Over the years, the basic hamburger has become catnip for trained chefs, who’ve done their best to engineer ground-beef patties that could be comfortably slipped onto menus that weren’t laminated in plastic. I’m thinking specifically about that grandpappy of all chef-driven hamburgers, the DB Burger, which French mastermind Daniel Boulud unleashed in the early 2000s. It was stuffed with foie gras, short rib and black truffles and originally came with a $28 price tag. It was a status-symbol burger for the Wall Street set.
Located in Mount Vernon Square, the Capital Burger is a new spinoff concept from Darden Restaurants, the same corporate giant behind the Capital Grille steakhouse chain. The Capital Burger — not Capital Burger, since the grammatical article suggests the proper power and prestige — is the debut outlet of this “luxury burger experience.” It’s basically a steakhouse for burgers, without the tablecloths and the tufted, black-leather booths.
I’m still coming to grips with what this concept means for one of the most accessible foods in these United States. It’s not so much the price point — the offerings hover in the $15 to $17 range, which compares favorably with similarly cheffed-up burgers — it’s the trappings that surround the burgers. The squat Mason jar filled with sweet housemade pickles. The white plates branded with “THE CAPITAL BURGER.” The $24 pour of 2015 Caymus Vineyards cabernet (so inky and concentrated I could barely sort out the berry flavors). The salted caramel cheesecake (the gooey topping takes the cake hostage in this Mason jar preparation).
It seems to me that the Capital Burger puts a fat-cat gloss on the old-fashioned burger experience, which is either very American or very un-American, depending on your viewpoint on hamburgers and capitalism.
Personally, I love a steakhouse burger, and I’m happy to hand over a Jackson for the pleasure of chomping down on a good one. The proprietary blend used at the Capital Burger comes from Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, which is synonymous with high-grade beef. But even if you don’t know the name, you probably know the taste: LaFrieda grinds beef for the entire Shake Shack chain. For this D.C. restaurant, the supplier combines three cuts — short rib, chuck and brisket — into a decadent blend with 20 percent fat, enough to keep the juices flowing.
General Manager Matthew Jaffe tells me that the Capital Burger blend is different from the one at the Capital Grille, though I suspect only someone with the palate of Jacques Pépin could tell the two apart. An eight-ounce patty is tucked into a Tom Cat Bakery brioche bun, which the Capital Burger kitchen finishes with an egg wash, smoked sea salt and black and white sesame seeds. The burgers don’t automatically come with lettuce or a slice of tomato, even at the peak of tomato season. You must ask for both.
“Our burger really speaks for itself,” explains Jaffe, former executive chef for the Capital Grille in Baltimore. “It’s a burger that doesn’t require condiments.”
I’ll give him that. The ground-beef patty, all by itself, is a thing of beauty: thick, luscious and reliably cooked to your preferred temperature. If you need a reminder of how rich and rewarding the taste of ground beef can be, this is your place, though I need to put an asterisk next to my verdict. The kitchen at the Capital Burger loves its salt. I mean really loves it. The burgers can ride that fine line between salt as flavor enhancer and salt as sodium pirate — the latter can hijack an entire dish.
The burger menu is a tight list, six in total, including a veg option. It was developed by the Capital Grille’s corporate executive chef Michael LaDuke, with assistance from others in his inner circle. The kitchen can execute most of the flavor combinations as advertised. The signature Capital Burger, designed to mimic the flavors of French onion soup, is a delight; it tastes more like French onion soup than some that I’ve spooned from actual bowls, including the one at the Capital Burger. When I cracked the cheese terra firma on my cup here, the inky broth bubbled to the surface like crude oil. This French onion soup tasted of salt, lots and lots of salt.
The kitchen loves its star patty so much that the cooks sometimes act as if they’re protecting it from hostiles — or the condiments Jaffe mentioned. The bacon cheeseburger is supposed to balance the sweet, salty and smoky flavors of tomato jam, Vermont cheddar and candied bacon. But the sweetness seems to disappear into a vortex of salt and beef. By contrast, the veggie burger, a mixture of black beans and mushrooms, is a full-flavored bite, with a pinch of spice in its chile mayo, but the thing has all the body of mashed potatoes.
The Capital Burger is a handsome space, part warehouse-chic and part postmodern man-cave, with cheeky artwork by John David Nathanson, including his painting of a Corvette Stingray sliced up into primal cuts, like the butcher chart of a steer. Some of the menu doesn’t measure up to the creativity of the bar and dining room, particularly the ho-hum deviled eggs and a Maine lobster roll so overdressed it borders on animal cruelty. Speaking of cruelty, I’m not sure what happened to the battered-and-dredged chicken breast when it was dropped into the fryer, but it came out looking like a bat fried midflight. Once I figured out a way to get the V-shaped chicken sandwich in my mouth, it tasted great.
Yet, when I’m honest with myself, I’m most comfortable at the Capital Burger when I treat it like a neighborhood pub: Just belly up to the bar, order a draft beer and cheeseburger and get lost in the ballgame on TV. The burger’s better than the one at the pub, of course. But at least at the pub, I don’t have to pretend as if I have more class than I really do.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown or Mt. Vernon Square/7th Street/Convention Center, with a 0.2-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $5 to $16 for snacks and soups; $10 to $28 for burgers, sandwiches and a steak.