Thursday, February 26, 2015

Deer + Almond: 4.4/5

Royale with Cheese
Score: 4.4
Platter: $10

Art meets food in the little diner on the corner of Princess and McDermot and Mandel Hitzer is the creative tour de force in the kitchen.

Photos 1-6: Mandel Hitzer
There’s only one beef burger on the menu and it doesn't have any options. The sandwich first appeared for #LeBurgerWeek 2013 as a parody of the Big Mac, complete with special sauce and three-part sesame seed bun, but eventually the troublesome middle bun disappeared and the two patties merged into one thick layer of beef. It’s the ‘Royale with Cheese’, an artistic interpretation of Pulp Fiction's Quarter Pounder with Cheese, but it's still ‘Le Big Mac’ at heart.

Mandel is a self proclaimed “burger connoisseur who has travelled the world tasting burgers to come up with the perfect recipe." He uses a selection of beef cuts and just the right amount of fat to produce the succulent and flavourful patty. “The patty should stand on its own.” Our last few Burger Club outings have had prefab patties and it was like coming home to have lovingly crafted ground round once again.

Mandel knows the importance of a good bun and Deer + Almond are almost unique in that they bake their own. Mandel looked like a proud parent when he gazed at the bun and said “Behold its pillowy soft, shiny, seedy goodness. Once you make your own you can't go back.”

"Are you ready for a burger? We're just waiting for A&W" Mandel joked. He took my camera into the kitchen and returned it with a photo essay of burger love. We preordered, and our sixteen meals came out quite quickly. Brian started cutting his burger in half and Mandel exclaimed “You're compromising the structural integrity! Holding a messy burger together is part of the experience.” There's a training video for that.

Karen critiqued “The Royale was a delicious mess of love. The bun is the first thing you bite into - it should be the very best quality - and it was! Could taste all the ingredients and the special sauce rocked my world.” A number of our group raved about the sauce – Stephanie scribbled “OMG so good! The secret special sauce made the burger.”

Most diners really enjoyed the bun, but a couple thought the fresh bread a little doughy for the patty. The processed ‘American Cheese’ was exactly what it was supposed to be on the Royale – and I enjoyed it - but one or two could have done without the direct analogy.

Chris wrote “the burger was juicy, and very nice to taste a homemade bun. I found it drippy, but the sauce was very flavourful and helped to really punch it up.” Isabel commented “Little bit of spice was nice. Liked the cheese/sauce/burger combination. Kinda tasted like a Big Mac but way mo better. Bun was tasty - liked the seeds.”

Mandel asked what could make the burger even better and the only comment was the beef resembled a ball more than a patty. It's quite thick which allows chef to leave it pink in the middle – tender and juicy, and very flavourful.

You won't find fries at Deer + Almond, but you will find gourmet soups and salads – different delicious creations every visit. The teardrop shaped soup bowl - or salad - and the sandwich were served on a large, round plate that had the effect of making the burger look small.

All in all we had a great time at Deer + Almond and Burger Club put the ‘Royale with Cheese’ in our Top 10; a 5-star burger! At only $10 including the side, it was quite a good deal for a steakhouse patty and ranked #3 in value. Deer + Almond made our Top 5 for service so very good numbers all around! Peter was a quick and attentive server, and Graham cleared the restaurant and stood on furniture to take our group photo.

Nelson inspected the facilities and noted "the bathrooms are unlabeled. Good luck determining the correct one on the first guess.” He added “They should really have a portrait of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson on the wall.”

'The Burger': Les Brandt
Mandel found a kindred spirit in Les who wrote a poem about the burger and followed it up a few days later with a watercolour tribute.

Photo: NB

Deer + Almond on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Brown's Socialhouse: 4/5

Pub Burger
Score: 4.1, Platter: $16.75

Hollywood Burger
Score: 3.3, Platter: $13.95

Hickory Burger
Score: 4.4, Platter: $14.95

Brie, Bacon and Mushroom
Score: 3.5, Platter: $15.95

Brown’s Socialhouse is welcoming and comfortable like a 60s Transcona rec room – only brighter – with design elements for everyone. Glazed brown brick and a high ceiling set the tone with two windowed walls framed by pink sheer drapes letting in the outside world. The fourth wall emulates grey fieldstone with a contrasting collection of artworks that follow Brown’s “masculine meets feminine” motif. There are pirate kings and birdcage chandeliers. The wooden tables, stuffed leather chairs and booths are very comfortable and easy to lounge in.

This isn’t the Transcona I knew from years ago when I worked at Beaver Lumber with two girls named Peaches and we used to steal pink flamingo lawn ornaments for a lark. This is New Transcona and Brown’s Socialhouse has established itself at 1750 Plessis Rd near the end of Transcona Blvd where perennial flooding has been replaced by 'lakes' and suburbs. Browns aims to be your neighborhood hangout and the franchise is built on a smaller 'Cheers' style layout with a central bar surrounded by restaurant seating. The bar is sunken so the tapster can look you in the eye, and there are coat/purse hooks and  plugs under the counter so revelers can keep their smart phones charged while texting with their neighbors. It’s a sociable atmosphere and that’s what Brown’s is going for.

