Who Knew?’ is sponsored by Walter Stewart’s Market.
I’ve never been able to understand more than six words of Marcel Proust, but from what I can gather, Remembrance of Things Past is 4,200 pages of inscrutable French about a cookie.
I can relate. I spend an impractical amount of time contemplating my Platonic ideals of food. Ice cream: Arethusa Farm coffee. Tomato: garden-grown, mid-September, still hot from the sun. Cheeseburger: late-1980s California pool party for someone’s 10th birthday. Because of the era, Cool Ranch Doritos are never far away, and nearly everyone present is named Jennifer. The cheeseburger itself is nothing special; a patty, a Kraft single, and a grocery store bun. The memory is more than a sum of its parts: wet bathing suit after a day spent doing handstands in the shallow end, chlorine in my eyes, the smell of charcoal and lighter fluid on a humble Weber grill. My Proustian Madeleine of a cheeseburger hails from an era in which grills were modest backyard accessories and not the actual Lamborghinis one must contend with today.
I’m not here to shame anybody’s yard game, though. I just want to discuss cheeseburgers. This winter, I got to do just that, meeting up with fellow enthusiasts every couple of weeks to sample the goods at five New Canaan restaurants. Over burgers, fries, and the occasional onion ring, we formed opinions.
1. Best Burger If You Can Unhinge Your Jaw Like A Python: the Dry-Aged Burger at Elm
For $25, Elm serves a flawlessly executed tower of a cheeseburger. It’s perfectly appointed, served on a brioche bun with shredded iceberg lettuce, a juicy red slab of tomato, and a snappy, lightly brined pickle. Two Wagyu beef patties and two cheese slices give this burger an imposing verticality. While it may not be first date food, it’s perfect for friends you’re not trying to impress with your impeccable table manners.
The menu describes it as “double-double, animal style”, a nod to West Coast chain In-N-Out Burger’s most famous off-menu order. “Double Double” refers to two patties and two slices of cheese. “Animal Style” means they griddle the onions and cook the patty with mustard. Elm’s version is both more memorable and more (728% more, to be precise) expensive, but I think that might be the point. Plus, if you factor in a private flight to Los Angeles for the original because commercial air travel is nothing but slapfights and emotional support peacocks these days, $25 is a straight-up bargain.
The fries, on the night we visited, “need Viagra,” as one of our party politely observed, an issue 60 more seconds in the fryer would have corrected. As a longtime fan of Elm’s lobster roll, I know that Elm is capable of great things when it comes to french fries. But on this particular night, they weren’t quite there.
2. Best Burger if it Happens to be Wednesday: Burgers & Bordeaux at South End
Let’s call it the Shamrock Shake Theorem of Modern Food Marketing: if you want something to be coveted, make it fleeting. And if you’d like an excellent hamburger AND a glass of Bordeaux with which to wash it down for $25, go to South End on a Wednesday, and you’ll be in delicious luck. We couldn’t find the Burger & Bordeaux special printed on the menu, which gives it an even greater sense of insider mystery. Whisper the magic alliteration, and all your decisions will be made for you.
The Bordeaux comes out first, and to spare you my imposter syndrome when talking about Old World wines, I’ll say it was 1) structured! 2) tannic? and 3) red. A perfectly-proportioned, single-patty cheeseburger followed this. It’s served open face, on a griddle-toasted bun, topped with pickles and two slices of bacon with an artisanal legitimacy so intense, someone in Brooklyn is blushing right now. The fries were perfectly crispy and arrived in a twee, cast-iron dish. We all appreciated that mayonnaise was served as a fry dipping option, as the housemade ketchup was a beautifully made condiment, but somewhat startlingly Not Heinz. I applaud the house’s efforts in all things, especially when chef Nick Martschenko helms the house. But “tomato relish” might be a better thing to call it.
