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fundamentalA refined take on the burger was what I’d expected when I’d completed my dinner reservations for Fundamental LA a few Fridays back. What I left with was a remarkable evening centered on familiar ingredients surprisingly repurposed for the betterment and cultivation of one’s palate.

The restaurant’s space in the afternoon is filled with a warming glow and shows off the artfully industrial décor; at night, in the absence of the sun, the eatery heats up, transformed into a chic and grown-up destination that conjures images of dining spaces in the finest big cities in our country. It’s cozy square-footage, intensified by the animated buzz of patrons and staff, completes the day-night metamorphosis.

A menu divided by plant and animal themed fare and creative wine list work hand-in-hand to provide everything necessary for a great dinner at a modest price. However it wasn’t the sides or the elegant 2006 Gigondas decanted into a 1000ml flask that had me hooked. It was rather one entrée—the “bœuf burger.”

fund burgA fifty-fifty blend of short rib and brisket that had been dry-aged for 2-4 days, blanketed by a finely melted Tilamook cheddar, arugula, house made pickles, garlic aioli, ketchup and a brioche bun, arrived halved, flaunting the precise cooking time that achieved a medium rare and highly desired pinkish core.

Ostensibly quotidian, from the familiar ensemble of ingredients to the presentation, nothing appeared novel, but that was belied by the careful attention to detail. Not only was the cooking time flawless, the preparation brought out a savory and well-seasoned patty. Umami! As for the well-worn supporting cast, each played their part in completing a surreal burger; a careful spread of garlic aioli added a sharp undercurrent of flavor while the arugula delivered a peppery element. In this place, I couldn’t imagine their burger served on anything other than a brioche bun.

The burger experience was reminiscent of that girl next door, growing up awkwardly together, seeing her through her first attempts at make-up, and her wildly different fashions, until one day, as if out-of-nowhere, it all comes together gorgeously—no seams exposed—and you are left with someone you’ve known for a long time but that you don’t know at all. The burger at Fundamental LA is worth your acquaintance.

Westside TavIt had been a while since I last had a burger, tiptoeing around my favorite comfort food in hopes of reinvigorating the palate. In lieu of the patty I was on an Asian binge, I devoured lunch at Lukshon, which was a catalyst for delving further into a Far East bender. Undocumented dinners at A-Frame and Nong La would eventually take me full circle though, as I went fifth wheel to finally order a highly touted burger at the Westside Tavern.

Beside the Landmark Theaters, the Westside Tavern is a contemporary space that offers fine-tuned American fare complimented by a deep beverage program. Reminiscent of Hillstone’s, but not a chain, Westside Tavern relishes its role of convenient date spot for the pre-movie crowd or can act as a beautiful finishing touch to an evening.

With a pair of married couples, we grabbed a booth, catching the last two periods (plus some bonus hockey) of the Ducks vs. Kings game over cocktails and burgers. Well into my bourbon drink and at about the halfway point of the game, the food appeared. From the lens of my iPhone, I best documented the rotund grub, capturing a melted layer of Tillamook Cheddar dominating the landscape; the finely ground, hand-packed patty was completely obscured, supported by a brioche bun with a few leaves of arugula lending color. However, it is what you couldn’t see that seemed to bring the burger down a notch; a mess of caramelized onions and the garlic aioli that were very present on the first bite.

The meat and cheese combo were sterling, but the proportion of caramelized onions seemed to drown out the sandwich. I was essentially eating two things: French Onion Soup from Mimi’s Café and a gourmet cheeseburger on the side. The sea-salt fries were splendid though, helping me reset after a few bites.

Apart from the palate confusion, the burger showed some good qualities like being perfectly cooked and seasoned well when those bites weren’t masked by the overpowering combination of garlic spread and sweet onions.

While I didn’t agree with the acclaimed status of Westside Tavern’s cheeseburger, the restaurant showed that they were more than just a catchall for those on a date—definitely a good spot for a drink. My charitable mood may have had something to do with the Ducks downing the Kings in an exciting shootout, yet I wouldn’t rule out a repeat visit, even if the food failed to capture my heart, or stomach, the way Lukshon did. Back to the drawing board.

