the Manotick hotspot. The decor is a random assortment of 50's memorabilia, heritage home and steakhouse, but quite frankly I didn't care in the least. It's a burger joint after all.

BOM features a pretty simple burger selection; there are a few interesting choices but nothing terribly exotic. I could have opted for something with brie and red onion marmalade for instance but instead I went with the "Smoked House Burger" featuring housemade barbeque sauce, bacon and aged cheddar on a multiseed bun.

How did it fare? Check it out after the break.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Loving Local on May 12

The Ottawa Locavore Artisan Food Fair (LAFF) has its inaugural spring show on Saturday, May 12 from 10am to 4pm. Expect Ottawa foodies to flock in droves to Memorial Hall to sample the delicacies of over 20 local food vendors. Needless to say, I will be one of those foodies. You should join me; we can hang out and chat about burgers.

At the eager behest of my wife and some of said local artisans, I am going to design a few burgers called the "LAFF Series" that feature vendors you will be able to find on May 12. Hopefully I have you sufficiently salivating that you too will go to the LAFF, shop until your pantry is obese, and make similar creations. The LAFF Series will continue after the show of course, as the love for local foods doesn't simply end when the show is over!

I'll post any of your LAFF-inspired burgers on my blog, meaty, veggie or vegan. I'm an equal opportunity burger lover, see.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Afixed with a condiment called "Teen Sauce": A&W's Mama Burger


Professionalism is important when critiquing anything, and part of that professionalism is the desire to try any and all subjects of critique even if they are perceived by others to be substandard. Film critics must watch Steven Seagall movies. Book critics must read the odd airport procedural thriller. I must eat A&W's Mama Burger. We bear these burdens so that you understand the risks before trying yourself.

A&W is the first fast food restaurant that I'm visiting since donning my mantle as Ottawa's most analytical one-man judge and jury of burgers. Rather than starting at the top, I'm starting at the middle child of Canadian fast food burgers. A&W first opened its doors in 1921 in California, but entered Canada through Winnipeg in 1956 as a drive-up diner. It quickly expanded across Canada quickly so that by the 1970's, hundreds of thousands of Canadians were guzzling the (admittedly delicious) root beer and munching on onion rings. It might be strange for youngin's these days to think that there was a time when A&W was a more valuable brand name than McDonald's, but this was the case.

And then came the great fork of North American A&W history. Amidst a franchisee revolt and quality problems, consumer product behemoth Unilever bought the Canadian rights to A&W from the A&W parent company in 1972, essentially severing A&W Canada from the rest of the chain. In 1995 A&W management bought the company from Unilever and now it's a private, independently owned operation in no way affiliated with A&W global, owned by A Great American Brand corporation. The menu, suppliers and branding are different; the only thing that is the same is the root beer.

Amy and I decided to go on a lark as we passed by the 1830 Merivale Road location (near West Hunt Club) doing errands. I was completely unfamiliar with their menu and decided to order what everywhere else is just referred to as a "hamburger" - the Mama Burger with a side of onion rings and diet root beer. Amy had a Baby Burger with fries and a diet root beer.

Millions of these platters will be served every year.

I want to take a moment and reiterate that I do not review restaurants or chains, just specific burgers. My views on the Mama Burger should in no way reflect the rest of the menu, which I may get to in the coming years. I will try three burger offerings from each major fast food chain in Canada, although for health reasons I want to keep my consumption of fast food at a trickle.

Pics and pain after the break.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Serious chicken burgers

There is nothing sexy about the chicken burger. Too often, it appears in one of three forms, neither of which are very innovative or delicious. Let us review the current state of the chickeny burgerverse.

First, you have your fried white meat patty, a common fast food offering. Crispy and fatty, the fried chicken burger in these establishments is most often reformed and processed. And let's not forget this little fragment of evil. Sure, you can have a delicious, panko-encrusted or tempura chicken burger, it's just not that common. Also, given how heavy fried chicken can be, I personally question the need for a bun.

Second, you have the grilled patty made from ground chicken similar than what you can (sometimes) find at the grocery store. Most often this is a dry, mealy ground chicken paste without much chicken flavour that you'll slather BBQ sauce to take the boring away. This is because many places grind chicken similar to grinding beef, a worrisome trend given that their grains are noticeably different.

Finally, you have the breast-on-a-bun, the Mad About You of the culinary world. Situated in a static and unchanging pantheon among grilled chicken Caesar wraps and taco salads, the breast on a bun cooked properly is an unobjectionable but fundamentally unsatisfying experience. It's often a throw-away option when you're not in the mood for a beef burger and you absolutely want protein between two pieces of bread that in no way derives from the bean family.

