The slick graphics. The contemporary feel. The hand-dipped milkshakes. And the burgers.
The celebrity chef-driven burger joint has arrived in the bay area.
Bobby Flay is growing an empire of burger palaces through the northeast. Emeril has a place in Pennsylvania. Rachael Ray throws an annual burger bash in South Beach where celebrity chefs compete to see who has the best burger, with partygoers paying $200 to taste and vote. And at least four contestants from incarnations of Top Chef are making burgers around the country, with varying degrees of panache.
If Chris Ponte of Cafe Ponte isn't a celebrity chef, he is inarguably among Tampa Bay's most celebrated chefs, and he's the brains behind the new Burger 21, a new boutique burger place in Westchase. He envisions a string of Burger 21s in Florida, maybe even across the country.
Ponte spares us the theatrics of "Kobe" ground beef and foie gras, ingredients that are largely useful to burgers only in their ability to drive up the price to levels that get headlines. Instead he has created a menu of burgers — 21 of them, as the name implies — that are thoughtfully put together in such a way that they are either very simple, or have a number of elements that make sense together and each plays an important role in the final product.
Take the most complicated burger on the menu. The Tex-Mex Haystack ($7.50) has seven toppings: lettuce, tomato, applewood-smoked bacon, smoked cheddar cheese, guacamole, crispy onion strings and chipotle-jalapeno sauce. None of them get lost, nor do they cover up the taste of the 6-ounce patty.
The Steak Frites ($6.75) is another smart interpretation on a bun. The burger serves as the steak, with red onion jam and garlic butter acting as a sauce for it and the small stack of fries on the burger. The jam is sweet, the butter luscious and herby. And the brioche bun isn't just the vessel to keep your fingers clean. It brings an added level of sweetness and richness.
A word about the beef. The menu lists it as 100 percent USDA choice, and that it is never frozen. Ponte says it is a proprietary blend prepared for the restaurant. When we ordered, we weren't asked how we wanted the meat cooked. The burgers came out with a crispy sear, mostly cooked through but with a reddish-pink line through the middle. I'd call it medium-well. I prefer medium rare, and I was with someone who usually demands well done. But both of us were satisfied by the default finish. It was juicy, and the texture was still true, both impressive feats. (Requests for specific doneness are honored.)
We tried options from each of the main categories: seafood (Po' Boy Shrimp, $7.50), chicken (Parmesan, $6.50), veggie (Greek, $5.95) and turkey (BLT, $5.95). The highlights among them were the chicken patty, which is a patty ground coarsely, so much so that there are large chunks of breast meat in the patty; and the turkey, which was well-seasoned and juicy, a pretty good trick when it comes to turkey burgers.
Thin-cut fries were crisp and fine if not memorable, and there are the increasingly ubiquitous sweet potato fries. Everyone has them all of a sudden, but at Burger 21, they have condiments for them. Ponte developed a number of specialty sauces for the fries, including an apple cider and a toasted marshmallow designed for the sweet potato fries. Neither is too sweet. It was just nice to see someone finally acknowledge that a different potato should get a different sauce.
There is a limited selection of beer and wine ($2.75-$4.95), but if dinner is burger and fries, an appropriate beverage is a shake ($3.25-$4.25). We tried more than we should have, and as a result can effectively endorse the Chocolate Malted Whopper and the Chocolate Peanut Butter. Both packed a wallop of the title ingredients. The Ybor City Double Espresso was a little subtle. Maybe it needed another shot.
Ponte's Clearwater restaurant Cafe Ponte has been recognized as among the best in the area for years. He has been working on this concept — and one for fast-casual Italian called Peel, with the company behind Melting Pot restaurants — with an eye toward expanding. So if Westchase isn't close enough to you, just wait. A more convenient location may be moving in anytime.
Jim Webster can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.