The Finnish Flash had done it again. Teemu Selanne, at age 40 came up huge for the Anaheim Ducks in the last couple games. His goal with seconds left in regulation against the Dallas Stars Wednesday evening propelled them to an eventual win in overtime and pushed my already stellar day into the boundaries of excellence. The day continued to get better exponentially, meeting a dynamic wine and business figure, catching a thrilling game and even reviewing a burger I never dreamed would be covered by the Maverick Palate.

My day broke in Claremont McKenna College, in the Pomona area, where I attended a lecture given by the charismatic and exciting figure, Gary “Vay.Ner.Chuk” (Vaynerchuk), to discuss his new book The Thank You Economy.” I was very excited about seeing the man behind the webisodes of WLTV and the Daily Grape because he has been an influential part of developing my interests in Sparkling wine and Rieslings.

The talk was fast-paced and exciting. Although I will not recount the finer points of the presentation, I hope that you check out an episode below to familiarize yourself with such an enthusiastic character.

Once I was back at my place I got ready for a burger outing that I had orchestrated a week before. Choosing to dine local, I selected Westwood Village as the canvas because the students of UCLA were on Spring Break and parking would be less of a hassle. I originally had planned to pair Jose Bernsteins—Jose B’s for short— with a bottle of 2009 Les Halos de Jupiter. However I would leave the burger up to the group after it was met with grumbles and moans in my planning process. I waited for the hour and vote to draw near, until then, occupying my time with the Ducks battling a Pacific Division foe for a chance to pull ahead in the playoff standings.

The game was low scoring until the third period, where the Ducks surrendered the lead twice, giving Dallas momentum at two critical points in the game, only to tie it in more dramatic fashion another couple of times. The game looked over at certain point, but Teemu Selanne had not given up—and neither did the Ducks. He potted the game-tying goal with seconds to spare that sent me to the moon with excitement and left me shouting in glee for all my neighbors to hear.

The Ducks capitalized early in the extra session, on a two on one with Bobby Ryan and Cam Fowler splitting the D and putting the circle in the square to seal the fate of the Dallas Stars and silence the hometown fans. It was really fantastic to be on the winning side of that tussle.

On to Burgers, after we congregated near the originally scheduled burger joint, the people in attendance chose Fatburger. I was as surprised as you are. I favor the independent burger joints and did not see that coming… but welcomed the change, corrected our location, and got our ticket for our new destination (apologies to Paul Simon).

We ordered immediately from the menu, most people customizing their orders, except for me, and, unfortunately that may have lead to my demise. What stood out from my last experience with Fatburger years ago was their use of mustard and relish, two condiments I appreciate but feel they have no place on a burger.

When the group of hungry friends made it back to my apartment, I quickly popped the corked of the red Rhone wine from Costières de Nîmes to allow for some breathing time and to check that it was not corked.

We gathered around the table, I gave my talk about the wine, the region and played the what-do-you-guys-smell-and-taste-game with the guests. We decided that there was meatiness, some black pepper and a little fruit on the nose. On the palate, the committee met this wine with dissatisfaction, the fruit had been covered in fresh cracked pepper and the finish of the wine was rather aggressive and hot.

I assured my friends that the wine was typical of the area; the high alcohol was a symptom of the heat the area encounters and can cause a surge in ABV (alcohol by volume). When we paired it with the burger, the edge of the wine was dulled but it still did not catch the fancy of my friends. I decided to pull a bottle of the 2007 The Rebel Cabernet Sauvignon from Walla Walla Washington.

That Cabernet perked up the tasters, it had more muddled blackberries, blueberries and oak nuances that people appreciated without the cloying alcohol that the Rhône wine had. It was agreeable. The burger bothered me a bit for reasons I have already listed, but felt that the patty was considerably heftier than I’d expected (1/2 lb.) and as I surveyed my friends they all told me that they did not have mustard or relish on their burgers and they were all content.

In the end I may have to redo my Fatburger experience and alter my menu driven hamburger by limiting the condiments. Aside from that I was okay with riding the tides of an exciting day all the way to shore and subtracting another pair of bottles from my Countdown-to-500 (335 remain). It was so nice to see Finnish wines were aging so well this time of year.

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