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.