Friday, April 9, 2010

Top Chef Restaurant Experience - FLiP

You didn't think that self-appointed "giant Top Chef dork" Jordan Baker would go to Atlanta and not pay a visit to Richard Blais' burger joint, FLiP, did you?

I had a couple of reasons for wanting to go to FLiP Burger Boutique (or however it's capitalized) while we were in Atlanta. The first is, of course, because I'm a giant Top Chef dork. . . or, if you want to be more charitable about it, I've invested so much time in watching that goddamn show that I love getting the chance to actually eat food made/designed/what have you by the people whose cooking skills I've previously had to judge just from sight. It's the real frustration of the show, actually. You can pretty much tell if someone's clothes are well designed, if their hair styling skills are on par, or if their modelling is fierce just from visual cues. Food is a much trickier proposition to discuss if you don't have the chance to smell, touch, and taste it.

The second is because if you're going to be attending a wedding with an open bar later in the day, it's a good idea to lay down a nice layer of grease and salt to soak up the booze. And let's give FLiP credit where it's due -- I managed to put back three glasses of wine and a large-ish vodka and seltzer, and not be anywhere near as think as you drunk I am.

And the third is because. . . um, hello -- burgers. Shakes. Fries. I love them.

So to begin with, the space is beautiful. It's huge, and open, and everything is very crisp and white, but not in a way that feels creepy or sterile. There's a long, gorgeous bar along one wall, and a view into the kitchen area along the wall that's perpendicular to that. They've managed to work in a lot of seating without it feeling cramped (although that might change if they were at capacity), and seriously, they have some sort of magical Zen light bulbs or something. I felt very much at peace the entire time I was there.

We got there at around 2:30 or thereabouts on Friday afternoon, and had no problem getting a table. So we settled in and perused the menu, which is really extensive. It was one of those situations where you actually feel like you have too many choices, and there's no way you can possibly make a selection. Do I want a burger? A bacon cheeseburger? A $39 A-5 burger made with Kobe beef? Do I want a venison burger? A chorizo burger? AN OSSOBUCO BURGER???? And what about the shake? Krispy Kreme? Foie Gras? Nutella and Burnt Marshmallow?

Really, I wanted them all.

We came up with a game plan for sharing sides and so forth, and placed our order. First the shakes:

Clockwise from top left, we have the Turtle Shake, the Banana Pudding Shake, the Nutella and Burnt Marshmallow Shake, and the Coffee and Donut Shake.

I had the Coffee and Donut shake, and it was good. It had a very strong flavor of nutmeg and cinnamon, like one of the cinnamon powdered donuts at Dunkin' Donuts. There wasn't really a definite "coffee" flavor to it, though, more of a pervasive sense of. . .burny-ness? Not in a bad way, though, more like when you go to your grandpa's house and he offers you a cup of coffee, and then reheats it for you from the pot he made that morning that's been sitting around for awhile.

And I realize that's probably a lot of people's definition of burny "in a bad way," but you have to think of it in terms of sense memory. Yes, you're getting that burny, plethy taste of grandpa coffee, but it doesn't raise a "pleh, pleh! Burny!" reaction. Instead, it raises an "aw, grandpa coffee!" reaction. And the texture was good, which is always an important factor with any milk shake.

The other shakes got overwhelmingly positive reviews (I'll leave it to the shake drinkers to comment on their specific shakes if they wish), although the Nutella and Burnt Marshmallow was, according to its drinker, super rich, and she couldn't finish it (she didn't leave it, though -- so it was good enough that even if unfinishable in one seating, it was worth taking home with you).

For sides, we decided to order three and share so that we'd get to taste both their basics --French Fries and Onion Rings -- and one of their more exotic offerings:

So here we have (clockwise from the top, and very blurry) Vodka Battered Onion Rings with Beer Honey Mustard, Panko & Parmesan Zucchini Fries with Gremolata Mayo, and Hand Cut French Fries with Smoked Mayo and Ketchup.

The fries were good. There's not much more you can say about them than that -- they're fries. They had an appropriate amount of grease and salt, in that both were present but not overwhelming. The smoked mayonnaise, however, was DELICIOUS. I would like to soak in a vat with it.

The vodka battered onion rings were great. The batter was light and crisp and delicious, and managed not to overwhelm the onion. And -- AND -- I'll never understand how they managed this, but they seem to have invented THE ONLY ONION RING IN WORLD HISTORY that you can bite a small piece out of without accidentally pulling the whole long, unbroken string of onion out with it. Seriously, folks: I have eaten some onion rings in my life, and I've never seen this happen before. I have to assume that it has something to do with the vodka batter, which allows the onion to stay crispy and breakable instead of becoming a long, limp, overfried string.

The zucchini fries, though, were the true star. The Parmesan and panko breading was flaky and full of flavor, and the the zucchini was melt-in-your-mouth and had a delicious lemony taste. So good.

I will say, though, that the condiments with the rings and zucchini fries were kind of negligible. We'd forgotten what they were by the time our order arrived, and instead of being identifiable as "beer honey mustard" and "gremolatta mayo," we could only identify them as "mayo with. . .something sweet?" and "a . . .somewhat different sweet mayo?" You could tell which the ketchup was, of course, and the smoked mayo was identifiable by virtue of its deliciousness, but the other two kind of blended together.

