Be nice to your bovine: The secret to burger bliss lies in the meat, and a delightfully squishy bun
APR 16 14 – 12:15 PM — More than a few times each summer, folks have heard me audibly sigh when I spot a backyard griller mistreating patties of ground bovine.
Felonies against hamburgers may include, say, choosing extra-lean beef in a grocery store, or stretching the mix with breadcrumbs and egg in some misguided notion that, first, lean is always best and, worse, fillers will somehow make sawdust more juicy. For the record, that would be wrong.
Some may pack the meat tight into hockey pucks. Or they may squish it with a spatula to squirt all those succulent juices across the griddle. Or they may choose a crusty kaiser, panini or flavourful focaccia as a vehicle that will most likely upstage the star of the show — which should always be the meat.
So, for our pre-summer lesson in the nuances of beautiful burgers, on Tuesday I dropped by the spanking-new Bite Burger House at 108 Murray St. (613-562-2483), located in digs once occupied by the former Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro, just beside Murray Street Kitchen/Wine/Charcuterie.
There I found husband-and-wife owners Bettina Klims, 37, and Glen Klepsch, 42, (photo, above) in their 50-seat space (with patio room for as many out back). The room features an unusual lustred grey expoy bartop with seats for 12, exposed brick behind the spirits on display, walls pannelled in brown barn board, original oak flooring underfoot, wooden grey tabletops with dark walnut chairs and white leather seat cushions, two banquettes, plus four high-tops just before you venture outside to the rear patio. Simple, yet tastefully executed.
Oh, and did I mention those ubiquitous, naked dangling Edison light bulbs that restaurateurs seem to be screwing into sockets nowadays?
Officially opened last Thursday, the place has been jumping with enthusiastic diners who come for generous half-pound burgers, of course, as well as a small pitcher’s mound of home-cut frites, poutine, pork, mac ‘n’ cheese, chili, fish and chips, and what have you. It’s a fairly ambitious and soul-satisfying comfort menu with 13 apps, a few mains, nine burgers and assorted signature cocktails by sommelier Robbie Nellis, (photo, right) instructor at Vendange Institute on Albert Street and formerly of Hy’s Steakhouse on Queen. Nellis is the creator of some rather unusual alcoholic milkshakes — surely, one way to get people to enjoy calcium — and he has selected a beer list that extends to 13 bottles of Ontario craft and seven more on tap.
Keeping with the local libation theme, Bite Burger House offers all three made-in-Ottawa Harvey and Vern’s sodas on draft: Cream soda, ginger beer and root beer, the latest to join the fizzy family.
Born and raised in Ottawa, Bettina and Glen formerly owned and operated Must Kitchen & Wine Bar on William Street, which they sold last July. Each has about 20 years’ experience running restaurants, while Glen took up cooking roughly three years ago when chef Warren Sutherland, formerly of Sweetgrass, joined his kitchen at Must before setting up his own successful places, The SmoQue Shack on York Street and, more recently, Slice & Co. pizzeria on Elgin.
I’m not saying categorically that Bite Burger House has the best sandwiches in town — that would be tempting villagers with their own ideas to march against me with torches and pitchforks. What I am saying is, in its first five days in business, the place has flipped some 900 burgers — so they must have figured something out right.
“When Warren came to work at Must as he was setting up SmoQue Shack, I told him my dream was to change Must, which had been serving small plates, into a burger place,” Glen says.
“So this is a product of all that. Burgers was something I had in the back of my mind — we had great success with burgers at Must, where I ground prime Triple-A rib-eye steak and people really loved them.”
No doubt, I should think.
Clockwise from top left: The balled patties are formed in a stainless steel mould on the hot griddle, and left about 15 seconds to sear the edges; a light weight is placed on top to prevent the meat from ballooning; flip the burger; St-Albert old cheddar completes the effect — before final condiments and embellishments.
(Photo left: Popular Broadhead stout-battered cod with stuffing, gravy, aioli and home-made fries is comfort on a plate.)
The key to good ground is to maintain the optimum ratio of lean vs. fat — you need a minimum 20 or 25 per cent fat content for flavour and juicy results. My favourite from a neighbourhood butcher is to custom order ground beef that’s 80-per-cent striploin and 20-per-cent fat, but even that may be a bit lean for some people.
Never, not ever choose extra-lean to cut calories or cholesterol — if healthy dining is your prime consideration, you should not be wolfing down burgers and fries, period. Glen’s preferred ratio is about 65-per-cent lean to fat for rib-eye, and 75-per-cent lean using chuck.
“You need fat for flavour and texture,” explains Glen (photo above).
“To keep the patty juicy we use a large flat-top grill. We make an eight-ounce ball of burger, baste it in butter, place a round of parchment paper on top and form it with a hot stainless-steel mould to give it shape and sear the edges. We leave the mould on 15 seconds on the grilltop to create a caramelized edge that locks in juices. We use no filler, no breadcrumbs, but I season it with a basic French rémoulade to give it a little zing.
“The bread is all local from Rideau Bakery. We choose only brioche buns [made with butter and egg] because they can hold the juiciness of the patty without falling apart. We also find the egg bun has squishiness, so you actually taste the patty versus a typical kaiser roll where you taste the bread and it could fall apart.”
(Photo right: Oh my, there’s more on the plate than burgers and fries at Bite Burger House. How about poutine with St-Albert cheese curds and — natch — gravy galore? Love in a bowl.)
Glen credits coaching by Sutherland “who showed me the way” in the kitchen.
“Warren gave me the flavour profiles to work with.”
Among his Top Five tips for a great burger:
1. Meat. Always go with 75-per-cent lean. Choose chuck, sirloin or rib-eye beef for flavour “and be sure to grind it fresh — either yourself, or by a good butcher;”
2. Seasoning. Right off the bat, don’t load the patty with salt. “Salt will draw out some juice while cooking,” Glen advises. “It’s best to season just after cooking, and the seasoning doesn’t have to be fancy. We use a little Dijon and ketchup in our burgers to moisten them;”
3. Choose the cheese wisely. “Old cheddar is good, it’s traditional and it has flavour. We also use gouda and goat cheese. Never, never use processed cheese slices because, well, it’s not real cheese anymore;”
4. The bun. “Go for a brioche that holds the juice. The bun is the vehicle, but the star ingredient is the meat patty. You don’t want a hard or crusty bun;”
5. Don’t squeeze the patty while cooking. “Flattening it with a spatula while cooking only drives out the juices.”
Says Bettina: “When people ask for extra napkins here, that’s a good sign.”
“We’ve been overwhelmingly busy since we opened,” she adds.
“It’s one of those niche markets in this area. Everyone loves a good burger but no one is really focusing on that in this area.
“We specialize in burgers with excellent wine, beers and cocktails. We make all our own sauces from scratch like smoked ketchup, spicy Broadhead stout beer mustard, home-brined cucumber/garlic pickles and hard-cooked eggs, which is unique in this area. We even make our own juices for our cocktails,” Bettina says.
“We’ve been packed since we opened. Getting the word out through social media like Twitter and Facebook has been huge.”