Jeff Smith noon, March 8
Taking salt and pepper off The Counter
Fried avocado and olive spread are fun, but salt and pepper are burger essentials
I just have to ask: what’s the deal with burgers these days? In a day and age where the “gourmet” burger is clearly here to stay and any topping one can imagine seems to be making its way onto patties of beef, buffalo, elk, ostrich, turkey, chicken, bacon, veggie, or otherwise, how is it that so many of them fall short? Has the ambition to craft more out-there versions of the American standard taken focus from the basics of cookery and good sense where marrying the flavors of ingredients is concerned?
At this point, you’re probably wondering what’s fueling a post that’s fast devolving into a rant. Let me both gather and explain myself. If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll remember I was pretty agitated about subpar burgers (and more) had at UTC’s new Eureka! Burgers and Craft Beer. But even before I stepped foot in that unimpressive eatery, I had begun to lose faith in contemporary burgers after dining earlier in the week at The Counter’s recently installed Gaslamp Quarter burger bar (695 Sixth Avenue, Downtown).
I took up an invitation to come check out their bison burger and brought some fellow carnivores along to lend their opinions. As suggested, I tried their rotating Market Select offering, which this time around was a bison patty topped with fried artichokes, red onions, roasted red peppers, smoked Gouda, and sprouts served on a ciabatta bun sporting olive tapenade. Just reading this combination had me scratching my head. Clearly, they’re going for something Mediterranean, but even with that as a central theme, the ingredients didn’t sound very promising. While I can appreciate them, I’m not a big fan of artichokes or olives, so I subbed in some fried avocado, a premium topping that costs an extra buck to indulge in.
When the burger arrived, it was served open so I could see the toppings. This move seemed ill-advised given the scarcity of the red peppers. Still, that ingredient, as well as the fried avocado (worth the George Washington) and Gouda, tasted good. What didn’t were the sprouts. Sprouts on a burger—what are they thinking? I mean, really. Does something grassy have a place in the burger world? If you ask me, absolutely not. I was willing to entertain their theory to the contrary, but the sprouts made it taste like washing down mouthfuls of meat and cheese with a shot of wheatgrass.
As for the burger, that was the biggest disappointment. Not because it wasn’t large—it was quite sizable. Not because it wasn’t quality meat—the bison was organic. It was because it was the most under-seasoned burger I’ve ever put in my mouth. I can count on no hands the number of times I’ve had to reach for a salt shaker when eating a hamburger until coming to The Counter. Even after several shakes, it was impossible to coax any flavor out of the bison. Only the strong flavor of the Gouda and those damn sprouts came through. My dining companion who ordered a more traditional style of bison burger enjoyed his toppings, condiments and especially a nicely browned pretzel bun, but had the same gripe—virtually no seasoning.
If burgers are a restaurant’s thing, than they should be delivering some seriously righteous burgers. Especially, if they’re going to charge big bucks for one (by burger standards, at least). The Market Select comes in at a hefty price tag...and that’s without accoutrements. For the focal ingredient in the sandwich to be devoid of salt and pepper and bland as all get out is completely unacceptable at that, or even at a lesser price. But, I digress as I’m getting into that dangerous rant territory again. Let’s talk about the good things The Counter has to offer, because there definitely are some.
First off, the service was impeccable and delivered by some of the nicest staffers I’ve come across in the downtown area in some time. They were patient, attentive, and outwardly hospitable with everyone that sat down during the hour I spent at The Counter. The place itself is clean and contemporary without being cold. And having a full bar serving cocktails, craft beer, and adult milkshakes is certainly a plus.
If you’re into shoestring French fries, having a shareable serving topped with plenty of Tillamook cheddar cheese is enjoyable, as are thick-cut pickle medallions fried up and served with a cup of sweet glaze-esque sauce. That condiment isn’t nearly good as the ranch dressing that usually accompanies bottle-caps, but perhaps I’m just a purist. Also, the portions are good and plenty, something that must always be considered when one’s talking burger joints. Particularly impressive was the plumpness of a chicken breast in a burger bowl ordered by my other companion.
Maybe I caught them on a bad night, but it’s my feeling that a burger restaurant should never have a night so bad that the basics—salt and pepper—are mismanaged or forgotten altogether. There’s no sense in procuring top-shelf proteins if they aren’t going to be prepared correctly. Less goofy premium toppings and more attention to the cornerstones of carnivore culinary technique, please.