Surprise! A classically trained French chef can make a mean burger. In Burger Bar, readers are given an inside look of the menu and recipes that have made a success of Chef Hubert Keller's Las Vegas hot spot of the same name. More than simply cooking beef patties with different combinations of condiments and seasonings, Keller's unique personality takes the art of burger-making to the next level. Not only does he greatly expand the traditional burger shopping list, but he also extracts every ounce of flavor possible from each item. These are not complicated recipes, but they can be time consuming and will require some good planning. But if you put in the time necessary, you too will enjoy Keller's creations and flavors in your own home.
When it comes to burger ingredients and components, the photographs in this book confirm that Keller's shopping list is scarcely recognizable to burger traditionalists. What appears to be a pink patty on page 74 is actually a shaped salmon filet. The lobster-red item perched on top of the beef patty on page 26 is, well, lobster tail. And yes, that is indeed a poached egg floating on top of the burger on page 32. Keller even calls for truffles, mandarin oranges, asparagus, various artisan breads, as well as patties made of ostrich, buffalo, and lamb. In other words, all ingredients are on the table. But, of course, more is needed to turn these ingredients into truly great burgers.
Keller has an obsession with flavor, and his relentless pursuit of adding just one more layer of flavor to his dishes is what drives the recipes in this book. Take, for example, the everyday onion. Most Americans merely add a few rings or toss some chopped onions on top of their patty for flavor. In one recipe, however, Keller treats the onion as the co-star of the entrée. First, you are directed to cut a hearty, half-inch thick slice of onion for your burger. But before placing it on the burger, brush it with olive oil, and season it with salt and pepper. Sounds tasty, but Keller wants more. So, before using this seasoned onion, you add more flavor by grilling the slice until sweet. While this onion slice is now full of complex flavors, and already tempting,
Keller again demands more flavor. So, you are then instructed to liberally apply a balsamic-honey sauce to the slice giving it a sweet and tart flavor. But Keller wants still more! So, you then go to your grill and cook this entire seasoned, sweet, and saucy slice of onion until the balsamic is cooked into it, the onion becomes even sweeter, and the entire slice is fork tender. Only at this point does Keller grant you permission to add this thick and tender onion-steak to your burger, having exhausted every layer of flavor possible. After performing a few of Keller's recipes, you eventually come to realize that no matter what recipe you are working with, he finds some exciting way to maximize the flavor of each ingredient, elevating all of his dishes from very good to truly great.
While many of the recipes are time consuming, like the onion-steak, the difficulty of preparation varies greatly. However, both the novice and expert alike are sure to find recipes that they will enjoy preparing. The novice will pleasantly find that Keller assumed nothing about readers' skill levels and even takes time to discuss the burger basics, such as forming a patty. But experienced cooks will appreciate Keller's complex flavors, twists on traditional recipes, and the overall originality of his creations. For instance, while the experienced cook may think that a pesto burger sounds simple enough, they need to try Keller's version using arugula, cilantro, and roasted macadamia nuts. And in addition to spreading this pesto on the bun, they will also mix it with their beef prior to shaping. These surprises in methods and flavors are simple enough for the novice, but also stimulating enough to keep the veteran intrigued.
Of course, no book is perfect. But this is one instance in which the drawbacks were almost completely off-set by this book's strengths. Nevertheless, there are a few things that could be considered weak-points. First, many of the recipes are impractical for everyday home use. While these dishes are very tasty, they really are restaurant-ready recipes. So, you should expect a definite increase in both the time and expense required to prepare them. Second, the burgers themselves, while tasty and full of flavor, can literally be a handful to eat. Without some difficulty, the human mouth is just not designed to fit around the thickness of a half-pound burger with a quarter-inch slice of tomato, a half-inch slice of onion, fluffy greens, and a crusty artisan bun all at the same time.
But again, these drawbacks are counter-balanced with many strong-points. Full color photographs; well written recipes; discussions of the basics; absolutely original recipes for carnivores and vegetarians; recipes for full course meals including drinks and desserts; and dishes that reach almost impossible depths of flavor, all combine to make this book a must have for anyone wanting more from their burger. More importantly, Keller's desire is that you are inspired, not restricted, by his recipes. So while these dishes may seem labor intensive, expensive, or too hard to eat, Keller encourages you to take his ideas and simply make them fit your tastes and budgets. This desire to inspire you, combined with Keller's natural enthusiasm for cooking, carries throughout this book, making it not only useful but also very enjoyable.
Finally, what makes Burger Bar so special is Chef Hubert Keller himself. Generally speaking, burgers are pretty much all the same and Keller has not introduced anything new in terms of cooking them. Grilling is still done over high heat. Spreads are still simply smeared on bread. Meat and toppings are still placed between buns. But his grand expansion of the traditional burger shopping list, and his obsession with maximizing the flavor of each ingredient, is something that could only come from Keller. Such elements will not be found in any other burger books, much less many other cook books. And the value of these singly Keller attributes is proven time and again with each bite into his flavorful burgers. The recipes in Burger Bar will definitely win you over!
Recipe: Cilantro-Arugula Pesto