It looks as if we're in the middle of another burger boom. Blame it on the economy, or the trend to more and more casual dining, or just the fact that burgers taste so darn good.
Two books celebrating the burger were published this year: The Hamburger: A History by Josh Ozersky, making the burger out to be an American icon, and Hamburger America by George Motz.
Celebrity chefs are opening or planning to open burger joints faster than you can keep track - Bobby Flay's Bobby's Burger Palace in New York, Thomas Keller's Burgers and Half-Bottles in California and Las Vegas, and Laurent Tourondel's BLT Burger in New York and Vegas, to name a very few.
Earlier this decade froufrou burgers were hot, both locally and nationally. These were decadent burgers made with Kobe beef and garnished with goodies like foie gras and white truffles. They had prices to match.
The burgers that are getting the buzz now are still gourmet but more down-home. They are burgers with soul, if you will. I've seen them at two new, very different restaurants I've reviewed recently:
Crush in Belvedere Square has a burger made of Black Angus beef seasoned with the house-made steak sauce. You can have it topped with cheddar or Gruyere cheese and smoked applewood bacon. It comes on a brioche bun, with house-made coleslaw and shoestring french fries on the side.
The burger at the Hamilton Tavern in Hamilton is made with beef from a local supplier, Roseda Farms, with a slice of a ripe end-of-summer tomato and horseradish cheddar cheese. You can order it topped with a fried egg or good bacon.
But I really realized that this is the Year of the Burger when I heard that Baltimore is getting an Elevation Burg er (motto: "Ingredients Matter") at Harbor East. It's scheduled to open in a couple of months.
As the owner, Alex Smith, puts it, "We're turning over a new leaf in the burger industry. The burger is one of America's pastimes, and people are ready for a healthier alternative."
Of course, an Elevation burger is still red meat and animal fat. How healthful can it be? But the beef is organic, from grass-fed, free-range cows. You can get the meat wrapped in lettuce if you want to avoid the carbs of a bun. The french fries are cooked in heart-healthy olive oil. Milkshakes are made of hand-dipped ice cream.
If you want to avoid beef, alternatives are offered on the very limited menu - a veggie burger and an Elevation Salad of romaine, dried cranberries, candied walnuts and feta.
If you're expecting all this to be pricey, you'd be wrong. The burger will cost you $3.99. What's more, the Elevation Burger franchise is a "green" concept, and the space will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified.
Harbor East residents should be very happy.
Baked goodies The current local and seasonal trend has reached even Baltimore's newest bakery, Puffs & Pastries at 830 W. 36th St. in Hampden. That means the menu changes, of course, but currently you can get, among many other goodies, seasonal fresh fruit tarts, an Earl Grey tea-flavored cake filled with fresh strawberries and custard, cream puffs filled with chocolate mousse and topped with chocolate ganache, and "minis" like macaroons and miniature tea cakes.
Not in the mood for something sugary? Puffs & Pastries also has savory treats like a seasonal vegetable tart, quiche, duxelle danish, breads and croissants. Coffee and tea are available if you want to stop by for a scone or a fruit-and-yogurt cup for breakfast. Although Puffs & Pastries is mostly grab-and-go, it has a tiny breakfast bar and a couple of small tables on the front porch (as long as the weather holds).
The owner, Anisha Jagtap, has sweet credentials. She was executive pastry chef for Sascha's Catering and Sascha's 527 Cafe and before that learned her trade at Atwater's Bakery. She decided on Hampden when she decided to open her own place because "it's up and coming. In this area there really isn't a bakery that's seasonal," she says. "I'm an all-butter bakery. I stick to the French style of pastry-making, but a modern, upscale version."
Puffs & Pastries is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Tavern at the Hilton When the new Hilton Baltimore opened recently, its Diamond Tavern did also. That's diamond as in baseball diamond, not as in a girl's best friend. This is the Hilton's main restaurant, where you can get breakfast, lunch and dinner. Because of the tavern's proximity to the city's stadiums, it has an underlying sports theme (as in 20, count 'em, 20 HD TVs) and a bar in the middle of the dining room.
"But they still wanted a chic ambience," says Hilton spokeswoman Ashley Reeder. The TVs, she said, fit into the "upscale decor, and there is a lot of light and a lot of windows. It's not dark like a sports bar."
The executive chef is Christian Gallice, who trained at the Hotel School in Bonneville, France, and has worked in various hotel kitchens over the years.
Although his background is French, Gallice is turning out new American cuisine at the Diamond Tavern. It ranges from braised short ribs with mashed potatoes, cipolline onions and a cabernet-shallot glaze to, of course, crab cakes with risotto and whole-grain mustard beurre blanc. Prices are what pass for moderate these days, with dinner entrees under $30.
You can also get appetizers and light fare in the hotel's new Lobby Bar.
Part of rebirth I wrote about the Harford Road restaurant renaissance a couple of weeks ago, but I neglected to mention Los Amigos at 5506 Harford Road. It turns out the Mexican and Peruvian restaurant is going through a makeover inside and out.
It's expanding into the space next door so there will be more seating, as well as seating on a new back patio. There will be new floors, a new bar with skylights and a new front entrance. All this should be completed by mid-October, and Los Amigos is staying open through the renovation process.