You enter Brown’s through the patio. The wide entry door seems normal enough, except that it’s free standing and, in theory at least, you could hop over the three foot wall surrounding the patio if you had a door phobia. Brown’s just opened in November so they haven't had a chance to try out the patio yet, but it looks like a great space. There are couches at one end surrounding a fireplace, comfortable furniture, curtains and heaters for inclement weather and flowers that bloom all year long.

Just like our hostess, our server Kelsey had smiles for us all evening. She was very personable, quick and attentive. She asked what brought our group together and Geoff said it best with “We share a love of burgers." Kelsey had the savvy to let the manager know we blog, so Beau made a point of coming over and characterizing the burger and Brown’s franchise for our group. Brown’s has three beef burgers on the regular menu and on the day we visited also offered a ‘Brie, Bacon and Mushroom Burger’ lunch special - that’s available all day. The regular ‘Pub Burger’ and the special have 8 oz patties; the ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Hickory’ burgers are 5 oz. Burgers make up 30% of their food sales.

Once our orders were in and the patties on the grill, Chef Mike came by for a visit. They’ve got the right guy heading the kitchen – he’s expressive about the food and lovingly described ingredients.  The patties are hand formed from fresh beef chuck at 15% fat. There’s no seasoning or fillers in the patty. The flavours are in the sauces and toppings. Mike is a big fan of the brioche bun (as are we) and they source the bun and hickory smoked bacon from GFS.

The pacing was good for an evening meal, and we had time to enjoy a round of drinks before the food came out. The draught selection isn't extensive, but they do offer some Granville and Creemore as well as favourites Stella and Guinness. Nat looked very happy with her Raspberry Mojito. April said her “Caesar, while small, was tasty.” Milk jugs full of water were left on the table.

Our thirteen burgers and sides all came out at once and Kelsey was very good at making sure everyone got what they ordered. Beau, who has also worked as a chef, Mike and Kelsey closely supervised the plating to make sure there were no mix-ups. Despite all their care, April’s bacon was missing, but Kelsey returned quickly with a plate full.

The first thing you noticed about the burger was that it was served street food style in a pirate king emblazoned paper pocket like you'd get at a burger truck. This seemed incongruous with a $16 burger in an upscale restaurant, but just another fun quirk of the Brown’s experience. Peering out of their little paper hoodies, the burger faces each had something to say. Mine said mushrooms, Nat’s shouted bacon and Liz’s was selling groceries.

The beefy flavour of the 8 oz patty dominated my stack. It was tender and held together - not dry, but not juicy either. April commented “the meat could use some more pizzazz.” I got a taste of the mushrooms, and the Brie added something, but the real treat was when a big dollop of cheese slid off the patty and I popped in my mouth. The iceberg lettuce and winter tomato on the bottom made for a slippery sandwich, but I had cut mine in half and that made it trickier to handle. The shiny brioche bun was right-sized and did a good job of holding the assembly together for those that left theirs intact. Nicole wrote “Bacon was delicious. Sauce and bun were also tasty."

Most people had the Hickory burger with bacon, BBQ sauce and cheddar cheese. As always, tastes vary, but I think there may have been some variability in the assembly too. Nat commented “Loved the natural burger; nice hickory flavour”  while Jacques wrote “I was expecting more hickory flavour, but instead was served the whole second shelf of the fridge of ‘special sauce’.  Meat was very good for a purist.” Chris wrote “I found the BBQ sauce to almost overpower the bacon, I think less BBQ sauce and more bacon would have been good” while Dani commented ”The BBQ sauce is very zingy … nice.” Karen observed “It had a nice maple flavour, great toppings that were nicely balanced against the crispy crust of the burger. I had to use a catcher’s mitt technique to hold on to it as it wanted to torpedo out.”

A few people had the Pub burger with havarti, special sauce and bacon. Geoff noted “The pub burger I ordered was 8 oz of juicy satisfaction. The shiny bun was solid and held together to the end. The cheese almost seemed infused into the burger; it meshed well with the bacon that was generously slathered on top.” Brian commented “The burger was cooked to perfection with the patty a little crumbly, moist, and lightly seasoned. The special sauce provided a nice zip. Overall, an enjoyable burger.”

Two of our troupe had the Hollywood cheese burger. Esther wrote “Patty was a bit overdone, but burger was still tasty. I appreciated the bag on the burger to keep the mess contained.” Liz noted “Patty was tasty but the bun was a bit dry. There was too much lettuce so I took some off. I was impressed by the service.”

The sweet potato fries were the fan choice. Esther swooned “Yam fries were soooo good!” Dani wrote the “aioli sauce reminded me of the spice they put on Doritos.“ Some of us had the HCDC fries and they underwhelmed. Perhaps the fries waited in the kitchen while all thirteen of our meals were prepared, but they weren't crispy. I think Brian liked the gravy more than the fries “The fries seemed a little skimpy, considering the amount of ‘Alaska Highway’ gravy.” The ‘Thai Chicken and Rice Soup’ was delectable – it had plenty of flavour, nice and thick and there was lots of it. Nicole reviewed the Caesar salad: “a strange bite to the dressing - not bad but not a Caesar dressing. Fresh parmesan + bacon on salad = great!” A number of us finished with the Key Lime Pie with an oatmeal crust. It was a flavourful winner.

Browns Socialhouse on Urbanspoon