Piano Piano

piano
Location
: 88 Harbord Street, Toronto
Websitehttp://www.pianopianotherestaurant.com/

At the end of 2015, Chef Victor Barry shut down Splendido, a fine-dining destination that served meticulously-prepared multi-course meals. It was frequently named one of the best restaurants in the city, if not the entire country.

Early this year, Barry renovated the space and relaunched as Piano Piano, focusing on much more casual fare like pizza, pasta, and yes — a cheeseburger.  How could you not be excited by the idea of a hamburger prepared by one of the best chefs in the city?  How??

Well, I was excited.

And then the burger came and I got even more excited, because it looked perfect.  It’s pretty simple: two patties, two slices of cheese, lettuce, pickle, Dijonaisse.  But look at it though.  Those glistening patties, just the right size for the bun; the melty cheese; the dark, mahogany-brown crust from the griddle…  it’s what cheeseburger dreams are made of.

Or at least, it looked that way.

My struggle to cut the burger in half made it distressingly clear that something was amiss.  A good burger should be yielding and tender; cutting it should be like putting a hot knife through butter.  This was more like trying to saw into a particularly tough steak.

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This burger was so bad I almost can’t even believe it.  Like, how can a chef who is presumably as talented as Barry put out anything so horrible, let alone something as simple as a hamburger?  I can’t wrap my mind around it.

I will say that everything but the patty itself was pretty good — the gooey American cheese, the classic condiments, the fresh bun with just the right amount of sweetness and heft — it was all basically right where it should be.

The patty, on the other hand, was misguided on every level.  More pulverized than ground, it was tightly packed, tough, and horrible.  It also had an off-putting sausage-like consistency, possibly from having salt mixed in with the beef.  Between the unforgiving density of the beef and the oddly rubbery texture, it just didn’t want to get chewed.  It was kind of like eating hamburger-flavoured gum.

The taste wasn’t much better.  It was overwhelmingly peppery, which turns out to be a good thing, because this is beef that needs to be disguised with whatever you can throw at it.  It had a gamy, leftover meat flavour that was seemingly trying to compete with the texture to see which could be more awful.

Horrifying texture versus appalling flavour: whoever wins, we lose.

Oh, and did I mention that it costs twenty-two bucks?  Because it costs twenty-two bucks.  So not only is it gross, it’s probably one of the more expensive burgers in the city.  It’s easily — hands down — the worst hamburger that I’ve ever had from a high-end place like this.

Actually, it’s one of the worst burgers I’ve had in quite a while.

I think this might be the point in the review where you assume that I’m being way too picky.  It looks pretty good, you’re thinking.  How could it be that bad?

Okay.  Try it then.  I dare you.

As for the fries, they were the polar opposite of the hamburger.  They were amazing.  Though they’re a bit more thickly cut than I generally prefer, they were the perfect combination of crispy exterior and creamy interior.  Eating them with the hamburger is kind of like alternating between smelling a sweet, delicately fragrant flower with someone farting directly into your face.

1 out of 4

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The Good Fork

fork
Location
: 2432 Bloor Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://goodfork.ca/

You know what makes me sad? Burgers that should be great that are merely okay. That makes me sad. Unnecessary mediocrity. That makes me sad. The Good Fork makes me sad.

Not that they even serve a bad burger. It’s actually pretty decent. But it could have been so good without even changing that much.

I opted for the Plain burger, which the menu describes as coming with remoulade and “fixins” (which, in this case, are lettuce, tomato, pickles, and red onion).

The burger tastes really good.  The quality of the beef is obviously quite high, with an outstanding beefy flavour that’s pretty much irresistible.  The tangy remoulade adds some zip without overwhelming the taste of the beef, and is actually a pretty great condiment for the burger.

So — great burger, right?  Right…?

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It would have been great.  But it was dry.  Crazy dry, with a tough, dense texture that’s the result of the patty having been ground too finely and packed too tightly.  Cooked all the way to well done and beyond, the burger never had a chance.  It was always going to be dry, and it was always going to be tough.

I feel like I make this complaint with an alarming frequency, and I really don’t know why.  This is burger-making 101.  A good burger needs a course grind, and it needs to be loosely packed.  As you cram the strands of ground beef closer and closer together, the burger becomes more and more dense, and therefore more and more tough.  And if it’s finely ground on top of that?  Then those strands are really going to become good friends, resulting in a tightly packed slab of beef that feels like it’s trying to become a steak again.  Cook that to well done and it’s all over but the crying.  You’re getting a tough, dry patty, guaranteed.

Of course, that’s not to mention the use of overly lean beef, another culprit in drying out so many of Toronto’s burgers — though here, the menu states that they’re using a blend of brisket and chuck, which should result in a pretty decent lean-to-fat ratio.  But with that particular patty cooked to the edge of well done, I suspect that no amount of fat could have saved it.

It’s served on a pretzel bun, which I normally find too dense and bready for a hamburger, though in this case that was the least of this burger’s concerns.

The shoestring fries were quite good, at least.  So there’s that.

