Burger Meisters

We always run into trouble at Paris Vendome.

We're not sure why, really. It's a classy place, and people often use the word "class" when describing the Burning Question crew. Of course, they attach the word "low" to it, but still.

Last time we visited the West Village bistro, a Frenchman chided us for drinking in the wrong order. Naturally, we challenged him. (Our words, borrowed from Groundskeeper Willie: "Show us how it's done, surrender monkey.") Thus we spent the remainder of the evening sipping colorful, fruity, emasculating liqueurs. On our most recent visit, a friend of one Burning Question crew member, who we will call Mary even though her real name is Diana, foolishly kept her tab open at the bar while she hobnobbed with guests seated at a distant table.

People of weak moral constitution would have taken advantage. We merely added a few drinks to her bill.

Oh, and a hamburger. An $18 hamburger.

Ever since New York chef Daniel Boulud began kneading foie gras, truffles and wine-braised beef into short-order patties, high-end hamburgers have become the rage. Our server at Paris Vendome reports strong demand for their version, containing generous portions of prime beef and foie gras. Pappas Pizza in Addison grinds up dry-aged prime beef. At Who's Who in Highland Park Village, Kobe beef burgers account for more than half of all sales. Nana serves Kobe burgers as part of its bar menu--just guess how we learned that--and executive sous chef Jason Hice says, beaming, that "everybody says it's the best burger they've ever tasted."

For customers, upscale ground beef apparently fills the void left by the demise of Asian fusion and other recent culinary trends. Yes, thanks to the influx of expensive burgers, Dallas residents are now able to define themselves not only by their cars, area codes and vodka brands, but also by the price they pay for burgers.

"It's a hamburger," says Rudy Rodriguez, manager at Who's Who in Highland Park Village, "but it's also a status thing."

Yet this week's Burning Question addresses something more fundamental than status. In a world of designer water, and microbrewed beer, even the most common items have upscale versions. That's why "skilled garment workers" working for Ralph Lauren sew labels of different colors on shirts, coats and whatnot. Some people simply prefer to pay more for an item than others, and a wise business person accommodates them. An old man we met in Missouri sold watermelons along a county highway, dividing his produce into three piles--one cheap, one moderately priced and one expensive. When one stack ran low, he moved some over from another pile. When given the option, visitors from the suburbs of St. Louis shelled out substantially more than local rubes for the same watermelon.

"You have to think about your market," Hice says. "This is Dallas. You add the word Kobe and people think, 'Wow, the cows from Japan.' But it's also a great burger."

Yes, but are upscale burgers worthwhile?

Well, we truly enjoyed the $18 burger at Paris Vendome, particularly when it ended up on Mary's bill. If we ask our editor for that kind of cash, little beads of sweat pop up on his forehead, his left eye begins to twitch involuntarily and he starts shouting things like "money doesn't grow on trees."

Jim White, host of the KRLD Restaurant Show and critic for EatsandDrinks.com also speaks highly of their product. "It is delightful, with the foie gras mixed with the meat," he says, "as long as it's not ordered more done than medium rare." He praised Nana's efforts, as well, but was unimpressed with the $10 Kobe burger at Who's Who--"great for the Highland Park family set with the Land Rover running in the parking lot." The Burning Question crew was split, with a few wildly positive reviews, a few who shrugged and quite a few too hung over to really comprehend our mission for the day.

In other words, we're not really sure.

As a people, we're conditioned to think of hamburgers as an "everyman" meal, equally accessible to teen-agers and scions. Through war and peace, boom and bust, nouvelle cuisine, California cuisine, Oprah Winfrey and fat police (consider the odds that "fat" and Oprah would appear in the same sentence), the hamburger stood unscathed. The humble burger is an American culinary icon, although it began as a lowly favorite of Mongol warriors. (Lacking either Cuisinarts or extension cords, they often softened raw hunks of meat under their saddles while cutting bloody swaths across the steppe. Think about that the next time someone suggests lunch at Mongolian Grill). It gained popularity at summertime fairs, hit the mainstream in greasy diners and achieved dominance through slick chain restaurants. Most of us, however, stick to the basic 99-cent slab, not necessarily as a value purchase, but because a burnt ball of ground beef is part of our national psyche.

Or, as White points out, "Burgers are best when basic and simple."


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