Correction to This Article
This Sept. 26 Food article incorrectly said the hamburger bun at Palena was derived from a Parker House roll recipe by pastry chef Ann Amernick. The bun recipe was developed by chef Frank Ruta, based on a recipe from former White House sous chef Hans Raffert.

Seeking Bliss on a Bun

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The hamburger at EatBar in Arlington is the kind of burger you wish you could make at home. It's got just the right touch of char but remains run-down-your-hands juicy with a deep, beefy flavor. But the fact is, you probably can't make it yourself. Or let's just say you wouldn't. Chef Nathan Anda's secret: Mix butter into the meat.

The simplest foods are the hardest to make well, and the humble burger is no exception. That's why many of Washington's top chefs take their burgers very seriously.

Some use meat graded USDA prime, the Russell Crowe of the beef world. Others use only dry-aged meat, ensuring your burger the same respect as a $40-a-plate sirloin. Many -- you could call them control freaks -- insist on grinding the meat themselves.

Chefs' culinary ambitions don't stop with the beef. At Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill and Cleveland Park's Palena, the chefs make the buns from scratch daily. At Central Michel Richard, chef Cedric Maupiller slow-cooks each tomato slice in olive oil, sugar, salt, pepper and rosemary. And almost every high-end joint hand-cuts its fries and deep-fries them -- twice. (After all, what's a great burger without fries to match?)

Their efforts have paid off. Palena chef Frank Ruta says his 30-seat cafe serves up as many as 60 burgers a night, accounting for anywhere from one-third to a half of the restaurant's total orders. "We get people who split a burger for a first course, then get chicken and a salad," he said. "They have to have it."

Which one should you have? To find out, we ordered burgers from 13 upscale Washington area restaurants, testing for juiciness, beefy flavor, char and the all-important bun-to-burger ratio. Even with prices reaching as high as $18, not all made the grade. We gave extra points for thoughtful toppings such as house-made ketchup and pickles and ripe tomatoes. (An unripe tomato has no place in a good restaurant, even atop a hamburger.) And we subtracted points when the kitchen failed to cook the burger to our desired medium-rare; only half passed that basic test.

The best -- and the worst -- surprised us. Here's the beef:


Central Michel Richard

$16 (plus $1 for cheese, $1 for bacon)

Lunch and dinner

1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW


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