Dueling Dishes: Posh Mini Kobe Burgers

Seems like just about everyone is turning out mini burgers these days. But what are we to do when we crave something fancier than Jack In The Box? Head to South Coast Plaza, that's what, where there are two different versions--kobe sliders with truffle aioli, no less--just a few minutes apart from each other.

First up: Marcus Samuelsson's offering, the Mini "Kobe" Burger, at the Signature Kitchen at Macy's Home Store. It takes a while to arrive--at least ten minutes, despite there being very few other customers to serve. But at least it's fresh... and it's worth it. I shouldn't really judge it on its accompaniments, but I can't help but be swayed, they're so good. In the platter, next to the burger, is a mound of hot, hot fries with garlic, salt, pepper and parsley, plus little plastic pots of zingy 'slaw, pickled cucumber and ketchup that has a palpable kick to it, courtesy of horseradish.

But what about the burger itself? Sitting on a buttered bun, it's tender, slightly pink in the middle, and topped with a glob of rich, truffle-infused aioli and chopped chives. A thick slice of tomato and a cute lettuce leaf add to the visual appeal.

So far, so good.

But then I try the sliders at Charlie Palmer and I'm thrown. This trio (Kobe Beef Sliders with Truffle Mayo and Pickled Cucumbers) is found on the Small Plates menu, available in the bar from 4:00pm daily. I'm expecting the place to be empty but it's almost full, with a lively, laid-back crowd who've clearly knocked off work early (very early) and are happily sipping happy-hour cocktails. This time, I can't help be influenced by the ambience, which is much more inviting than the Signature Kitchen's ghost-town-meets-
upmarket-food-court feel.

As for the burgers... They also take ten minutes to arrive. They look pretty, sitting in a line on a lovely white plate and skewered with a twisted tie. Aside from the truffle aioli that glues them to the bottom of the bun, there's no sauce with them. Indeed, there's not a drop of mustard or ketchup in sight, or offered to me (maybe it would detract from the upscale nature of the setting? My view is: these may be posh burgers, but they're still burgers). Again, a slice of tomato and a leaf of lettuce add color, even if they latter isn't as lovingly selected as with Samuelsson's burger.

Nonetheless, I'm leaning towards these ones: they're juicy, they're tender (despite being cooked more thoroughly than Samuelsson's). There's even a desirable amount of grease and salt, for a truly authentic touch. The buns are also superior, sprinkled with sesame seeds. And they're a real mouthful, standing several inches high.

The patty itself, as with Samuelsson's burger, is made from American "Kobe-style" beef (kudos to Samuelsson for using the inverted commas to make it clear it's not the real deal).

But then the check arrives. These babies don't come cheap: they're $10. That's not bad, given the quality, but add in a drink--even a nonalcoholic one--and you're up to $15. Plus tip. The Samuelsson burger is a paltry $6.95 by comparison, and while that only includes one burger, you also get a pile of fries, and the drinks are cheaper.

So who wins? That's a tough one. The burgers themselves are both very good, and hard to choose between. If you want value for money and a casual bite, I'd say Samuelsson. If you want something sexy to go with your martini, Charlie Palmer.


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