If you order the "Rossini" burger at Burger Bar in Lumière Place, expect a little extra attention. The runner who brought the burger to my seat gave me a look equivalent to a high-five or fist bump. The bartender who'd taken my order asked me how it was, as did the other bartender, as did a manager. A cook came out to the bar about halfway through my meal and lingered there a bit — though I guess that might have been only a coincidence. At one point a guy who looked a lot like casino security showed up. To my surprise, he left before I did. I figured he was there to make sure I didn't skip out on my $60 check.
That's no typo. The Rossini burger costs $60.
Rossini refers to any dish served with foie gras, truffles and a demi-glace-based sauce, a tribute to 19th-century composer and gourmand Gioacchino Rossini. According to the Larousse Gastronomique, Rossini also "invented a way of stuffing macaroni with foie gras by means of a silver syringe."
Burger Bar's Rossini burger tops a thick patty of "American Kobe" beef — that is, from cattle related to those that produce the actual, incredibly expensive Japanese Kobe beef — with sautéed foie gras and shaved black Perigord truffle and gently places it on a soft onion bun, with a dish of Madeira sauce on the side. For optimum hedonistic value, I ordered mine rare.
You might think such a burger would be delivered on a silver platter. In fact, the nods to pretension are slight and purposely undermined: The French fries are kept separate from the burger on the plate but are served in a cute miniature terra cotta pot. The sauce comes in a sleek dish on a separate plate, but you dip the burger into it as you would a roast beef sandwich into a cup of jus at your favorite deli.
The burger is both sinfully luscious — meltingly tender beef, buttery foie gras, sexy black truffle and rich, sweet (but thin) Madeira sauce — and a total head trip. You want to savor something so indulgent, yet what you hold in your hand on a very ordinary bun looks just like any other burger. You want to devour it, and chase it with a cold beer. The meat is so rose-red under its charred surface that you have to remind yourself again and again that the juices aren't actually blood, yet the potent flavor of the black truffle and the almost-as-potent flavor of the foie gras totally overwhelm the flavor of the beef.
What are you eating? Is it still truly a burger?
Granted, you might never order a $60 burger unless you have a particularly good run at one of Lumière Place's slot machines or gaming tables. But the opening of Burger Bar and Sub Zero New American Burger Restaurant in the Central West End has me wondering: What is a better burger? (And do we really need one?)
The Burger Bar opened with Lumière Place in December, the first of two restaurants in the casino from acclaimed chef Hubert Keller. (SLeeK, an upscale steak house, opened there this past week.) Keller's signature restaurant is Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. He also presides over a second Fleur de Lys, as well as the original Burger Bar, in Las Vegas.
The new Burger Bar is located on one end of the airport terminal-like perimeter of Lumière Place's gaming area. It has high ceilings and is brightly lighted — disarmingly so. Most of the seats are high-backed booths. One side of the bar faces the restaurant, the other the casino; if you sit at the bar, you look directly into a row of slot machines. On the whole I found the place cold. Service is workmanlike. (Though I can report that, as Lumière Place infamously promised, the servers are "fun" to look at, even in the unflattering light.)
The menu is basically divided in half: On one page are burgers, like the Rossini, built by the kitchen; on the other, a build-your-own option. The build-your-own side is difficult to review, in that if you choose, say, blue cheese, sauerkraut, a fried egg and cranberry sauce from Burger Bar's list of nearly four dozen toppings, and it sucks, you have only yourself to blame.
You also choose your beef: grain-fed Hereford, grain-fed Black Angus or American Kobe. Buffalo and turkey burgers are also available, as is a vegetable patty. My personal burger predilections are simple: I like good beef, cheese and bacon. On my first visit, I went with Kobe beef, medium-rare, with cheddar and bacon on a plain white bun. The patty was excellent, richly flavored and very juicy, and the bacon was thick and crisp, but the bun and cheese were kind of plain. For the price — nearly $18 — I was looking for: "Wow!" What I got was: "This is really good."
Likewise, the "Black Jack" burger, chosen from among the six "Chef's Burgers," was good but didn't seem deserving of special attention: Black Angus beef, tangy Monterey Jack cheese, tomato, lettuce and a spread of tapenade on toasted ciabatta. Sides were passable, but not up to the level of the burgers. The fries were crisp but lacked a distinctive flavor; sweet-potato fries provided flavor but weren't especially crisp. I liked the onion rings — though, again, they didn't strike me as anything better than what I'd find at a more modest burger joint.
Sub Zero New American Burgers isn't nearly as high-profile as Burger Bar. It opened in November, an extension of the popular Sub Zero sushi and vodka bar. The new room is smaller and much less sleek than the original Sub Zero; it's a dimly lighted space that offers freestanding tables and banquette seating. You can order sushi in the burger restaurant, but you can't order a burger in the sushi restaurant.
As at Burger Bar, the menu — developed with Eric Brenner of nearby Moxy — is split between burgers designed by the kitchen and burgers you build yourself. Sub Zero's selection of toppings isn't as broad as Burger Bar's, but unless you must have marinated anchovies, you might not mind.
On my first visit, I ordered the American Kobe beef, medium-rare, with cheddar and bacon. My wife ordered Black Angus beef, medium, with Gorgonzola and caramelized onions. We received a Kobe beef with cheddar and onions and Black Angus with bacon and Gorgonzola. Both burgers seemed closer to medium than medium-rare, and my Kobe beef wasn't as luscious as it had been at Burger Bar. The Black Angus burger was good, though, its straightforward beefy flavor nicely contrasted by the pungent blue cheese.
On a subsequent visit, I tried two of the burgers designed by the kitchen. The lamb burger was pleasant, if a little bland. The meat was tender, but the strongest flavor came from a smear of feta cheese; a dollop of hummus offered more texture than taste. Mint, promised on the menu, was nowhere in sight. The "Slinger" burger matches Black Angus beef with, yes, a fried egg, cheese and chili. I admired the audaciousness of this burger, and it might have worked had the chili been more distinctive. Instead, the boring flavor of chili mix grew tiresome.
Here too the sides were underwhelming. The French fries were especially lackluster, and the barbecue sauce the restaurant offers for dipping was syrup-sweet.
Once you strip away all the add-ons, both Burger Bar and Sub Zero serve good burgers, and, occasionally, very good burgers. But for establishments that have made burgers their sole focus, you have to wonder whether they're offering anything truly different from O'Connell's, Seamus McDaniel's, Blueberry Hill or whichever your favorite burger joint may be.
I never thought I'd ask this about a place where you can get foie gras, black truffle and American Kobe beef in the same dish, but...
Is that all there is?