And then it was time for our burgers. One person ordered the Farm: Organic Grass-Fed Beef, Smoked Mayo, Heirloom Tomato, Local Lettuce, Grilled Vidalia Onion, B&B Pickles:

One got the Bacon & Cheese: Onion, Lettuce, Tomato, House-Made Pickles, Benton's Bacon, American Cheese, Ketchup, FLiP Sauce:

And two of us got the Butcher's Cut: Caramelized Onion, Blue Cheese, Red Wine Jam:

I was in the last group. I chose this burger both because I'm still in the throes of my newfound love affair with blue cheese, and because even before we'd arrived at the restaurant, I'd had a running comparison going between FLiP and Good Stuff Eatery, and my most frequent order at Good Stuff of late has been the President Obama burger, which has applewood smoked bacon, bleu cheese, and red onion marmalade. So I thought going with a similar burger at FLiP would give me the best basis for making an educated comparison between the two.

On the one hand, as with the salad I had at Woodfire Grill, I kind of wish I'd ordered something more out of the ordinary. I eat burgers with blue cheese on the regular, but how often do I get the chance to have a freaking Ossobuco burger? So I think at some point, I'm due for a return visit so I can check out the more unusual options.

(Fortunately, I hear they're due in DC later this year, so I should get that chance sooner rather than later

On the other hand . . .it was a good burger. It was so juicy that as I bit into it, I felt something trickle down my hands, and thought I was losing my condiments. But no -- it was just delicious, juicy, burger JOOS. The blue cheese flavor was delicate and not overwhelming, and the caramelized onions and red wine jam mingled beautifully.

But on the third hand (yes, I have three hands. Shut up). ..

. . oh, God, it's going to kill me to say this. . .

On the third hand. . .it wasn't nearly as good as Good Stuff.


If you've been here for more than twenty minutes, you know how much it ABSOLUTELY KILLS ME TO SAY THAT. My stance for many, many years now has been that Richard is a good, funny, talented guy who wears pink crocs and has a female wife and an adorable baby (who is probably not so much a baby anymore, but whatever. Cheftestants remain frozen in time in the phase of life they were in during their season as far as I'm concerned).

Spike, despite being a nice guy in real life who's shown remarkable restraint in never serving me a beet-burger with a generous helping of phlegm sauce (to my knowledge), by comparison to Richard remains a hat wearing douchebag with a manky pube beard.

>But when I bite into a burger at Good Stuff, my eyes close involuntarily, and I find myself thinking "I could be ok never having sex again as long as I got to eat this burger once every two months."

And at FLiP burger, my eyes remained open, and I found myself thinking "this is good, but. . ."

Curse you, Spike. Curse you, and your hats, and your delicious onion marmalade.

Clearly the only real way to resolve this problem is to have a side-by-side taste test when FLiP comes to DC. Blind tasting. Two burgers, two shake flavors, and two sides each. Bring your best game. And --should the chefs be interested -- I will gladly offer my services for judging this event. Just give me two week's notice so I can fast for a bit in preparation.

Some final things I'll say about our visit: one, we don't know what the FLiP sauce on the Bacon & Cheese burger is. We're hoping it's something like the special sauce at Burger Garden in the Babysitters Club books where they go to Sea City.

Two: while we all liked our burgers, at least one of the other two people who've eaten at Good Stuff shared my opinion. But we agreed that FLiP definitely won on sides (or at least won on the number of options and the onion rings; tied on the fries and got bonus points for the amazing zucchini fries), and that it was probably about a draw on shakes, especially if you took the variety FLiP offers into account. And FLiP COMPLETELY trounces Good Stuff in terms of atmosphere. It's not that there's anything wrong with Good Stuff's space, it's just that there's so much that's SO RIGHT about FLiP's. Also, table service > counter service, any day of the week.

Again: blind taste test. Me. Blais. Spike. Only way to settle this.

Finally: the most exciting part of the visit (for me, at least) was the fact that WE SAW RICHARD. He was visible through the cut-away into the kitchen for a very brief period of time, wearing a baseball cap so I can't give you a faux-hawk status update.

And my immediate instinct was to go bounding across the room, and hug him, and show him a picture I may or may not have saved on my camera, while screaming "we have friends in common! We have friends in common!!!"

But I didn't. I don't know if it was the incredibly Zen lighting that had me mellowed out, or the fact that I'm getting slightly less inclined to make an ass of myself in front of famous and famous-ish people as I get older (I also managed to have a 7 minute conversation with a legendary soap actress this weekend without actually licking her, so that's progress. And that was after the three glasses of wine [but before the vodka]), but I remained in my seat. My calves flexed a little, in preparation for bounding and embracing, but my ass remained firmly planted.

So for now, my collection of pictures of me stalking Top Chef contestants remains frozen at two. Sigh. Yet another reason this blind taste test is A COMPLETELY GOOD AND NECESSARY IDEA.

You know where to find me, boys.