A friend of mine recently asked if I remembered when McDonald's hamburgers "used to be good."
Sure, I'm old enough to remember when McDonald's burgers were cheap. But good? My memory's not that sharp, I guess. And, anyway, I'm one of those people who grew up thinking a burger was just a burger. Yes, I knew the difference between a thin Steak 'n Shake burger and the fat, undercooked pucks that my old man threw on the grill. But it never would have occurred to anyone in my family to order a hamburger in a sit-down restaurant. Ditto spaghetti, grilled-cheese sandwiches and meatloaf. These my parents categorized as "food you can make at home."
The evolution of the so-called gourmet burger has turned the "food you can make at home" concept upside down. All the same, when I recently ordered the $9 Classic burger at the new Plaza location of Blanc Burgers + Bottles, I never stopped thinking that, for the same money, I could have made several less upscale burgers at home
Then again, once you've tasted one of Blanc's light, flaky brioche buns, it's almost unbearable to contemplate a cheap, tasteless supermarket bun. And though I can grill a halfway decent hamburger, nothing I make at home fits the description of Blanc's Classic: "premium vintage natural beef ... topped with aged white Cheddar, butter lettuce, house-made pickles, tomato and made-from-scratch ketchup."
That's the brilliant idea advanced by the owners of the two Blanc Burgers + Bottles restaurants: Anyone can make a third-rate burger, but if you want something extravagant, you have to go out for it. It's the difference between a community-theater show and a Broadway production (or even a touring production); the former is perfectly fine, but sometimes you're willing to pay a lot for all the bells and whistles. At least, I am.
I was a fan of the original Westport location of Blanc and was hoping its success might lead to a revival of that neighborhood's once-potent presence as a dining destination. But when the opportunity arrived to move that little restaurant to a larger space on the Country Club Plaza (which has never lost its cachet as a restaurant mecca), it made perfect sense that chef Josh Eans and Ernesto Peralta Jr., Blanc's founders, would go for the deal.
Peralta and Eans had to gut the space — formerly occupied by the dimly lighted dining rooms and dim-witted staff of Pizzeria Uno — and Peralta's wife, Jenifer, designed the interior, which is as starkly austere as the original location. I think the new space has all the charm of an airport-terminal restaurant, but my friend Lou Jane Temple, who once owned a restaurant, explained that with a name like Blanc, you don't walk in expecting something warm and cozy. The joint is also loud — very loud. On my first visit to the restaurant, with my big-mouthed friend Truman, I cringed at how the tables in the back of the main dining room were shoved so close together.
"It's not the best place to be discussing secrets," Truman said, glancing at the two willowy gay men at the next table, who were so busy texting other people on their cell phones that they never noticed Truman eavesdropping on their every word. After a while, even he gave up on them. "They haven't said one interesting thing yet," he complained.
I'm not sure that I did, either, because I couldn't decide which of Eans' new burgers — including a $21 Surf + Turf creation — I most wanted to taste. I knew what I didn't want: the highly spiced lentil burger (one of two vegetarian options on the menu, if you don't count the salads), which my friend Scott dismisses as "the Indian-food burger" because of its intense curry flavor. Sometimes, he explained to me once, you just want a nonmeat burger that tastes kind of like a burger. My advice? Walk over to Houston's.