In lieu of a starred review this week, we’re taking a look at the sequels to two of Atlanta’s best known burger restaurants — the new Buckhead location of Flip Burger Boutique and the Virginia-Highland installment of Yeah Burger.
Now that Richard Blais has just completed his second mega-successful run on “Top Chef” — having narrowly won in a chopping, sautéing death match against Mike Isabella in the finale — he has cemented his status as Atlanta’s most famous chef.
Among his many ardent fans count my sister, who can’t wait to eat at his restaurant when she next visits us in Atlanta.
“It’s a hamburger place, you know,” I remind her.
“Blais’ restaurant is just a burger joint?” she says, with utter surprise in her voice.
Well, no, not just a burger joint. Atlantans do actually get to eat those witty little plates fashioned from unlikely ingredients and highfalutin’ culinary technique. Only thing: They come between two halves of a bun.
Since Blais opened his first Flip Burger Boutique in west Midtown in late 2008 and followed it with branches in Buckhead and Birmingham, he has done a smart job of extending his brand by cooking food that most people can actually afford.
A visit to Flip will showcase Blais’ wit and perspective, and for most diners it will mark their first exposure to the style of cooking that used to go by the hideous sounding “molecular gastronomy” and now sports the much more descriptive moniker “modernist cuisine.”
Here’s a delicious irony: While most people can’t possibly afford the definitive and just-released text on this culinary movement — the 2,500-page “Modernist Cuisine” by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet (Cooking Lab, $625) — they can waltz into Flip and order a tuna tartare “burger” on a lettuce wrap ($10). It arrives topped with something that looks exactly like a raw egg yolk. But, in fact, this quivering yellow orb contains mango puree, “spherified” with a membrane after twin dunks in calcium lactate and then sodium alginate. You puncture it and mix in the glistening ooze, just like raw egg.
You can wash this down with a funny “apple pie” milk shake ($6) frozen with liquid nitrogen and trailing a cloud of cold smoke. You want more? How about a mushroom Swiss burger ($7.50) topped with cheese foam that has been aerated with nitrous oxide. It looks just like the Reddi-wip on your strawberries.
Sure there’s a parlor trick element to this (the waitress tells us the “smoked mayo” served with fries gets that way from a hefty dash of liquid smoke). But isn’t Blais observing the first commandment of modernist cuisine by encouraging diners to rethink their assumptions about food?
I have to say the one meal I had at Flip Buckhead wasn’t terribly good. The burgers made from actual ground cow and the milk shakes both hit their respective spots well. But Blais likes to re-imagine other foods in the form of hamburgers. Despite his clever way with visual puns, here’s where he falters.
A blackened shrimp burger ($9) with “cajunnaise” sauce and a fried lemon slice has enough spice and textural interest to usher you through two bites before you actually taste the thing. Burnt spices cover a weirdly translucent patty of heavily processed seafood. A “fauxlaffel” ($8) features tangy pickled veggies over a crusty chickpea patty that kind of deflates and disintegrates as soon as you start manhandling it like a burger. Big pieces of it pinch off and land with disconcerting plops on the plate.
The food looks great, each dish bursting with color and sporting minced herb garnishes. But we’re not happy with either limp fries ($5) or caramelized Brussels sprouts ($5), rawish with the lighter-fluid taste of a gas grill flare-up. As fun as that tuna tartare was for its yolk, the net effect was sweet and slimy; I think I’d rather eat tuna poke from just about any decent sushi bar.
But I do like this well-run and well-priced restaurant well enough. It is fun to sit in this dining room lined with floor-to-ceiling plush white booths that give it the aura of a fashionable womb. More than that, I like the surface contact with Blais’ interesting and engaging culinary mind.
I have to tell you, though, Mr. Top Chef: I know Flip Burger Boutique is more than just a burger joint, but it’s still not enough. Not from you.
Flip Burger Boutique Buckhead: 3655 Roswell Road, 404-549-3298. West Midtown: 1587 Howell Mill Road, 404- 352-3547 . Also a location in Birmingham. $$
Blais’ doings aside, it wouldn’t be wrong to claim that the “burger trend” is over. All those stories have been written, all those conversations have been had.
This is all good and true, but let me tell you: Burger restaurants are here to stay. They are fruitful. They have multiplied. And they serve as the advance guard for what will be a slew of cool-looking, slightly upscale places with liquor licenses and attractive waitpeople that do foodie-forward takes on hot dogs, pizza, sausages and every iconic sandwich out there, from the Philly cheese steak to the po’ boy. Mark my words.
They may no longer be outrageously exciting, but these places do help us deal with those need-to-feed quandaries that we all face, well, daily.
Yeah Burger has its second location after its successful launch in west Midtown last year. The Virginia-Highland location has taken over a corner auto shop that has looked ripe for a dining concept for at least the past decade.
I didn’t love my first visits to the original Yeah in 2010. The double-stack grass-fed beef patty was a dry, dry affair, and limp fries didn’t help. It seemed just another wimpy mistakenly claiming star status.
But once I stopped looking for burger fireworks and started looking for dinner, Yeah revealed its charms. Chef Shaun Doty, another bright light on the local dining scene, keeps his ego and cheffy ways in check, and lets the ingredients make their own case. Good thing he favors local and organic foodstuffs, because they are persuasive.
Yeah is a build-it-yourself kind of place, where you pick the patty, the bun, the toppings, the sauces, the sides and so on. By that point you are usually so exhausted you don’t have the will to chew.
I like to eat with health in mind whenever I can, so my usual is the naturally raised turkey ($5.99) with a whole-wheat bun, sliced avocado ($1 supplement, always perfect) and the “hot Alabama relish” that strikes a great sweet-spicy-sour chord.
But I thoroughly enjoyed my non-usual — a double-stack ($6.49) with American cheese (89 cents), bacon jam, lettuce and tomato. Not the juiciest, but I think I could put on five more garnishes and still be able to pick this thing up. There’s a place in heaven for burgers like this. The bison burger ($7.99) brings one thicker patty that does drip a little if that’s your litmus test.
I always love getting a side of organic greens ($3.99) made with organic lettuce, sprouts, cukes and tomatoes in a lemon-herb dressing with a fine undercurrent of shallot. And I almost never like the fries ($2.49) that routinely come out limp and cold. I would honestly prefer crinkle-cut fries right from the bag, given my druthers.
One other small complaint about Yeah Burger: The kitchen takes its good time, sometimes 10 or 15 minutes.
That said, everything else about Yeah works well for me. The food tastes clean, and I don’t mind feeding it to my kids. Maybe it’s just a burger joint, but it’s my kind of burger joint.
Yeah Burger Virginia-Highland: 1017 N. Highland Ave., 404-437-7845. West Midtown: 1168 Howell Mill Road, 404-496-4393. $$