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.