One of the key achievements that I was aiming for when embarking on this burger journey was to design and cook a seriously delicious chicken burger. Well folks, I did it, and now you are going to as well. Here is my chicken burger with chimichurri, buffalo mozzarella and a slab of tomato.

This might be yours soon.

Instructions and pics after the break.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Glebe's big haunt: the Arrow and Loon Pub


The Arrow and Loon pub sits at the corner of Bank St. and Fifth Ave, in the heart of the Glebe. Since the mid-90's it has been one of the Glebe's chief watering holes for lunch, dinner, hockey games and pub trivia. The friendly service and one of Ottawa's best microbrew menus are reasons enough to go, but when I heard that they had an ambitious burger menu, the Loon moved to the top of the list.

Indeed, inspecting their website I was faced with what I call a Burgertrix (from burger and matrix, in case you're wondering). A Burgertrix offers the diner a selection of patties - in this case beef, bison, chicken or veggie - and a selection of toppings. To top it off, a "build your own burger" option was included. Wanting to test their construction skills however, I opted for menu offerings.
Silly kids, Burgertrix' are for adults.

The Burgertrix offers a challenge in that I have to taste a few different combinations to really get a sense of the chef's burger prowess. Luckily I was accompanied by my beautiful wife Amy and my dear friends Krista and Robin, organizers of the Urban Craft local craft fair. Together we selected four burger combinations, quartered them, and shared. This gave me the opportunity to get a good perspective on the menu overall. I will present one BurgerDAR representing an average score for all burgers, but will speak to each individually.

So what did we have?
  • "First Avenue" - Sautéed onions, BBQ sauce, cheese and bacon on chicken breast - Amy's pick
  • "Second Avenue" - Salsa, sour cream, hot peppers and sautéed onions on bison - Krista's pick
  • "Third Avenue" - Spinach, roasted red peppers, hummus and garlic mayo on chicken breast - Robin's pick
  • "Fifth Avenue" - Roasted red peppers, sautéed onions, goat cheese and peameal bacon on beef - My pick
Were they as good as they read? Reviews and pics after the break.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Served by the Lords of Lunch: the Arc Lounge burger


Arc the Hotel is a trendy boutique hotel in central Ottawa. Located on Slater Street between O'Connor and Metcalfe, the Arc was completely different from the competition when it first opened, heralding a contemporary design and a strong focus on food. My wife and I actually stayed there the night of our wedding; a distinct memory from those fast and wonderful days was waking up to a cheerful family and Arc's incredible breakfasts. So needless to say, I have fond feelings for the place.

There is a burger on the lunch menu that immediately looked inviting: an O'Brien's beef patty topped with "smokey-spicy" cream cheese, caramelized onions, pickles, red onion, lettuce and tomato on a strong white bun.

Normally my introductions are a bit longer, but instead I'll just give you this:

More after the break.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spicy salmon roll burgers

Ottawa's culinary evolution occurred fairly recently. I grew up here and have seen the city's tastes expand as different cultures colonize it. The population has grown and urbanized. Ottawans are demanding a more varied cuisine.

Sushi is a good example of a food introduced early in the foodie trend, and is so ubiquitous now that many people will probably find peculiar the idea of living without it. Few among my parents' circles had ever tried the raw fish-'n-rice delicacy, much less eat it on a weekly basis. I doubt that they thought in the 1970's that their children would be slinging back the stuff in malls or in their cubicles.

I have never been to Japan and I didn't have a Japanese friend until I moved to the UK for grad school. So it was quite late that I discovered that sushi preparation here differs from that in Japan. The chefs' training is very lengthy and difficult, regulations dictating the handling of food are stricter, and the Japanese palate and cultural norms emphasize different consumer tastes than ours. No big surprise. What is fascinating is how we have translated sushi culture to something that has become so familiar.

When I went to design a burger concept then, my mind drifted to sushi. Here is a quintessentially North American food paying homage to a North American spin on a foreign food. It's like authenticity's second cousin. Anyway, I selected one of my favourite maki and went to town.

I give you the spicy salmon roll burger. A wild sockeye burger with ginger, garlic and green onion; topped with toasted nori, avocado and Sriracha mayonnaise. I forgot cucumber in mine, but the burger needed it (see why below), so I'm going to add cucumber to the recipe. I served it - wait for it - on a roll.

