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.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Booth Street Binary

Amy and I were invited for dinner to our friends Christine and Ron's on Saturday night. They too are fledgling bloggers on their own bloggific adventure. Of course, you didn't come to this blog to hear about our social life, you came for the burgers.

I'm not going to give a BurgerDAR score to burgers made by friends out of a desire to keep them as friends, even if they insist. I feel that the BurgerDAR is both an analytical tool and one that implicitly imposes judgement, which is fair game for a restaurant but a little much for a civilian. Eating burgers at friends - especially given how many of our friends are foodies - should be about the exploration of food.

Now let's get down to the burger. It was a mix of ground pork and turkey, grilled/smoked on a Big Green Egg with a bit of onion and garlic in the meat. It was topped with a smoky homemade traditional barbeque sauce and two-year old cheddar, and served on a flat bun. I added lettuce, a thin slice of red onion, and Christine's homemade red onion marmalade.

Ron didn't name it, so I did: "The Booth Street Binary;" Booth Street for their neighbourhood, and binary both because the burger is made of two meats and Ron works in computers. So it works on three levels (meats, computers, and two references), creating a paradox that invalidates the wittiness of the name. I won't dwell on this paradox; after all, this blog is not called "Mike Likes Paradoxes."

Because of a low fat content relative to typical lean beef, turkey can get pretty dry. The pork helped somewhat, and the barbeque sauce took care of the rest. Top it off with the marmalade, moisture was not a problem. The wood chips at the bottom of the Egg imparted an incredible smokiness to the meat that was highlighted by the sauce and matched perfectly by the salty cheese. Raw onion and the marmalade balanced the burger out.

I have a soft spot for flat buns. While they don't soak up juices as well as a thicker bun, for a thicker, drier meat combination like the Booth Street Binary, it was a perfect choice.

All in all, I would say it was a successful first burger step in my journey of a thousand burgers.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Petit Bill's Bistro


My wife and I had our first date at Petit Bill's Bistro, a delightful restaurant that spins French and Newfoundland cuisines together. Located at the corner of Wellington West and Smirle, Petit Bill's is one of those neighbourhood anchor joints that you get the feeling will have a long and healthy life as trends fly by.

The burger

"Bill's Burger" features a 100% beef patty from O'Brien Farms, lettuce, tomato and gorgonzola mayonnaise on a thick slice of well-toasted Art-Is-In cheddar baguette for $13. I opted for aged cheddar and double-smoked bacon, each $1.50 extra. The burger came with a good helping of thin-cut frites, the same that come with their famous lobster poutine, an Ottawa staple.

The patty was well-seasoned and moist, and at 6oz, a good portion. Despite the flavour sledgehammer that was the gorgonzola mayo, I could still taste the flavour and firm texture of the meat. The bun was fresh, ably absorbed juices and encased the burger nicely. It was toasted enough to provide a needed crunch. The cheddar in the bun was subtle and worked nicely with the cheddar on the burger - also subtle. Double-smoked bacon provided a nice dose of salt and was cooked to be nice and firm. So far so good.

It was dim, and I haven't worked up the courage to use the flash in a restaurant!

Gorgonzola mayo, like I mentioned, is serious business and it was the defining feature of an otherwise traditional offering. The cheese is an unskimmed, blue cow's milk cheese from northern Italy, and like its other blue cheese cousins provides a wonderfully sharp flavour with fungal after-notes. I should note that "fungal" is a positive term (for me) when describing cheeses. Much of the gorgonzola imported to Canada is often on the smooth rather than crumbly side, so mixed with mayo it makes a beautiful combination. That it did not overwhelm the simple beef was amazing and a big kudos in my books. It does, however, need a counterpoint.

The lettuce was unfortunately wilted and the tomato warm so they didn't provide enough crunch or freshness to balance the fat. A thick slice of red onion, or something edgier like pickled turnip, would have taken Bill's Burger from great to excellent.

I give the folks at Petit Bill's a big thumbs-up for supporting local producers of fine food products in their burger. 

Given the contemporary feel and casual-upscale stature of Petit Bill's, $13 is very good value. I would recommend adding bacon, but the cheddar is superfluous and doesn't substantially add to the burger.

The sides

Petit Bill's makes amazing thin cut fries. Soft with some residual crisp, skins on, not greasy. Served up with malt vinegar they're a great accompaniment. I paired the meal with a glass of 2009 Kingston Estate Petit Verdot from South Australia, whose full, peppery body was a great match for the burger.


Bill's Burger gets a 5/3/4. I definitely recommend.

