Before the great burger war of 2009 heated up, celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and Daniel Boulud were strutting their stuff with ground beef on a bun. (Superstar New York chef Boulud's: ground sirloin stuffed with short ribs and braised in red wine, then stuffed with foie gras and truffles, with slices of tomato confit and frisee lettuce. Only $41.) So it should come as no surprise that many of Tampa Bay's top restaurants have decided to get in the game. I sampled a big handful and here are the results. Laura Reiley, Times food critic
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse
4322 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa (813) 874-9463
Burger history: Fleming's Prime Burger, introduced alongside the chain's "5 for 6 until 7" promotion, with five appetizers, wines and cocktails for $6 until 7 p.m. In addition to the prime burger, there's a sliced filet mignon burger, a jumbo lump crab cake burger, an ahi tuna burger and a portobello mushroom burger.
Price: $12, or $6 until 7 p.m.
Worth it? Absolutely.
What it looks/tastes like: It's a big, juicy thing with sharp cheddar and brown-sugar glazed bacon on a soft challah bun, very hard to eat without knife and fork. Before it arrives, you get a basket of addictive housemade chips and bread and butter, then the burger comes with a small wedge salad with a delicious, spicy chipotle remoulade sauce that goes equally well on salad or burger. The 8 ounces of prime burger meat itself was very rich, with good, meaty flavor, seasoned simply with salt and pepper and seared on a flattop before going in the broiler.
2223 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa (813) 830-9433
Burger history: Offered only at lunch, the signature cheeseburger has been on the menu since Capital Grille opened in 2005.
Price: $16, a big splurge at lunch.
Worth it? Only for high rollers.
What it looks/tastes like: Served with Havarti cheese, Boston lettuce, pickles, tomatoes and Vidalia onion rounds, it's a big, hearty burger with a lot going on. They recommend the black pepper and chive aioli (yup, it's good) as a condiment. The burger comes with a choice of chips, coleslaw or fries, these last the best, tossed with shredded Grana Padano cheese and white truffle oil. The burger's brioche roll is slightly sweet and pillowy, and the beef itself has a slightly oniony/smoky bacon flavor.
5062 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg (and other locations) (727) 521-3434
Burger history: The "American Style" Kobe Beef Burger was added to the menu earlier this year as part of a move toward more "hand-held" menu options.
Worth it? Yes, and it's big enough to share.
What it looks/tastes like: It comes with delicious dark russet chips, the hamburger meat discernibly wood-grilled and nestled on a soft brioche bun. What distinguishes this burger is the flavorful, intensely rich wagyu beef and Bonefish's "special sauce," a tangy mayo-ish concoction on the bottom bun. The accompanying lettuce and tomatoes were fresh and very flavorful (how often are burger tomatoes flavorless?), and the onion rounds had snap.
2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa (813) 258-2233
Burger history: Bern's doesn't offer a burger, but its little sister added spicy lamb sausage sliders to the menu about a year ago. They come two to a plate.
Worth it? This is a very petite serving, but the flavors are so glorious I still think it's worth it.
What it looks/tastes like: The buns are classic pate a choux dough (like a cream puff, only savory, topped with parsley and Parmesan), the meat inside 100 percent lamb sausage made in-house of Ellensburg Ranch lamb from Washington. The sausage is flavored gently with smoked paprika, and the patties are accessorized with a sprinkling of goat cheese, a pickled pepper relish and candied tomatoes. The best part may be the ramekin of harissa ketchup, which chef Chad Johnson flavors subtly with chilies, coriander, cumin and caraway.
205 WestShore Plaza Drive, Tampa (813) 849-7256
Burger history: The Palm has always had a burger on the lunch menu, but last month it launched three new premium burgers.
Price: $12 and $14.
Worth it? The 837 Club burger is the best, but $14 seems a little steep.
What it looks/tastes like: Twelve ounces of prime beef go on all three burgers, as do the sesame seed brioche bun and romaine, beefsteak tomato and rounds of red onion. The Second Avenue burger features Danish blue and smoked bacon, the Bozzi burger has smoked Gouda, fried onions and barbecue sauce. The best one, the 837 Club, packs on prosciutto, roasted red peppers, fontina, fresh basil and a little slather of pesto aioli. A very sophisticated burger, with a lovely marriage of flavors.