Ralph Gardner Jr.: In a world of quail eggs and fennel, the cheeseburger remains a menu must

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GHENT, N.Y. — I'm not a restaurant consultant, but I played one over the weekend. The restaurateur who solicited my advice, or rather whom I compelled to listen to my advice, was my daughter, Gracie. She's opening a restaurant on an island in the Pacific Northwest come spring.

Gracie spent the last three years as a line cook at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. For those who are unfamiliar with the place, it was created by Dan Barber, an innovative chef, educator and author who, inspired by summers at his grandmother's farm in Great Barrington, Mass., raised the idea of sustainability and the farm-to-table ethos to an appetizing art form.

Blue Hill, located amid 80 lovely acres of forest and rolling vegetable-producing fields formerly belonging to the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., is routinely listed among the world's top restaurants and priced accordingly.

The establishment that Gracie and her friend Rosa Shipley are opening in the San Juan Islands will be somewhat more humble. It's overlooking the water, as I understand it, on the site of a former restaurant that served the community well for many years.

The challenge is to create a welcoming menu and atmosphere, honoring the community and its need for good food and fair prices, while doing their small, forward-thinking part to make the planet a kinder, friendlier place. And documenting the whole adventure, as millennials are wont to do, on Instagram and various other social media platforms.

That's a pretty tall order, but one I believe Gracie and Rosa are fully prepped to fill. Which might be the reason Gracie has been reluctant to take the most important piece of advice I think any father can offer a daughter about to embark on this sort of culinary mission.

Cheeseburgers. The menu must include a cheeseburger. And fries.

I understand that's not an easy lift, especially when you've been cooking with things like watermelon radishes and quail eggs over the last many months. I'm not suggesting you have to push burgers at the expense of, say, fennel with tomato foam. But, it should be an option. Having it on your menu says something about you, your appealing humility, even your patriotism.

And what it says is this: Your spiritual well-being is our highest priority and your pocketbook a close second. I'm not blind to the need (this is me talking now) to cut down on meat consumption for the good of the planet and probably one's health, and I'm getting there, slowly.

In the meantime, a burger needs to be there to answer the call when every last cell and synapse is throbbing for a high-protein delivery system. And none, at least in my experience, has surpassed the casual delight and efficiency of a medium-rare cheeseburger deluxe with fries and a Coke. And onions. Raw or sauteed is your choice. Preferably a sour pickle, too. And some coleslaw. More abundant than one of those thimble-size containers that merely whet the appetite and leave you bereft when you run out halfway through your burger.

I believe Gracie is coming around, reluctantly. I can understand why. She and her boyfriend, Henry Wright, also a Blue Hill line cook who's helping Rosa and her open their restaurant, whip up some amazing, quick, healthy and life-affirming dishes when they take over our kitchen.

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Recent inventions include smashed sweet potatoes, sour cream and crispy turmeric scallions. It was delicious — and I hate sweet potatoes.

But out of deference to me, and because they're in the throes of brainstorming their future restaurant's menu, they put together a burger meal for dinner a few nights back.

They're cooks, so it was out of the question that they'd simply go to the supermarket and grab some ground beef, Kraft Singles (that's the cheese product, each slice conveniently separated from the next by a piece of paper) and hamburger buns that I might have been inclined to buy.

Henry made the buns from scratch, and Gracie ground the beef — grass-fed, of course. The fries were hand-cut and the onions actually caramelized shallots.

Just to prove I'm not a total barbarian, I've embraced the gospel of grass-fed burgers. By comparison, your average diner burger now tastes dead to me.

But, the peril of making a burger, especially if you just graduated from the equivalent of Harvard for cooking, is that it's easy to outwit yourself. The beauty of that ecstasy delivery system known as a cheeseburger lies in their simplicity.

Frankly, I think a bacon cheeseburger is overdoing it. It's too much of a good thing. The beef and bacon cancel each other out.

Gracie and Henry's burgers were good; actually sliders, since the buns emerged from the oven in a junior form. And the buns were a bit crisp. Nothing, I'm sorry to say, outperforms a standard store-bought sesame seed bun. A Kaiser roll or even a brioche bun is a subtle form of sacrilege. You don't want any type of bread that draws attention to itself, or fills you up. You want it to be there but not there. Background music. Something that corrals all the burger's harmonies and tingling sensations in a single location.

We've also fought over fries. Gracie doesn't want them. I can sympathize. There's all that heat and oil and mess. Unfortunately, nothing complements a burger like a crispy fry with a cloudlike interior drizzled with salt. By the way, the ones Henry made on our stove were superior.

As much as I like potato chips, and they'll do in a pinch, french fries play Ginger Rogers to the burger's Fred Astaire.

Now, they're talking about maybe having burger Fridays. I like the ring of it, and it shows their willingness to compromise. When I visit, I'll just have to find somewhere else to eat several days of the week.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com.


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