If not the best, damn close.

If not the best, then damn close: The Cheeseburger @ Rutherford Grill, Rutherford.

Every now and then, I get dragged along to restaurants that I would never consider visiting on my own. Usually, it’s some sort of large group function — perhaps a birthday dinner or a work-related event — where there’s just too much critical mass to influence the plans for the evening. For the most part, I can recognize when my complaints and protests would just become annoying chatter, and so I strive to keep my mouth shut in these circumstances.

When it comes to restaurants, I just don’t suffer mediocrity gladly, and there is nothing more depressing to me than the anticipation of paying for a lousy meal. Everyone knows that I’m a bit of a food snob, even though my favorite foods in the world are unpretentious comfort foods; I don’t require fancy foams or gelées on my plate, but I do require proper seasoning within the dish. When I have serious doubts about a particular place, my defense mechanism is to order a simple hamburger, since that’s the one item that very few restaurants can completely ruin.

But despite a hamburger’s inherent simplicity, only the really good places can ever truly get them right — there is a certain subtlety to a hamburger that requires much more finesse than merely frying up a beef patty and slapping it between a bun. For one thing, there is the entire “temperature” issue: I find it amusing when a second-rate restaurant will ask its guests how they would like their hamburgers cooked, even though this question is nothing more than a silly, rhetorical charade. No matter what your request, at a lesser restaurant, your burger is always going to be cooked to well-done and beyond (it never fails).

Truth be told, I’m actually okay with that. At a dubious establishment, I prefer to eat ground beef that has been cooked into oblivion, especially if a potential dose of E. coli is the alternative. I’ve been food poisoned twice in my life, and it was one of the most brutal things that I have ever had to endure. It is a taxing and miserable experience, feeling your entire body under complete revolt. Still, I will always request a “medium” burger just to see if anyone in the kitchen is even trying to put forth any effort.

• • •

Although I do typically order hamburgers as a fail-safe, I actually adore a great burger, and will go out of my way to locate one. As I had mentioned at the outset of this entry, I place comfort food above all else, and hamburgers rank near the top of this hierarchy. With that in mind, I do expect to receive a fair share of emails about what I am about to type, but I am going to go on record by claiming that the Rutherford Grill has the best hamburger in the Napa Valley. I understand the implications of anointing a semi-chain restaurant with this distinction, but I will continue to defend this position.

Let me just say, preemptively, that I enjoy quite a few of the hamburgers here in the Napa Valley: in particular, the Kobe burger at Martini House is delightfully juicy, fatty and rich, while the burger at Taylor’s Refresher trades on its classic honesty. The thing is, the burger at the Rutherford Grill is consistent, by-the-book, and delicious. The meat is ground in-house, cooked over a wood fire, and served on a toasted bun (baked in-house) with only the classic condiments. What more could you really want?

These days, the temptation to employ a heavy creative hand has become the bane of many hamburgers. As far as I’m concerned, ground beef, salt and pepper should be the only three ingredients in the patty. If you’re stuffing burgers with blue cheese or foie gras, then you have missed the point entirely. In this era of culinary fusion, some things should remain sacred. A great burger should stand on its own merits, without having to rely upon the crutch of esoteric ingredients (bacon, as an American breakfast staple, does not qualify as esoteric).

I will admit that championing the Rutherford Grill may seem a bit pedestrian, even naive. This restaurant, after all, probably boasts the best location in all of wine country, with lines out the door on most summer nights. I am certainly not claiming to let anybody in on any secrets with this entry (very unfoodie, I realize). But I will mention that, no matter how busy that place gets during lunch and dinner, my hamburgers, which I always order cooked to medium, have always featured that perfect, thin, pink line in the center of the patty. And so, for that, you will never hear me complain.

5 comments to “The Tell-Tale Hamburger”

  • El Gordo

    “have always featured that perfect, thin, pink line in the center of the patty”

    That isn’t Med, it’s Med-well chief…

  • ThirstyReader

    Okay, I’ll give you that one.

  • Joseph

    Rutherford Grill….how can you get anything there but the incredible Prime Rib sandwich with Hoseradish sauce on the side.

    Or at Taylors, anything but the Ahi burger…GREAT food for even a foodie.

  • carrie

    I have heard that cook in saint helena serves a mean hamburger worth checking out.

  • “have always featured that perfect, thin, pink line in the center of the patty” – yeah, that’s medium well and it’s the best (and for me the only) way to eat a burger.

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