Blanc beefs up the Plaza
A friend of mine recently asked if I remembered when McDonald’s hamburgers “used to be good.”
Sure, I’m old enough to remember when McDonald’s burgers were cheap. But good? My memory’s not that sharp, I guess. And, anyway, I’m one of those people who grew up thinking a burger was just a burger. Yes, I knew the difference between a thin Steak ‘n Shake burger and the fat, undercooked pucks that my old man threw on the grill. But it never would have occurred to anyone in my family to order a hamburger in a sit-down restaurant. Ditto spaghetti, grilled-cheese sandwiches and meatloaf. These my parents categorized as “food you can make at home.”
The evolution of the so-called gourmet burger has turned the “food you can make at home” concept upside down. All the same, when I recently ordered the $9 Classic burger at the new Plaza location of Blanc Burgers + Bottles, I never stopped thinking that, for the same money, I could have made several less upscale burgers at home
Then again, once you’ve tasted one of Blanc’s light, flaky brioche buns, it’s almost unbearable to contemplate a cheap, tasteless supermarket bun. And though I can grill a halfway decent hamburger, nothing I make at home fits the description of Blanc’s Classic: “premium vintage natural beef … topped with aged white Cheddar, butter lettuce, house-made pickles, tomato and made-from-scratch ketchup.”
That’s the brilliant idea advanced by the owners of the two Blanc Burgers + Bottles restaurants: Anyone can make a third-rate burger, but if you want something extravagant, you have to go out for it. It’s the difference between a community-theater show and a Broadway production (or even a touring production); the former is perfectly fine, but sometimes you’re willing to pay a lot for all the bells and whistles. At least, I am.
I was a fan of the original Westport location of Blanc and was hoping its success might lead to a revival of that neighborhood’s once-potent presence as a dining destination. But when the opportunity arrived to move that little restaurant to a larger space on the Country Club Plaza (which has never lost its cachet as a restaurant mecca), it made perfect sense that chef Josh Eans and Ernesto Peralta Jr., Blanc’s founders, would go for the deal.
Peralta and Eans had to gut the space — formerly occupied by the dimly lighted dining rooms and dim-witted staff of Pizzeria Uno — and Peralta’s wife, Jenifer, designed the interior, which is as starkly austere as the original location. I think the new space has all the charm of an airport-terminal restaurant, but my friend Lou Jane Temple, who once owned a restaurant, explained that with a name like Blanc, you don’t walk in expecting something warm and cozy. The joint is also loud — very loud. On my first visit to the restaurant, with my big-mouthed friend Truman, I cringed at how the tables in the back of the main dining room were shoved so close together.
“It’s not the best place to be discussing secrets,” Truman said, glancing at the two willowy gay men at the next table, who were so busy texting other people on their cell phones that they never noticed Truman eavesdropping on their every word. After a while, even he gave up on them. “They haven’t said one interesting thing yet,” he complained.
I’m not sure that I did, either, because I couldn’t decide which of Eans’ new burgers — including a $21 Surf + Turf creation — I most wanted to taste. I knew what I didn’t want: the highly spiced lentil burger (one of two vegetarian options on the menu, if you don’t count the salads), which my friend Scott dismisses as “the Indian-food burger” because of its intense curry flavor. Sometimes, he explained to me once, you just want a nonmeat burger that tastes kind of like a burger. My advice? Walk over to Houston’s.
But I digress. I was charmed by the cleverness of the $100 Burger, priced at $15. Our congenial server, who had the oily charm of a used-car salesman, said, “Tonight I’m giving you an $85 discount” on the sandwich, which features a patty of that vintage natural beef folded around a center of red-wine-braised short ribs. It sounded fabulous, and it was, until I realized that I had eaten the short-rib meat in my first two bites, and the rest of the sandwich was a very good burger topped with foie gras butter and onion marmalade. I realized later that I had felt the same disappointment the time I bit into that vintage, natural candy bar once called the $100,000 Bar and realized it was as lousy as any other cheap candy bar.
Truman, a champion complainer, felt that his Inside Out burger — the signature burger of the original Blanc — needed more blue cheese. “I think if the menu says it’s stuffed with blue cheese,” he groused, “it should be stuffed.”
We shared an order of the truffle fries, which looked very pretty in the toy metal grocery cart they were served in but tasted like ordinary fries, nothing like the sensational truffle spuds at the Burger Stand at Dempsey’s in Lawrence.
We were seated at a much better table on my second visit to the new Blanc, this time with Lou Jane and Melville, a local art collector who felt that the spartan Blanc dining room needed some art on the walls. “Something big and brazen,” he said.
Neither Lou Jane nor restaurant manager Brian Wilson agreed with that idea, but Melville did order the most brazen burger on the menu, that Surf + Turf number. “It looks like one of those outrageous Lilly Dache hats from the 1940s,” Melville cried when the sandwich arrived. It’s a flamboyant assemblage all right: a patty of grilled American Kobe beef topped with lobster butter, caramelized fennel, tarragon aïoli, asparagus salad and a grilled lobster tail, then finished with a flourish of some green, leafy stuff.
“Didn’t you sell a hat that looked like this when you had your vintage clothing store?” Melville asked Lou Jane. She pretended not to hear him and focused her attention on the Barnyard burger, another Frankenstein’s monster, this one with slices of Berkshire ham, Swiss cheese and a fried egg on top of the beef. Lou Jane thought it tasted pretty good. (“The fried egg drizzled down through all the other ingredients,” she said.) But I thought it was too creative for its own good and refused to take a bite.
At that particular meal, I didn’t want any bells and whistles. I just wanted the Classic burger with onion rings — not so great, by the way: heavily breaded and ridiculously chewy — and the delicious B.L.T. salad with apple-wood-smoked bacon and black-mustard-seed ranch dressing. As with most of Blanc’s sandwiches, the salad isn’t something I would likely make at home, even if I had all the ingredients on hand. But unlike Blanc’s more stylish creations, this deceptively simple burger is the kind of comfort dish I’d certainly dream of making at home. And that’s what makes Blanc Burgers + Bottles so alluring: For about 10 bucks and a tip, some dreams do come true.