Bolt Burgers

$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

Digital burgers take many toppings
By Tim Carman
Friday, February 7, 2014

Before they decide what to order, diners must decide how to order at Bolt Burgers.

Customers can punch their selections into an interactive system at a kiosk or onto an iPad tablet at their table. They can even talk to a semi--interactive human being at the counter. But whatever way they choose, machine or mortal, they will all learn the same gloomy fact: Despite a tantalizing, Wawa--esque array of burger toppings at their fingertips, diners have no choice on the temperature of their patty.

All burgers are cooked to medium or medium--well.

I mention this from the outset because I like much about Bolt Burgers, save for the ingredient at the center of the budding chain: the ground beef. Every burger I’ve ordered here ---- four and counting ---- has been a virtually juiceless affair. The patty mostly serves as a blank canvas for the colorful palette of cheeses, relishes, spices and sauces, which you can use to create your own masterpiece between two brioche buns.

This toppings--oriented approach can lead to a flavorful bite, no question. But when I decide to indulge in a hamburger, I want an experience that borders on an oil spill. I want my fingers covered in grease. I want soaked, crumbled napkins piling up around my table. I want a burger so juicy and loosely packed that it almost falls apart at first bite. A good hamburger should satisfy all senses, from the first mouthwatering sizzle to the final greasy slide down the gullet.

The temptation here is to point a finger at the Top--Side Cooker, a double--sided griddle at Bolt, for the one--size--fits--all--approach to temperature. After all, the whole point of the contraption is to griddle a large batch of burgers evenly, without the worry of human distraction, to appease the hungry lunchtime hordes. But I’m told the system is adaptable; it allows for temperature customization and, should you hit Bolt during a slow period, the kitchen may even accommodate a special request. I say “may” because I once asked if I could get my burger medium--rare during a mid--afternoon dead zone.

The answer was no.

“We’re going to cook to temperature down the road,” promises Joe Spinelli, the local restaurant consultant who has partnered with some eye doctors to launch Bolt.

In the meantime, you’ll have to be satisfied with the king’s spread of toppings and the customized Bolt burgers, all created by Troy Clayton, chef and owner of Geranio Ristorante in Alexandria and a frequent collaborator with Spinelli on outside projects. I found several of Clayton’s creations irresistible, even with a patty the color of hot charcoal.

Clayton and Spinelli have put together a smart, interactive operation. Clayton’s custom--made sauces, relishes and spice blends have multiple applications: You can use them to build your own sandwich (with Angus beef, ground turkey, black beans or marinated chicken as your base protein); You can order spice blends separately to sprinkle on fries, onion rings and crispy green beans, which you can then dip in your choice of sauce. Or you can just sit back and enjoy the way Clayton uses his own creations to build a line of nine “signature” burgers.

If you remember only one thing from this review, make sure it’s this: roasted shallot and sweet garlic relish. The muted, oily pungency of this condiment improves everything it touches, whether the Good Earth burger (a low--to--the--ground beast perfumed with the brown--butter aroma of Gruyere cheese) or the pun--tastic Mr. Truffleupagus (with the unchildish flavors of black pepper and funk--forward truffled pecorino). Next time, I may add the condiment to Bolt’s grilled truffled pecorino and smoked gouda sandwich to send the whole thing way, way over the top.

But even if you steer clear of whole cloves of roasted garlic (with their habit of tattooing flavor on your tongue), you’ll find other burgers to savor. The Favored Curry offers a cross--cultural ad­ven­ture by combining an Indian spice blend with salty goat cheese, a shotgun marriage that proves surprisingly harmonious. Another signature sandwich, Where There’s Smoke, toys with you, too: Its smokiness comes not from the bacon ---- it’s a slice of roasted pancetta ---- but from a slab of gouda, this one smoked to a backwoods bouquet. Plus, there’s a bonus: All that fat provides just enough fire suppression to equalize the chili, cumin and paprika blend.

For those into riddles, the juiciest “burger” at Bolt is the chicken sandwich done Mr. Truffleupagus--style. Unlike the beef patties, which sport no crispy bits of rendered and seared fat (despite a blend that’s apparently 20 percent fat), the marinated chicken breast arrives with a thin, delicious layer of browning on the surface, which seems to seal in juices. Whatever the source of its moisture, the chicken sandwich is more hamburger than anything I had at Bolt. It’s so succulent, in fact, your brioche bun may disintegrate between your fingers.

You take your chances once you wander outside the sandwich menu: The fries, previously frozen, are both slightly crispy and slightly soggy, a frustrating paradox right inside the miniature fryer basket in which the spuds are served. The rings, by contrast, are extra crispy, featuring a thick coating that dominates the poor slivers of onion buried deep inside. The less said about the gritty parm sprinkled over the Caesar salad the better.

Interestingly, Bolt doesn’t serve milkshakes. The joint serves smoothies, including a mango--and--passion--fruit combo drizzled with red spidery veins of raspberry puree. It looks scary but tastes terrific. It also includes fat--free yogurt, an ingredient that, strangely, reminds me of Bolt’s juiceless patties.

No restaurant in D.C. has been better outfitted for the iPhone generation than Bolt Burgers. It is a restaurant full of screens -- touchscreen systems for ordering your food and making your drinks, tablets at every table, and a 16-foot-wide projected TV screen to watch while you wait for your order.

You can order food without having a single interaction with another human being, which, for millennials who prefer texting and online ordering through Seamless to picking up the phone, is a major plus.

Michael Davidson, Joe Spinelli and other partners at Bolt Burgers are banking on it. They have put more than 18 months into perfecting the computer systems behind Bolt, a concept they plan to franchise.

There are several ways to order a Bolt burger, and one of them can be done from your office. An online pre-ordering system will allow customers to order in advance for both take-out and dine-in: Give the server your order number when you arrive and, if all goes according to plan, your food will be at your seat within 10 minutes.

If you haven't pre-ordered, a server will present you with a table number if you plan to dine in. Use that to place your order at one of the touchscreen kiosks, or through the touchscreen tablet at your seat.

As for the burgers, Bolt offers beef, turkey, chicken and veggie options, but it's really throwing its muscle behind toppings. To create your own Bolt Burger ($6.99 and up) you're presented with 25 potential toppings, including truffle pecorino cheese, pancetta and fancy relishes. Before it's grilled, each burger can be dusted in one of four spice blends custom-mixed for the company.

There's also a menu of signature Bolt Burgers. Chef Troy Clayton's most excited about one called the "Mr. Truffleupagus," a burger with truffle pecorino, grilled field mushrooms and roasted shallots with sweet garlic relish. "Everybody in the burger business has a good burger," said Spinelli, "so this is what distinguishes us from everybody else."

One of the technological centerpieces of Bolt Burgers is a no-flip burger grill. The device can cook a six-ounce burger in exactly three minutes, to the exact same level of doneness every time. It can make 1,200 burgers an hour. "I think it's fantastic," said Clayton. "I have the confidence that the guy at the grill will hit a button and get a perfect burger every time."

Bolt seatst about 80 people indoors and about 40 on the patio. It's located in an area near the D.C. convention center that doesn't yet have much competition -- until the restaurants in the new Marriott Marquis open, at least -- but is at the intersection of daytime workers, evening residents and out-of-town guests. And the 16-foot projection of their logo makes the restaurant impossible for drivers coming down Massachusetts Avenue to miss.

"Now we just need curbside service," joked Davidson, looking out the window at the cars stuck in traffic. They'd probably figure out a way to automate that, too.

--Maura Judkis, November 2013