2.5 out of 4

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Ground Burger Bar

ground
Location
: 352 Doug Duncan Drive, #2, Newmarket
Websitehttp://www.groundburgerbar.ca/

I’m not gonna lie: I needed this.  I haven’t had a burger that I’ve wholeheartedly liked since April, and I haven’t had one that I thought was better than average since December of last year.  Suffice it to say, I was more than due for a really good hamburger.

Enter Ground Burger Bar, a brand new burger joint up in Newmarket that seems to be an instant hit; we came on a Friday night and the place was packed, with a wait upwards of forty minutes (reservations are advised).

The menu has the usual assortment of topping and meat choices, featuring burgers with names like “The Crazy Korean” and “The Dirty Bird’ger.”  I went with the Ground Signature, a beef burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles.

It’s a damn good burger.  It’s grilled, with a nice bit of char from the grill and a lightly smoky flavour that doesn’t overwhelm.  Most importantly, the quality of the beef is obviously above average, with a nice beefy flavour that comes through loud and clear.

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Loosely packed with a nice course grind, the medium patty was a bit on the dry side, but was otherwise pretty much exactly where it needed to be from a texture standpoint.

The brioche bun (you also have the choice of pretzel, multi-grain, or gluten-free) is slightly too dense, but otherwise suits the burger quite well.

I ordered some mayo on the side, and even that was above average — I’m not sure if they make it there, but certainly, it is a step above the usual Hellmann’s.

The fries, too, were pretty great.  They’re liberally tossed with rosemary, so if you don’t like that herb you might find its presence here a little bit overwhelming, but personally I found it quite tasty.  The fries otherwise had that crispy/creamy combo you’re looking for down pat.

3.5 out of 4

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Smash Kitchen and Bar

smash
Location
: 4261 Highway 7, Unionville
Websitehttp://www.smashkitchen.com/

The problem with the abundant, booming popularity of hamburgers in this city is that for most restaurants, having a burger on the menu is more of an obligation than an option.  Unless a restaurant is dedicated to a very specific type of cuisine, there’s gonna be a hamburger on the menu.

Remember that scene in Chef where Dustin Hoffman crushes Jon Favreau’s dreams of cooking a personal menu, telling him that he’ll continue to cook what he’s become famous for, and he’ll like it?

I imagine that some variation on that scene plays out every time a chef in a restaurant like Smash Kitchen and Bar decides he has no interest in making a hamburger.

Oh, you don’t want to serve a burger?  Do you still want to be employed tomorrow?

This is all a fairly roundabout way of saying that the burger at Smash feels perfunctory. It feels joyless. It’s not bad; it’s alright.  But it’s clearly made by someone who doesn’t quite understand what makes a good hamburger so special.  By someone who doesn’t really care.

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I ordered the Smash Burger, which is described as being topped with “Cheddar cheese, onion rings, Smash sauce.”

I normally like to mention whether a burger has been griddled or grilled, but honestly, the burger was so middle-of-the-road that  I don’t remember.  Nothing about this hamburger is particularly memorable, other than its in-your-face mediocrity.

It wasn’t horrible, but the patty is vaguely meatloafy and oddly sweet, with a middling, barely-there beefy flavour and a slightly mealy texture.

The condiments were fine and the bun was fine.  The whole thing was fine. It’s certainly not great, but it tastes okay and it basically gets the job done.

It’s clear that the kitchen at this restaurant can put out food that’s better than okay, because the fries were quite good, as were the appetizer and dessert that I tried.  But it’s also clear that they serve a burger not because they want to, but because they have to.

Basically: it’s obligatory.  And it tastes obligatory.

2 out of 4

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The Daughter

farmers
Location
: 1588 Dupont Street, Toronto
Websitehttp://farmhousehospitality.tumblr.com/

I’ve been hearing good things about the burger at the Farmhouse Tavern.  This is not a review of the Farmhouse Tavern.  I was in the area, and it was lunch, and the Farmhouse Tavern was closed.  Solution: The Daughter, a spinoff restaurant, which is open for lunch, and which also serves a burger.

That burger?  The Franklin Burger, per the menu: “Farmhouse  beef / bun / sauce w/ cheese / lettuce / tomato / onions.”

It’s pretty good.  The sizable patty (probably about six ounces) has a nice crispy crust from the grill, though it is leaning a bit towards over-charred.

It’s also too tightly packed; though the medium rare-ish middle of the burger (it’s somewhere between medium and medium rare) is nice and tender, the more well done edges suffer from over-density, and are a bit too tough.

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Still, it’s a fairly juicy burger, which helps make up for some of its deficiencies.  The mild (but nice) beefy flavour is also a firm plus in this burger’s favour.

I wasn’t too crazy about the cheese, however.  The menu doesn’t specify the type of cheese, which turned out to be goat’s cheese.  It’s an unusual choice for a hamburger, and eating it here, it’s pretty clear why.  The strongly salty, sour flavour is way too assertive in this context, completely overwhelming the flavour of the beef.  It’s not bad, but the balance of flavours is off.

The sauce is a tangy, Mac sauce-esque concoction, though again, the flavour here is pretty much all goat’s cheese, all the time.  

The other toppings were fine, and the soft, fluffy sesame seed bun was above average.

