Blank Plate

If cooking is an art, the hamburger is a blank canvas.

Make it very big or very small. Paint it with ketchup, mustard, mayo, sun-dried tomato aioli. Texture it with lettuce, tomato, cheese, bacon, coleslaw. Frame it with a sesame seed bun, ciabatta roll, hunk of sourdough, crusty baguette.

Whether you hunger for the work of Norman Rockwell or Jackson Pollock, Hieronymus Bosch or Thomas Kinkade, there is virtually no end to the substances that can be applied to this blank canvas to make it reflect your own peculiarities of style and taste. It might taste peculiar, but it will be your own.


Twenty-One Toppings

14480 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami Beach; 305-947-3433. Open Monday through Saturday noon to 9:00 p.m., Sunday 1:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Now connoisseurs of the art of hamburger have a gallery, er ... restaurant all their own too. It's Twenty-One Toppings, a cute, stark, neat-as-a-pin little storefront tucked like a pickle chip into an anonymous Biscayne Boulevard strip mall. The artist and curator, er ... chef and co-owner is Federica Schael, who with brother Christian opened the place just more than two months ago, filling a niche between mass feeders like McNasties and tonier purveyors of burger happiness such as OneBurger.

Twenty-One Toppings does, in fact, offer 21 toppings, everything from lettuce-tomato-onion-pickle to applewood-smoked bacon, artichokes, shoestring potatoes, and fried egg. Cheeses range from cheddar to Gorgonzola to goat, and a dozen sauces include rémoulade, horseradish cream, chimichurri, and pesto. All can be applied at will, whether your canvas is composed of beef, turkey, or white bean (though, frankly, ordering a patty of ground white beans at a burger joint is like opening a foie gras stand at a PETA convention). But whatever flips your burger, eight bucks earns a choice of three toppings, one cheese, and one sauce, which, all told, makes for quite a palette, er ... palate.

If Twenty-One does have a weakness, it's in the frame department, where soft, squishy buns don't do justice to a thick slab of coarsely ground sirloin, grilled a juicy and flavorful medium-rare. Some of that ciabatta or sourdough, or a crusty artisan roll would be nice, as would an ice-cold brewski or glass of rustic red wine. (The Schaels are working on getting a beer and wine license.)

As for the burgers, should you be hesitant to eat your own creation, you can leave the artistry to the professionals. Twenty-One's Southern BBQ burger, for example, combines Muenster cheese, coleslaw, and housemade barbecue sauce — a nifty play of bland, tart, and tangy. The 21 burger, a personal fave, gets cheddar cheese, tomatoes, sprouts, and crunchy shoestring potatoes, plus a smear of rémoulade.

The white bean burger comes pleasantly accessorized with sun-dried tomato spread, red onion, roasted peppers, and sprouts; sadly, no matter how much sun-dried tomato lipstick is applied to this pasty, tasteless pig, it still oinks. The ground turkey burger is much better. When carefully grilled, it's only marginally dry and delivers some meaty flavor, a worthy foundation for goat cheese, caramelized onion, artichokes, and spinach.

Sides are limited to fries (ordinary spud as well as sweet) and onion rings. The fries are modestly crisp and properly salted — nothing exceptional, but palatable. The rings are frozen and dumped into the fryer from a plastic bag, so unless you have an incurable fondness for greasy breading, avoid them. Still, it seems rather unseemly to complain too much. After all, you don't buy a painting from a talented undiscovered young artist and bitch about the matting, do you?


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