Salmon burgers are healthier alternatives to beef burgers if you're feeling like you need a break from red meat. I've got instructions and other salmon-related trivia after the break.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Body Parts

The blog and Twitter account have been quiet for the last few days on account of Eastover celebrations and familial cheer. We're clearing our way through leftovers in the Mike L. Burger household and ready to return to burger mania in short order. For now, a piece on body parts.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about beef - this is not as rare as you would think - and he told me a curious tale. He told me of a steakhouse in Toronto without a standard burger on its menu, but that would gladly take any cut you wish from their selection of aged steak and grind it up to your specifications for the Monica Belucci of burger fantasies. It sounds delightful at first, but on second sober thought I feel that this is a choice of gleeful excess over rational appreciation of a cow's body parts.

While I say time and time again that burgers can be made from essentially anything - meat or vegetable or even fruit - many people do envisage beef when they think of burgers. It is therefore important to have a conversation about the parts of a cow, and what I feel is or is not suitable to use for burger meat. As I embarked upon this blogging adventure, my education of the noble beef-side was high on my to-do list. I'm not getting into breeding here, just cuts; for breeding I'll take a trip out to a rancher for a good conversation about the best beef breeds.

I won't go into gory detail, but if any discussion about animal body parts makes you squeamish, you should probably reconsider eating meat altogether.

More after the break.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

At the dusk of a scandal: thoughts on pink slime

If you're into food and read the news, no doubt you have read about the so-called "pink slime" scandal in the United States. It reached a fevered pitch over the last two weeks as AFA Investment Inc. - one of the largest beef processors in the US - declared bankruptcy. A cadre of state governors gathered to express outrage at how this upstanding industry was under assault by a smear campaign, and that the product in question is perfectly safe.

As a blogger who writes about burgers, often beef ones, I feel obliged to weigh in on this tempestuous public debate and give my thoughts.

Read on after the break

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Your 'ol buddy on Rochester Street

There's an old house on Rochester Street between the corners of Beech and Norman that stands defiantly amidst a street of low rises and government offices. The Rochester Pub is a relaxed local watering hole with a draw much wider than just the neighbourhood. A great selection of craft brews on tap, good music not too loud and the cozy interior that makes it one of the better places in Ottawa to congregate with friends over a pint. It certainly draws in a good crowd of people across age groups on most nights, well after bureaucrats have left for the night. Warm stucco walls and dim lighting make it an inviting place to hang out for a few hours of conversation. The Rochester is not the type of place that will become a chain; it's the quiet guy in the back of the bar that takes life slowly.

We went on a Monday night, which for most places would be classified as an off-night, but the Rochester was packed with regulars for pub trivia. A woman crooned questions on the microphone as teams debated their answers over fish and chips and a beer. It was great to be a fly on the wall and take in the atmosphere. Given how busy it was, the food would probably be on.

The Rochester offers four burgers, all beef. There is a standard hamburger and cheeseburger; a "smokehouse" burger with bacon, cheese and barbeque sauce; and a "Mediterranean" burger with tzatziki, feta cheese and fried onions. The first two were a measly $7.00 and $7.25 respectively; the latter two were $7.95. Pub grub at rock-bottom prices.

I ordered the Mediterranean burger. Tzatziki is the Grand Condiment: it offers freshness, umami and garlic that is incredibly satisfying, especially paired with something crunchy like crispy fried onions. I had high expectations given my previous experiences here that the burger would be really good.

Not so much. Review after the break.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Black Cat Bistro and the burger as a culinary platform


Over the years, I've eaten five times at the Black Cat Bistro, in two of the locations it has called home. I remember having exquisite Vietnamese-inspired food in the old yellow house on Murray Street that Navarra occupies now. My friends and family have all had great experiences there as the kitchen has evolved and chefs have changed. Owner Richard Urquhart has gently shepherded this Ottawa staple through the years with class and a great eye for trend. This is in many ways the Doctor Who of Ottawa restaurants; it reincarnates to keep fresh, has a dedicated fanbase, is quirky enough to be original but is firmly prime time. BCB's current incarnation on 428 Preston at Norman is of neighbourhood bistro, where the service is friendly and the food is playful. 

Every Tuesday, chef Patricia Larkin designs a burger. To some, this would be like Da Vinci doing Etch-a-Sketch, but to the Ottawa burgerati, this is clearly someone who admires the burger a platform of possibility rather than just another humble dish with a formula. Previous burger creations include the pastrami burger (smoked burger patty with pastrami spice, rye spread, mustard, pickles, cabbage), the breakfast burger (sausage patty and fried egg), shawarma burger, etc.