As for the fries, they were really crispy and creamy and tasty; complimented with the curry-tinged ketchup, they were pretty stellar.

3 out of 4

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Richmond Station

richmond
Location
: 1 Richmond Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://richmondstation.ca/

People have been raving about the burger at Richmond Station since it opened a couple of years ago.  So of course, the place has been on my list for quite a while (and this is a literal list, FYI – I have a Google map that I keep updated with about a hundred burgers I need to check out.  I’ll empty out that map one day.  One day).

The chef here, Carl Heinrich, previously worked at Marben, and set out on his own after winning Top Chef Canada.  The Marben connection is super obvious when you taste the burger; it is very, very similar.

In fact, you could probably just read my Marben review and get a pretty good idea of what I thought about this one, but they are different enough that I guess I should write a few words.

The Stn. Burger, as per the menu: “lettuce, beet chutney, aged cheddar, milk bun.”

The biggest connection between the two restaurants is unmentioned on the menu.  Like the burger at Marben, the one here is stuffed with braised short ribs.

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They’re also both about the same size, and though they appear small, they’re substantial.  There’s very little risk that you’ll walk away hungry.

Fortunately, though the short ribs at Marben were a bit overpowering, they seem to have a more subtle flavour here.  I compared the burger there to an upscale sloppy joe, and that’s less of an issue here.  It tastes more like a traditional hamburger.

The ground beef at Marben was also a little bit too lean, resulting in a slightly dry burger. Again, that’s less of an issue here.  The burger is quite juicy.

What is an issue, however?  The beef (which has a mild but satisfying beefy flavour) is way too densely packed, and has an oddly chewy, rubbery texture that’s closer to sausage than to hamburger.

There’s a video online of Heinrich making the burger, and you can see him squeezing the hell out of the patty with some kind of industrial squeezing machine.  I guess that’s necessary to keep the short ribs from bursting out during the cooking process, but it definitely doesn’t do the burger’s texture any favours.

As for the sausage-like texture, I’m not sure; it’s possible that they’re making and salting the patties well in advance, with the salt affecting the beef from the outside, and the short ribs affecting it from the inside.

Still, despite the textural weirdness, it’s definitely tasty, and it’s definitely satisfying.  The melted cheddar isn’t too overpowering, and the beet chutney and pickled onions add some zing while still allowing the beef to be the star of the show.  The toasted bun is nice and fresh, and holds up nicely to the messy burger.

The patty is grilled, apparently, though I couldn’t see or taste any evidence of that on the patty.  If I hadn’t watched the aforementioned video, I honestly wouldn’t have known how they cooked it.

As for the fries, they were amazing.  Perfectly cooked and tinged with rosemary, they were delicious on their own but even better with the horseradish-infused dipping sauce.  Seriously, seriously good.

3 out of 4

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O&B Canteen

canteen
Location
330 King Street West, Toronto
Websitehttp://oliverbonacini.com/Canteen.aspx

I’m at the Lightbox to watch movies semi-regularly, so I’m actually kind of surprised it took me this long to check the Canteen out.  I used to enjoy getting pastries from here when I was on my way to a movie, but a couple of TIFFs ago I got a croissant that totally put me off the place.  It looked like a croissant but tasted like Wonder Bread.  It was shockingly bad.

The O&B Canteen has an all-over-the-place menu that ranges from jerk chicken and prawn curry to pulled pork and pizza.  And of course, a burger.  It’s a mish-mash of dishes that might lead you to believe that the restaurant is a Jack of all trades, master of none, and… well, you’d be correct (at least if the burger is anything to go by).

The Canteen Burger comes topped with “bacon, aged cheddar, pickled jalapeño, herb mayo, hot house tomato,” and also includes a side order of fries.

It’s fine, I guess.  The well done patty generally has a decent texture, though it’s dryer than I’d like.  The taste is a bit more questionable.  The beef is pretty tasteless, and has a vague gamy flavour that was kind of unpleasant.  However, this is less of an issue than you’d think; it’s nearly impossible to taste the beef with all the stuff they’ve got piled on top of it.

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The toppings are pretty tasty, at least, which is good because that’s where about 95 percent of this burger’s flavour comes from.  Though the cheddar was almost completely unmelted, it tasted good. The sharp cheese and creamy mayo contrasted nicely with the vinegary bite of the abundant pickled jalapeños, and though the tomatoes kind of got lost in the mix, it was overall a pretty good combo.  It doesn’t quite make you forget how mediocre the burger itself is, but it helps.

The bun was amazing.  Super fresh, with a very delicately crackly exterior and a fluffy interior that still had enough substance to hold up to the many toppings, it was pretty close to bun perfection (I guess I should give their pastries another chance).

The fries were also above average, and came with a delicious curry-tinged ketchup for dipping.  So basically, everything was actually pretty good — except for the burger patty itself.  Which is kind of an important element in a hamburger.  You know, just a little bit.

Since I mentioned prices in my last review, it’s only fair for me to point out that for 17 bucks for the burger and fries, it’s a bit expensive.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the burger was great.  The burger was not great.

2.5 out of 4

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