Baltimore burger beats beefier one from Gotham

February 12, 2003|By ROB KASPER

IN ADDITION to an empty stomach, I tried to keep an open mind last week as I traveled to New York and ate the city's ballyhooed $41 hamburger at the Old Homestead restaurant at 56 Ninth Ave. Then I compared it to the $15 burger I ate a day later at Kooper's Tavern in Fells Point.

Both burgers had their flavor strong points - exceptional, beefy taste, a result of using the prized, expensive Kobe beef, which comes from a breed of pampered Japanese cattle. Both burgers had a philosophical weakness - taking what was once a simple American sandwich and pushing it into the realm of upscale cuisine.

Call me a "homer," but in the end, I preferred the Baltimore burger.

Mainly it was a size thing. The big city burger overwhelmed me. It was 20 ounces of meat. This gigantic hamburger, like the skyscrapers of Manhattan, blew me away. The patty was about 4 inches high. I could barely get the sandwich in my mouth, and I have a big mouth.

Moreover, as a colossus tends to do, this huge portion of meat dominated the landscape, overshadowing its accompanying topping of shredded greens and a melange of mushrooms; overpowering a hearty trio of handmade condiments, making short work of the brioche bun.

I came to Gotham eager to take on this monument to meat. But after about 40 minutes of serious eating, I had to summon one of the Old Homestead waiters - older men whose distinguished yet friendly demeanor reminds you of your favorite high school teacher - and ask him to take the burger away. I couldn't finish it.

Later, Old Homestead proprietor Marc Sherry told me that the mammoth portion was a statement. He explained that earlier this year, when the 135-year-old restaurant, one of the city's venerable steakhouses, decided to put a hamburger on its menu, the hamburger had to be something big and dramatic. It had to be made of Kobe beef, he said, because the well-marbled beef was regarded as the world's best. He said demand for the burger, made with a combination of ground sirloin and chuck, has been "off the charts."

Sherry, a native of New York who talks very fast and in a very confident style, ticked off a list of celebrities who had sampled the burger. I recognized New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza and actor Michael Douglas. The rest of the list was, well, very New York. Some of the notables had finished the enormous burger, some had not, Sherry said. But he wasn't about to say who had conquered the huge burger and who had been vanquished by it.

Returning to Baltimore from Manhattan, I was struck as I often am by how much smaller the scale of life is here. The lunch crowd at Kooper's Tavern was lively, but not overflowing.

I sat on a bar stool and pressed my knees up against the front of the bar. I noticed that, unlike the bar at the swank, dark Old Homestead, the front of the bar of this sunny, waterfront Baltimore establishment was not covered with leather padding. I also noted that a glass of club soda with lime cost $3 in New York and $1.75 in Baltimore. Two different towns.

Proprietor Patrick Russell told me that before he and his wife, Katie, bought the place five years ago, the establishment at 1712 Thames Ave. had carried a series of names: Fritz's, Classics and the Thames Street Tavern.

Russell made hamburgers a specialty of the house. Most burgers use conventional kinds of beef, he said, but some are made with bison meat.

He got the idea of making a burger with the prized Kobe beef last month during a business trip to New York when he read an article in The New York Times reporting on the city's so-called burger wars. A subsequent article in USA Today also rated the city's reigning burgers. Both pieces mentioned, but were not impressed by, the $41 burger made with Kobe beef.

Doing a little research, I learned that Kobe beef takes its name from the Kobe region of Japan, where the Wagyu breed of cattle are raised in luxury. In some cases, the cattle are given regular servings of beer and frequent massages. Talk about a dream lifestyle!

Apparently this soft life produces a tender, heavily marbled, beef that costs about 10 times as much as beef from animals that live the normal barnyard lifestyle.

Nowadays the Wagyu breed of cattle is also being raised in California and Australia. There is some debate about whether pampered cattle that have never set foot in the Kobe region of Japan can produce what is called authentic Kobe beef. But regardless of where these coddled cattle have spent their past, their meat is exceptionally tender and pricey.

When Russell got back to Baltimore from New York, he called his meat purveyor, Eric Oosterwijk, of Fells Point Meats and arranged to buy some of the lesser cuts of Kobe beef, such as chuck roast, and have them ground into meat for hamburgers.

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