This night's special burger was the "curry burger," which included curry paste, fried onions, mango chutney, cucumber, lettuce, and a cilantro, mint and cumin mayo.

It might seem unfair to review a burger that may never leave those kitchen doors again, and it is for that reason that my wife graciously decided to order Richard's Angus Burger rather than her usual steak frites. We're all about teamwork for the quality of analysis here at Mike Likes Burgers. Richard's burger includes smoked bacon, sharp cheddar and secret sauce, and is offered on the menu from Tuesday to Thursday.

Reviews after the break

Monday, March 26, 2012

Shrimp burgers and social media

Chances are that many of you arrived here via Twitter. This is quite different than last week, where most of my readership was comprised of friends and family. I expected that this transition would take much longer to occur, but Ottawa's foodie and restaurant community have really embraced the blog. A big thank you in particular to Ron Eade from the Ottawa Citizen and the gang at foodieprints.

Now to last night's creation: shrimp burgers. Shrimp burgers are a delicious, healthy burger option that are quite easy to make. Normally when I try out a new recipe that has been fairly well established, I look at 10-15 on the Internet and try to determine what the trends are. Then I can identify what is vital for the recipe, or what can be experimented with. The trouble with shrimp burgers was that there were very different opinions on how to get the right consistency. Do you grind the shrimp raw or pre-cook? Do you need a binder? Grind it to a paste or keep it in chunks?

I used my newly established Twitter account to ask a couple of these questions to Emeril Lagasse, who is a guy I thought would know a thing or two about shrimp burgers. A few years ago you couldn't simply write a guy like Emeril and expect an answer back in ten minutes. Lo, Emeril, your advice was sagely. Those suckers were incredible.

We can pay a bit more now and eat shrimp forever, or pay less now and lose these delicious decapods to overfishing. I buy Ocean Wise certified sustainably raised shrimp from Whalesbone Oyster House's retail shop on Kent and Arlington in Ottawa. If possible, look for sustainably-raised or caught shrimp in your community.

Recipe after the break.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What's for dinner? The March Burger

Canadians have been talking about how this past winter was the winter that wasn't. We've experienced an incredible March so far, with temperatures reaching into the high 20's and keeping mild and dry at night. Visitors might erroneously believe that Ottawa is temperate. In honour of this exceptional weather, I decided to make a burger to toast spring.

Historically, not much is seasonal in March because we are supposed to be buried under snow at this time. When designing a burger for spring, my mind immediately went to the spring-iest of foods - asparagus - because beef and asparagus in one mouthful is profound on the palate. Sadly, the local asparagus crop hasn't hit my grocery store's shelves yet, so I opted for microgreens instead.

I used to think that microgreens were pretty ridiculous. They grow in this sci-fi nutritional paste and require silly amounts of effort to grow for their size. Carnivore-types will view them with great suspicion: they're a bitter, nutritious, impractical food that hearkens the hippie movement. They serve a culinary purpose of course; microgreens inspire the flavour of the fallow field. So it's with this mind that I used them as the key flourish of the burger.

Burger after the break.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bison and Bambi at Dick's Drive-In and Dairy Dip


On days like yesterday when it's 25 degrees and sunny, I, like millions of Canadians, enjoy sitting outside and eating a good burger. So my wife and I did just that. On Merivale Road. Romantique, n'est-ce pas?

Eight years ago, when the venerable Dunkin Donuts chain sounded its death rattle in Ontario, a family saw potential in the bones of the 1485 Merivale Road location and opened a 1950's style burger and shake shack called Dick's Drive-In and Dairy Dip. For all you locals, 1485 Merivale is located on the "diagonal" Merivale, the one north of the split, but south of Baseline.

The menu is impressive, needless to say. The Nguyen family have managed to merge classic diner grub with some more exotic meat selections, most of them locally sourced. Besides the classic beef burger in various sizes and permutations, you can grab a chicken, turkey, salmon, lamb, bison, venison, ostrich, or kangaroo burger. That last one is a notable exception to the "locally sourced" moniker, unless someone around town has decided to raise kangaroos in a bid to finally make Canada "the Up Over." I digress.

I went more exotic and ordered a venison burger with a side of their famous panko onion rings. Amy had a bison burger (her favourite) with poutine. I ate enough of Amy's to confidently BurgerDAR the bison as well.

I enter this review with a bit of trepidation. Dick's has gathered a massive following, with many foodies extolling it as Ottawa's best burger. Will I split from the herd and declare Dick's to be anything less than its reputation? Keep reading to find out.