3. Best Burger Your Husband Will 100% Call a “Booger” When he Orders and You Will Laugh, Oh How You Will Laugh: La Americana Boorger at Chef Luis
129 Elm Street just feels like the right spot for Chef Luis, and despite that space’s various revamps, tenancies, and menus during my time in New Canaan, right now seems like Chef Luis’s Moment with a capital M at 129 Elm, with a stellar pan-American comfort menu to boot. It felt criminally incomplete to write a burger feature article without a visit to New Canaan’s prodigal son, so we trekked out during one bomb cyclone or another and were rewarded with another spectacular double-patty burger for $20.
I love the Chef Luis Boorger (the menu mandates that you say “burger” in a Spanish accent; who am I to disagree?) for its simplicity (blackened onions + pickles + bacon) and the excellence of the garlic parmesan fries. Chef Luis serves it “smashed”, which means the patty is squished onto the griddle with a flat, wide spatula to expose more surface area to extremely high heat, creating a chemical “Maillard Reaction” that breaks down the protein chain and creates a craggy, toasty, browned edge. Cover that edge in American Cheese, and this is a dinner burger that leaves you satisfied, if a bit repentant, and unable to consider looking at the dessert menu.
One perk I enjoy, when sitting at Chef Luis’s bar, is to pretend I’m still on the Gentleman’s train home from Grand Central and eavesdrop on New Canaan Dad conversations. After I stopped commuting into Manhattan for work, I missed my daily updates on youth lacrosse, Nantucket, and au pair drama. The Chef Luis bar is a delightful portal back.
4. Best Build-Your-Own Burger: The Gates Burger Bar
Sometimes, it’s nice to have it your way and not be at Burger King. Gates is our town’s best bet for choice, with a long topping list and, by my count, 289 possible permutations of their $16.95 burger to create. Some of these toppings are useful only for identifying sociopaths at your table (ahem, pesto mayo), but most are variations on a winning combination: burger + green thing + flavorful thing + cheese thing. The January night we visited, I was puzzled to find cherry tomatoes and chopped romaine on my burger, but I chalked it up to it being a weird Sunday in January and didn’t fault the kitchen. The burger itself did the job.
Gates also carries the Beyond Burger, a plant-based meat substitute advertised for a realistic meatishness recreated using pea protein, beet juice, and vegetable-based oils. One friend ordered it, and she felt more toppings would have been a welcome disguise for its beyond-ness. Plant-based menus are gaining fantastic traction, but for my money, the better vegan meal is the one not masquerading as beef.
The standout for our group was the Ram Burger: two smashed ¾ pound patties with American cheese and special sauce. “Special Sauce” is a key here: a bit mysterious, a bit of a challenge, and ultimately, just an exciting way to describe mayo, ketchup, and pickle relish.
5. Best Bar Burger, Maybe Ever: Double Double Cheeseburger at Uncorked
In college, we went out to bars with $10 in our pockets, enough for three $2 pounders of Old Milwaukee, a slice on the way home, and $3 for tips, the jukebox, or Golden Tee, depending on the mood. It stuns me that this is how I subsisted for entire years of my life, and also that you can’t get out of a bar for less than $100 nearly 25 years later. But Uncorked somehow recreates the conviviality of a college bar, in that everything is festive, nothing is too pretentious, and nobody here is going to make their 8 AM tomorrow.
The Uncorked menu may lack formality, but that’s not to say the food is unsophisticated. I have long loved their salads and hamachi nachos, but one of our group firmly swears by their burger after a night on the town spent drinking beers that probably cost more than $2. The burger is stellar, its bun a toasted dome covered in sesame seeds. It’s proportionally correct, neither too bready nor too heart-attacky, with the life-affirming surprise of zucchini pickles. The hand-cut fries came out precisely as they needed to: hot, salty, crispy, and while they were accompanied by housemade tomato ketchup, this time, at least, we were prepared for it. Ten-year-old me wouldn’t have understood housemade condiments, but I’m learning more. Every day.
Please note: two well-known New Canaan burger institutions were left out. Cherry Street East was closed both nights we tried to stop in for dinner. Press Burger is a great lunch spot, but without a liquor license and forgivingly low lighting, it’s hard to convince a group of adults to have dinner there.