There is nothing black and white about Ernesto Peralta's Blanc Burgers + Bottles, the upscale hamburger emporium he created in 2008 and has since attempted to reproduce, with mixed results. The restaurant's latest incarnation, a return to its original Westport neighborhood, is as style-forward as ever, designed in chilly shades of gray accented with orange and black. It's a fashionably neutral setting for food that is, intentionally, often the showiest thing in the room.
Also as ever, Peralta's showmanship comes at a price — to both culinary sense and a diner's wallet. Case in point: Blanc's "crab mac + cheese burger," an innovation that arrived when the place reopened in Westport. A novelty is one thing, but this lump is to sandwiches what The Real Housewives of Atlanta is to legitimate drama: fake, gaudy, tasteless. And at $13.45, it's like getting sued for alimony.
Peralta returned his place to Westport this year after abandoning the area in 2010 for an ultimately disappointing four-year run on the Country Club Plaza, in a basement-level venue that has yet to be leased again. This corner site, last home to the ill-fated Simply Breakfast, is far less cavernous than the Plaza location. Even with the cool-gray palette at work, the room allows you to feel a little warmth toward even a misfire like that crab burger. Enough warmth to take three bites instead of just one before giving up.
To his credit, Peralta has already learned his lesson about the crab burger; it's coming off the menu, as are a couple of other nonstarters: a Tuscan-chicken sandwich and a grilled-polenta "burger." The latter, a vegetarian option, yields its place to the more predictable sop to the meatless: a grilled-portobello sandwich.
Another newish option, the Dark Truth BBQ burger, tops a beef patty with smoked gouda, smoked bacon, red onion, a fried onion ring, and a hearty dose of house-made barbecue sauce liberally doused with Boulevard Dark Truth stout. Blanc's servers push this burger, and for good reason: It's nearly impossible not to like.
The same goes for the Kobe burger. It's the same scandalous price as the crab-mac thing, but the components (smoked gouda, roasted garlic aioli, Mother's Brewing Co.'s apple-bacon-IPA jam) work together so tastefully that it's as divine an experience as a hamburger provides.
The kitchen crew is afforded a modicum of artistic license with du jour creations billed as "market priced" burgers under the name Daily Grind. On one of my visits, that meant a burger stuffed with artichokes and cream cheese — or something like that. I lost interest immediately after the server described it as "like biting into hot artichoke dip." I'm no purist, but sometimes a cheeseburger should just be a cheeseburger.
For those who argue that nothing but a stuffed cheeseburger will do, Blanc still offers its successful Inside Out, which embeds tart blue cheese within the beef. This was one of the original burgers created by Blanc's initial chef, Josh Eans (who now owns Happy Gillis), and I still like it. Just as smart is the Au Poivre, which decks out its pepper-encrusted red meat with grilled onions and a piquant green-peppercorn sauce. That crust keeps this burger — unlike too many of the sandwiches served here — from being so juicy that the Farm to Market buns turn into sodden brioche sponges. Two of my sandwiches at Blanc disintegrated in my hands almost before I could get them to my mouth.
I know: Who complains about a burger being too juicy? The bigger problem is that the food needs to find its way to the tables a hell of a lot faster. An order of beer-battered onion rings — one of the signature side dishes here — arrived at my table one evening nearly as chewy as rubber bands, thanks to lost heat. A similar starter, Pilsner-battered Shatto cheese curds, was delivered steaming hot on another day, and was as light and fluffy as deep-fried marshmallows.
While the service at this Blanc isn't speedy or especially attentive, it's friendlier now than it was on the Plaza. Among those who served there and came over with the move, there seems to be a sense of relief. One server told me that she was glad to "get out of the basement and be surrounded by light."
Even a hot, promptly served burger here sometimes resists any effort at handling. I couldn't even pretend to hold some of the overdressed items I sampled. The Asian grilled-salmon number had more frills and furbelows than a craft shop, smothering the pinky fish fillet with a sloppy salad of Napa cabbage, julienne carrots, fresh cilantro, wasabi aioli (in an admittedly deft dab) and a sticky sesame vinaigrette. Very, very tasty — and very much in need of a knife, a fork and maybe a diagram.
The knife comes in handy a lot at Blanc, where the sandwiches are often big enough to split — and costly enough that it's fair game to do so, if you also share appetizers. I like, for instance, the chicken wings slathered in hot sauce, or a trio of pretzels with two dipping sauces: warm gouda (the only cheese that makes repeated appearances on this menu, unfortunately) and a whole-grain mustard. I generally believe that pretzels should be limited to beer gardens and kindergartens, but a burger is the kind of adolescent meal that a pretzel can go with just fine.
The fries at Blanc are crispy and very good. Not so the "fire fries," a dish that tosses those same spuds — drenches them, really — in a peppery oil that's appealingly fiery but way too greasy.
Again, I'm no purist, but sometimes fries should just be fries. Even at a place as ostentatiously ambitious as Peralta's sometimes frustrating, sometimes winning shrine to dolled-up burgers.