Hamburgers: Five Fifty-Five (Fine Dining Burgers)
For this month’s hamburger wrapup, Portland food bloggers tackled restaurants from the “Fine Dining” category of local eateries. It was a category I looked forward to with mixed expectations; while you can almost always count on having a burger that has been cooked with care at a “Fine Dining” restaurant, there is also the potential to have to endure a lot of “house-made tomato compote” and “Kobe beef sliders with tarragon aioli.”
[Here's an aside about THAT particular bit of nonsense. You know why Kobe beef is prized? It's not because of the way the cows are given beer to drink. It's certainly not because of the profound beefy flavors of Kobe. It's because of the way the fat is intricately marbled throughout the meat. Its value comes entirely from its texture, from the way it feels in your mouth. You know what happens when you smash that exquisitely marbled beef through a meat grinder, squash it into patties, and cook it medium-rare? You end up with a pile of under-flavored, offensive mush. It's a waste of Kobe beef, and the Japanese guy that spent months giving that cow massages and spoon-feeding it Cream of Mushroom soup would scream and commit seppuku if he saw what you were doing with it. The chef is shaking his head when you order it, though he is pleased to have charged you $26 for what essentially amounts to a cat-food-burger.]
At Five Fifty-Five, the signature hamburger is served only on the bar side of the restaurant. That can be a mixed blessing: while you can’t expressly make a reservation for a bar seat, you can ask to have your reservation noted that you would like to sit at the bar, and the staff will informally try and keep a seat open for you.
555 changes its burger selection every few months, and the one being served now is exceptional. $12.95 grinds you a beautiful hamburger (we’re guessing in the 10 ounce range), served on a brioche bun, with melted Gruyere, horseradish aioli, and what the menu describes as “melted” mushrooms.
The first thing you notice about the burger, is the thick slice of Gruyere that positively enrobes the burger in earthy deliciousness. The brioche bun is a very soft, buttery, braided roll, almost like a slightly more dense croissant. While delicious, the bottom half tends to fall under the weight and juiciness of the burger itself, after the first few bites. It all but disappears into a gratifying wash of butter flavor and hot, running beef blood. The top half stays strong, continuing to provide structure as you keep eating.
The hamburger itself is an excellent grind, with plenty of fat and strong, pleasantly husky beef flavors, and is cooked to the temperature you specify, if not, wonderfully, a little under. Great care was clearly taken not to overwork the beef while the patties were formed; there are still intact tendrils of the ground meat, providing great texture and chew, rather than the dusty little pucks you tend to see in inferior hamburgers. This is a simply-seasoned hamburger for people who care about hamburgers, prepared by a chef who likes their subject, showing fine attention to all aspects of preparation and cooking, instead of tossing “hamburgers” on their fine-dining menu because it’s hip, trendy, or because it is wildly profitable.
The only thing I was a little unclear on was the thinking behind the mushrooms, and had the menu not drawn attention to them by referring to them as “melted,” I wouldn’t have given them a second thought. They were sliced so thinly as to barely affect the flavor of the burger, and weren’t a huge contributor to the overall impact of the dish. That may have been the point: to shave slices of mushroom so thinly, that they “melt” in your mouth. It’s a nice idea, it just didn’t influence the overall flavor of the burger.
The burger is, in general, very lightly topped, allowing the beef flavor to shine through. Dressed with only a dab of horseradish aioli, I was offered a bit of ketchup on the side. I was happy to see that Five Fifty Five wasn’t taking itself too seriously about its hamburger, and arbitrarily forbidding ketchup (like those lunatics at Louis’ Lunch* in Connecticut). And, even though I am very solidly in the pro-ketchup camp when it comes to cheeseburgers, this burger just didn’t need it. I didn’t have the urge to change a thing about the way this burger tasted.
Having a burger at the bar at Five Fifty-Five is just so much fun. While the dining room is certainly more appropriate for spendy nights out or special occasions, the atmosphere on the bar side is much different. While service remains impeccable, attentive, but not overbearing, there is the slightest hint of a more easy going approach. The bartender, when she finishes pouring you a perfect martini, will take your order with a smile, making conversation, and generally paying the perfect amount of attention to you. Sure, you may have to listen to some wang loudly describe his idea of a perfectly “chewy” Malbec to the patiently waiting staff, but on the whole, the view from the bar is good, offering a great vantage point for people-watching, with just the right amount of easygoing friendliness with the staff. For nearly the same amount of money that you would spend on an abysmal tray of fettuccine Alfredo in some neglected Old Port restaurant, you can dine at the bar at 555, have a few courses, or a burger, be treated very well, and leave sated and sleepy, full of great food.
*As regular readers know, I have a longstanding feud, that exists strictly in my own mind, with “Louis’ Lunch,” self-proclaimed “Inventor of the Cheeseburger” in New Haven, CT, who finds their burgers so precious that they forbid people even from bringing their own ketchup into the restaurant to put on their hamburgers. While this fact is wildly outside of the scope of discussion here at From Away, I have a compulsive need to reference it at every opportunity. Thank you for your patience.