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At Burger 21, Chef Chris Ponte seeks to reinvent the hamburger

Chris Ponte chuckles at the irony of a classically trained chef obsessing over burgers.

Peddling hamburgers was not on his mind when he studied at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. And they are an afterthought at his highly regarded Clearwater fine dining restaurant, Cafe Ponte.

Still, he spent a year developing the menu of burgers, fries and shakes for Burger 21, the latest venture by Front Burner Brands, the company behind the Melting Pot and Grillsmith chains.

The first of what the company hopes will be hundreds of Burger 21s across the country opened in November at 9664 W Linebaugh Ave. in the Westchase area of Tampa. It falls into the category of what restaurant types call fast-casual — order at the counter, get a number, have a seat and your food is brought to you. It's a simple concept, but put a chef to work on it and things get complicated.

Ponte pulled up a chair at the restaurant recently to deconstruct the menu.

What's in a name?

Burger 21 sounds cool, but it meant Ponte had to come up with 21 different kinds of burgers (i.e. beef, chicken, turkey, tuna). "Everybody was telling us, 'You can't do it, it's too many burgers,' " Ponte said. But he said it's actually easier than the seemingly stripped down menu of Five Guys, which emphasizes endless combinations of toppings "They can potentially have a thousand different burgers," he said. "I was just happy we didn't call it Burger 51."

What's the big deal?

There's a lot to think about: the cut of beef, the type of grind, the percentage of fat, the price (more important than ever these days). So Ponte tried more than 100 different kinds of beef patties till he couldn't eat another one. He settled on ground chuck from Michigan with enough fat to be juicy and flavorful but not so much to sog the bun. Preformed patties were too dense, so each patty is hand-formed (except for the veggie). And they could be sold profitably for $5.50 to $9.50 (a double burger). "People just can't spend $12 on a burger," Ponte said, at least not very often.

Some nice buns

Ponte knew he wanted a brioche bun because of its complex flavor of sweet, savory and salty. He wanted a local purveyor but settled on a Chicago bakery because it had the shiny surface he was looking for. He wound up reducing the size of the patty from 7 ounces to 6.5 because "you needed the right bun-to-meat ratio."

Topping them off

Some toppings were obvious — cheese, mushrooms, bacon — but a couple reflect Ponte's chefiness. The Steak Frites includes red onion jam, french fries and garlic butter, and the Tex-Mex Haystack hits a lot of flavor notes with applewood-smoked bacon, smoked cheddar cheese, guacamole, crispy onion strings and chipotle-jalapeno sauce.

Sometimes frozen is better

Ponte spent hours with a temperature probe testing how long it takes for french fries to cool. And because consistency is key, he rejected fresh potatoes in favor of a frozen version by LambWeston. And he developed six sauces for dipping, including a toasted marshmallow concoction for the sweet potato shoestrings.

More than a shake

Lots of different ice creams were tested, including some made locally, but he settled on Blue Bell out of Texas because it had the right fat content. And he developed a line of freezes that include ice; they're not as thick but they also have fewer calories. "I remember getting milkshakes with my dad, and those are memories I'll have forever," Ponte said. The restaurant includes an old-fashioned soda fountain, like the ones back home in Massachusetts. He likes it when he sees similar memories being made at Burger 21.

Burger 21

The restaurant is in The Avenue at Westchase, 9664 W Linebaugh Ave., Tampa. Call (813) 475-5921 or see

At Burger 21, Chef Chris Ponte seeks to reinvent the hamburger 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 1:28pm]
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