Friday, March 16, 2012

How to analyze a burger

I decided to approach my upcoming burger reviews - both mine and restaurants’ - with an analytical matrix of sorts. Yeah, that’s right. Here at Mike Likes Burgers, you don’t just get frivolous nonsense, you get analysis. It’s what separates me from the burger blog chaff.

I wanted to measure three characteristics: complexity, quality and value, all with a score from 0 to 5. It’s a bit subjective - sometimes you want a traditional burger, sometimes you want something wild - but you always want a burger to be of good quality and taste great. 

So without further ado, I give you the greatest burger analytical tool ever devised: the BurgerDAR.
Fig. 1: A BurgerDAR applied to a hypothetical burger, wittily named the hypotheburger.

So if the hypothetical burger gets a 2/1/4, it means that it’s a traditional fast food burger that tastes delicious. A 4/4/1 is an edgy and experimental burger that didn’t get the fundamentals right, such as a stale bun or overcooked patty. I could have gone with a traditional matrix, but the BurgerDAR offers the expression of complexity wrapped in the bun of legitimacy.

So how does a burger gain points in each of the three areas? It’s not a precise science; after all, you can’t quantitatively judge a burger to be “good”. However, there are some parameters.

Complexity - Are the ingredients special? Do the meat and toppings work well together? Was the burger constructed thoughtfully? Are the toppings or condiments unique or edgy? Does this burger push the envelope?
Quality - Is it cooked to perfection (varies by cooking technique)? Is it excessively dry or greasy? Is the bread fresh? Are toppings or condiments excessive?
Value - Is the burger priced well for its quality and complexity? Is it truly memorable?

When reviewing restaurants, I’m only interested in the burger itself, not the service or decor or other distractions. I’m concerned that my analysis will be befuddled if I’m too busy scrutinizing the ambiance.

So there you go. Get ready for burger action.

Get ready for the BurgerDAR.

What is a burger?

Before I dive into the world of burgers, I have to actually define what they are. Otherwise I might accidentally review sandwiches. This site isn’t called “Mike Likes Sandwiches” and accuracy in content is important to me, so thus I create boundaries for myself. Let’s start with the Oxford English Dictionary, the English language’s only attempt at a definitive dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a burger as:
Pronunciation: ˈbəːgə/
  • a flat round cake of minced beef that is fried or grilled and generally eaten in a bread roll.
  • [with modifier] a similarly shaped cake made of a specified ingredient: a nut burger

I think in the contemporary context it’s important to remove beef as a necessity for the burger. Many meats, nuts, vegetables or combinations thereof make appropriate burger patties. It’s understandable why Oxford would use this definition, as dictionaries define the common perception of thing. I’m more interested not in what burgers are, but what they could be. So I’m going to use a simpler definition:

A burger is a cooked patty made from raw ingredients that is partially enclosed by a bun on its top and bottom.

I think this is a tidy definition. On one hand, it emphasizes the preeminence of the patty over its accompaniments. It’s important that a patty is defined as cooked from raw ingredients, as it differentiates a patty from deli meats. Wilensky’s Light Lunch in Montreal has been serving their Wilensky’s Special of grilled beef salami and bologna on a kaiser with mustard since 1932. It’s a noble sandwich, but it’s not a burger.

Also, the bun being at the top and bottom differentiates the burger from a taco or a wrap. There is the possibility of a burger where a single slit is cut into the side of a roll and the burger inserted, but I would consider that a burger roll, a dodgier cousin of the burger. A burger shouldn’t be cooked with the bun like a sausage roll or Cornish pasty; the cooking of the patty and optional toasting of the bun should occur separately, and then the burger assembled.

So there you have it, the definition of a burger.

On burgers, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the patty

I enjoy eating burgers, and I enjoy writing. I’m quite surprised how long it took me to finally start a blog about burgers, but here I am. For years now I’ve wanted to take part in the social media world deeper than the walled gardens of the sharing services. I wanted to do something public and dive into the creative and destructive onslaught of the Internet.

Why burgers? That’s a ridiculous question. Have you had one lately? I rest my case. Burgers are culinary behemoths, more of a culinary platform than a particular dish. The evolution of the hamburger is the evolution of interpretive cuisine and, more broadly, rapidly-evolving culture.

That said, I’m not using burgers as cultural symbols (so back off sociology students!); this is literally a blog about burgers. Expect a bevy of burger-related material here, from recipes, combo ideas, restaurant reviews, interviews with local burgerati, travelogues, tips on staying healthy amidst burger binges, etc.

So if I do my job right, you’re going to get pretty hungry reading this blog.