The Upscale Burger
When Julia Child died last month, two days from her 92nd birthday, obituaries naturally focused on the great food writer's professional contributions. Her two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and long-running TV show The French Chef had, after all, revolutionized American cuisine. Millions who learned to cook in the Sixties and Seventies pulled ourselves out of those TV dinners by working our way through her painstaking, technique-packed recipes.
Child's own food tastes were often simple. As the French chef herself pointed out: "I'm neither French nor a chef." Peanut butter and hot dogs were staples in Child's gourmet kitchen. And she loved a good hamburger -- sometimes even a good bad hamburger; Child refused to disparage fast food and was known to enjoy chain burgers scorned by more pretentious folks. When asked to describe her idea of a perfect meal, the reply was: "Red meat and a bottle of gin."
It seemed fitting as a tribute, therefore, to review a damned good hamburger joint. The gin I didn't think I could manage. But Child did once disarm an interviewer trying to get her to pair food with her favorite fancy wines by declaring, "I like a beer." So beverage seemed negotiable. What wasn't negotiable, according to Child, was food that's "fresh, and cooked by someone who knows what he's doing."
That someone would be Bernard Espinel, chef de cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach's DiLido Beach Club -- whose real specialty is complex East/West fusion flavors. On a previous visit, his grilled entrecote steak sandwich on nan bread with hummus had been scrumptious, as had been another way-beyond-burger beef dish, a zingy tamarind steak tartare with papaya ice. Admittedly the Ritz is not a locale that immediately springs to mind when one thinks burger joint, but neither would my personal fave burger source, Carmen the Restaurant in Coral Gables, where everything is indeed fresh, right down to the homemade catsup. However, chef Carmen Gonzalez's elegant two-ounce mini burgers do seem to go less well with beer than with her own recommendation: Veuve Clicquot. The DiLido, a Ritz rep had told me, carried my all-time fave American beer, Anchor Steam. And the bar is outdoors, right on the beach, a setting that somehow always makes burgers better.
Unfortunately, though, after the initial pleasure of being seated in one of the DiLido's exotic white-draped tents came disappointment. The only available beer that even sounded close to Anchor was Amstel, an inconsequential brew no serious beer lover would ever confuse with Steam (which is almost substantial enough to eat with a fork). Oh well.... In mid-August Miami, my Stella Artois -- a dry Belgian beer with clean, new-mown-grass overtones pleasantly reminiscent of cool New England springtimes -- was probably a better idea anyway.
And the burger itself was excellent, ground loin grilled perfectly rare as ordered. Though the grill used gas, not wood or charcoal, it imbued the beef with a subtly smoky flavor nonetheless. Buns are normally a throwaway, but the DiLido's toasted brioche was so zestily spiced with cilantro and scallion that condiments were unnecessary. A mountain of thick steak fries were housemade; more impressively, so were the accompanying pickled veggies: turmeric-tinged cauliflower, onion rings, and beautifully crisp sweet/sour bread-and-butter pickles. For your $14 you also get melted cheese -- cheddar, feta, or my choice (and a good one), manchego.
While the garbanzos listed on the menu were missing from my plate, a server did eventually bring some when I questioned the omission. Deep fried and chili-spiked, the chick peas, crunchy outside and creamy inside, were worth the wait. Admittedly the carb overload, on top of the potatoes and bread, seemed sinful, but as Child said when asked about her own guilty pleasures: "I don't have any guilt."
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