Two plump slices of foie gras, each branded with grill stripes, lounge atop a thick beef patty that sports its own parallel lines of char. The brioche bun, which provides cover for this inter-species hook-up, shines like a polished Cadillac Eldorado under a hot noonday sun. The musty, unmistakable funk of truffle oil fills the air.
The excess is enough to make me feel as if I’ve wandered onto the set of “American Hustle.” A bottle of Dom, a coke spoon around my neck and a 10-minute Jimmy Page solo on the sound system would complete the ’70s illusion at TD Burger in NoMa. But then I take a bite of the “Jean-Louis” burger, and I’m quickly reminded about the power of intemperance. The patty, cooked a succulent medium-rare, drips juice and decadence; the foie gras and truffle aioli adornments are two more shots of whiskey after a night of hard drinking.
The “Jean-Louis” is former “Top Chef” contender Timothy Dean’s homage to his mentor, the late Jean-Louis Palladin, the man who almost single-handedly carved a culinary identity for Washington. Palladin did so with a demanding temperament and a dedication to a French pantry: black truffles, foie gras, racks of veal, caviar spooned out like baby food. It’s the kind of food that is prohibitively expensive in this century, when everyone has a computer in his or her pocket but little cash for luxuries on his or her plate. So Dean has reined in the richness and re-channeled it to a dish that practically defines modern Washington: the chef-driven hamburger.
If my arteries were made of uncloggable materials, I’d eat the “Jean-Louis” like 5-year-olds inhale baby carrots.
I say that even though the “Jean-Louis” was missing its advertised rhubarb and the bun indicated bread past its prime. Had Palladin himself been served the burger, I suspect he would have taken one bite, noticed its deficiencies, found the nearest line cook and screamed until a blood vessel burst in his forehead. This strikes me as the essential difference between Dean and the Michelin-starred chef: Palladin would never tolerate the sloppiness of TD Burger (including its name, given that the place focuses on pizza, too).
Disorder is a chronic condition at this place. It starts with the service, which balances friendliness with neglect. Sooner or later, you will sit there, waiting on an order or a check or even just a plate on which to eat your pizza, wondering if you’ve somehow been outfitted with a CIA cloaking device. If you ask about the D.C. Brau on draft (as I did on every visit), the answer will typically be one of two: It’s either tapped out or it’s a beer other than the one promoted on the pull handle. TD Burger exudes the laissez-faire vibe of a classroom in which the students are rewarded just for showing up.
The discrepancies between menu description and plated dish could make me feel as if I had been gaslighted. Was that giant slab of burnt crust topped with cheese and sweet barbecue sauce really pitched as a “Moroccan BBQ” pizza with cumin and fried sage, or did I imagine it? Wasn’t my desiccated, overcooked Obama burger supposed to come with melted Maui onions, or did I just assume it would incorporate the sweet ringlets from Hawaii? And I could have sworn my Cajun catfish listed “sage roasted onions” among its toppings, not fried onions, which only contributed to the Sahara-like quality of the sandwich.
If there are recipes in the kitchen, the line cooks treat them like too many people treat the homeless: easily ignored.
With TD Burger, Dean has now covered the dining spectrum, from the haute cuisine of Jean-Louis at the Watergate to the pub grub of this sandwich-wings-and-pizza concept near Union Station (with another location in Largo). The chef views TD Burger as a kind of retirement plan; he would love to be the next burger king from Washington (think: Five Guys, BGR, Elevation), seeding every major American city with a location like some Johnny Appleseed of ground beef.
Don’t put it past him. During his three decades of cooking, Dean has developed serious connections. He tells me Roberto Donna provided the pizza dough recipe for him, and his ground beef, a mixture of brisket and chuck, arrives fresh daily from the same purveyor who once supplied Palladin. If so, Dean has larger problems in his kitchen than he thinks. Save for the “Jean-Louis,” my other half-pound burgers were unseasoned, dry and never cooked to the requested temperature. (The RG3 grilled ahi tuna was a mouthful of fish that tasted as if it had turned.) Likewise, my pizzas were as consistent as snowflakes: If the puffy crust for the Moroccan BBQ pie was bland and virtually saltless, the base for the smoked salmon round was just the opposite — an airy, focaccia-like bread with the perfect amount of salt.
Elsewhere on the menu, the salads that don’t razz seasonality — the fishy Maine lobster with watermelon should stay in cold storage until at least July — were among the better options, especially the Caesar with its thick application of pungent, creamy dressing. The fries were as crisp as panna cotta, and the “traditional Southern-style” wings . . . well, they seemed more like something from South Vietnam, with a spice blend that smacked of star anise.
With all due respect to the chef and his long history in kitchens from coast to coast, I have a suggestion before Dean begins his expansionist plans: Make your D.C. spot airtight first, then talk big.
250 K St. NE, 202-546-2433,
Nearest Metro: NoMa-Gallaudet U-New York Ave., with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Sandwich and pizza prices: $7 to $16.