One of the most memorable things you can eat at Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's South Coast Plaza isn't the foie gras or the steaks; it's the sliders. The bite-sized burgers boast a Kobe-style patty rich enough to match their glossy, butter-soaked buns, slathered in truffle mayo and blessed with house-made pickles, a condiment that almost justifies the $15 price for a glorified appetizer.
But if you expected the recently opened DG Burger to serve them, you'd be wrong. Set inside a stripped-down, wood-paneled vestibule that used to be one of its private dining rooms, the lower-cost adjunct to the restaurant plies a menu of burgers, fries and shakes—but those Kobe-style sliders remain safely stowed on the other side of the glass wall. At this restaurant within a restaurant, you fly economy class, and the burgers are the slider's country cousins, with Black Angus beef for patties and none of those wonderful pickles.
Don't get me wrong: The burgers are indeed "Damn Good" (that's what "DG" stands for). It's just that those sliders are Damn Better. Yet it's hard to discount the discount. At $7.95, a burger at DG is roughly half the price of the sliders. And it also must be said that no bread is better-suited to hug a patty than the semolina potato bun Charlie Palmer executive chef Amar Santana chooses to use here. When bitten, its thin veneer of a crust crackles with the integrity of a deep-fried soft-shell crab's carapace, leading to the cloud-like fluff of the dough beneath.
Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Burgers, $7.95. Beer and wine.
It's the first of at least three master strokes that makes the burger estimable and on equal footing with Marcus Samuelsson's at the underappreciated Marc Burger across the street. Another smart move: Santana substitutes shredded cabbage for lettuce and instructs his prep cooks to slice the red onions uniformly thin so they don't overpower everything else. These constants function as the steady foundation of the DG burger, which can vary from being as neat as a bologna sandwich one day to messy enough for three napkins the next. The variability seems to point to the juiciness of that day's tomato or how liberally they've smeared the house sauce. The meat, loosely packed, cooked to a pink center unless otherwise specified, is flawless, thick and just juicy enough.
Extra toppings, such as the fried egg, disappear into the burger, a waste of the surcharge they tack on. An optional aged cheddar slice melts to blanket the patty properly, but even this isn't necessary. The fries are a better investment—pinky-thick spears with a sturdy, slightly oily outer crust revealing a moist middle, the perfect ratio of crunch to softness that come in generous portions with a choice of dipping sauce. Take the bacon mayo over the roasted-garlic sour cream, which only fleetingly tastes of garlic—though it's nice how the frigid coolness quenches a batch when the fries are hot and fryer-fresh.
Hardly anyone orders the salads served in prepackaged containers, as they seem beside the point. Fewer people order the sausage sandwiches. Covered with sweet sautéed peppers turned practically to syrup, the sausage tastes too mild to register even a radar blip. Most customers already realize the calories are better saved for DG's thick-as-mud chocolate malts, a concoction poured into fast-food-style cups and sucked through a straw to make window-shopping Bloomie's overpriced couture more fun.
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SHOW ME HOW
DG pantomimes fast food in many ways. Everything you eat and drink at DG is ordered and paid for before you enter the premises in the Bloomingdale's hallway. You are given a numbered placard to put on the table you claim. A cashier sells bottles of beer, wine and soft drinks from huge picnic coolers. Since this person is deprived of tips and must deal with the unfiltered public, he or she can sometimes be a little testy. One day, my cashier was downright insolent. Noticing the lack of conjunctions on the menu between the words "Grilled Beef, Grilled Chicken, Grilled Marinated Vegetables" under the heading of "Citrus Grilled Skewers," I asked if the skewers featured different meats or were each separate kinds?
"No, it's one kind," she said. Misinterpreting her vague reply to mean that each skewer had all of the above, I asked for one. Only when she rolled her eyes and gritted her teeth to repeat her earlier statement did I finally get the message. What she really meant was that "It's one kind of meat per skewer, idiot, and I'm too good to be out here with the likes of you." The skewers—tender steak morsels, onions and bell peppers threaded through bamboo and brushed with a tangy, sticky glaze—weren't really worth her aggravation or the price.
Though his PR people won't admit it, DG Burger is Charlie Palmer's better-late-than-never reaction to the Great Recession. But if it seems like a cautious, toe-in-the-water experiment, it's with good reason. Among his peers who have gone the burger route, Hubert Keller can count his Burger Bar as a successful complement to his upscale Fleur De Lys in Las Vegas. But Keller's restaurants are separate entities. Palmer's DG Burger, on the other hand, is part of his flagship store at South Coast Plaza, using the same staff and competing for the same customers. Because Palmer is a smart man, he mitigates its cannibalizing potential by limiting its hours. DG is open only until 4 p.m., inconvenient for everyone except maybe those cashiers.
This review appeared in print as "Damned If You Do."