For the second time this year I gathered up a group of friends and food bloggers to take down a burger on a lazy Sunday afternoon. This was the next stop in a year long search for the best burger that St. Louis has to offer, based on the input of my readers. You nominated them and I'm eating them, one by one until I crown the best burger in St. Louis in December.
In tow were some new faces and old friends including; Kelli Best-Oliver (South City Confidential / Food Blog Mafia), Bill Burge (STLBites), Stefani Pollack (Cupcake Project), Church of Burger photographer Jonathan Pollack (J. Pollack Photography), Stephanie Tolle (Iron Stef / Food Blog Mafia) and Nik Cameron (13) in addition to a pack of friends and family who wanted to take a look at what my burger project has become.
With the introductions out of the way its time to welcome you all back to The Church of Burger. In the name of the bun, the toppings and the holy burger, I present unto you the February Burger of The Month from Sub Zero Vodka Bar.
Forgoing appetizers but opting for adult beverages, we dug right into the burger menu. Under the guise of "An American Burger Bar", Sub Zero offers up 18 signature burgers ranging in price from $9.95 for the Classic (ground black angus beef, lettuce, cheese, tomato and onion) to $31.95 for the Surf & Turf (American Kobe beef, avocado and poached lobster tail with clarified butter).
Covering the spectrum of burgers between the Classic and Surf & Turf diners can select patties made of beef, lamb, pork, tuna, bison, turkey, chicken, falafel and vegetables. Burger hounds who can not find an acceptable choice among the 18 signature burgers can build their own, with enough combinations of meats, veggies, cheeses, sauces and toppings to boggle the mind, taste buds and digestive track.
Around the table folks delved deep into the burger menu to make their selections. Among the burgers ordered were several classics, the Hawaiian kobe, a lamb, the southwest veggie, the spicy cajun, the slinger, a pair of falafels, the turkey, the Jamaican jerk and both the Sub Zero and Kobe Beef sliders.
As I need to judge all of the burgers this year, I stuck with the classic, sans cheese and dressed as is with lettuce, tomato and onion.
Without a doubt this was a diverse and complicated order of burgers but the waitstaff covering our tables were efficient and friendly; taking our orders and filling our glasses without showing the stress of covering such a large crowd.
For the next 45 minutes, conversation ebbed and flowed around the two tables we occupied. Friends chatted and we got to know the new folks who had joined our burger adventure. An hour after we arrived the first burgers appeared, followed by wave after wave of plates until all were served.
So here we were at the moment of truth, the reason we ventured out on a wet Sunday. Behold the burger from Sub Zero Vodka Bar:
Listed as black angus beef on the menu, the burger was compact but ample, with a hand formed patty at its core. I ordered my burger medium rare and it was cooked nearly perfect with a rosy pink interior.
Like all the burgers that I was surrounded by, the burger on my plate appealed to the eyes. It really looked like a great burger, standing high and dominating the small plate is was served on. However, as I took my first bite I was shocked to find that this perfect medium rare burger was lukewarm at best. My second bite was no better than the first as I noticed a lack of seasoning. By the third bite it was clear that the burger did not lack seasoning, it didn't have any.
While the pink interior juices of this burger ran a bit into the bun, the patty seemed dry. I checked the bun several times to see if it was absorbing juice as I worked on the burger. It was. However, each bite was devoid of moisture, cold and depressingly free of a distinct burger taste.
Tasters were divided over the quality of their patty choices, commenting:
"My burger was overcooked and lacked juice and salt. You can get away with one, maybe even two of these, but not all three."
"The turkey patty was solid. It was probably premade, given that it was a bit to symmetrical to really be recently hand-mashed. That said, it was flavorful and surprisingly juicy."
"I think Sub Zero should be lauded for having so many interesting-sounding offerings, but the patties fell short."
"Can't claim to be a burger expert, but I think I know the difference between right and wrong. Sub Zero's were wrong."
"I had the lamb, the bbq buffalo, the classic and the southwest veggie sliders. The southwest veggie was the most flavorful by far, but too heavy on the sun-dried tomato taste. The Lamb burger didn't taste much of lamb, and I also didn't taste the mint they promised. The buffalo burger was maybe the best, only because the coleslaw and bbq sauce added moisture."
Like everything about this burger, the grill work contributed to the overall beauty of the dish, with islands of char dotting the patty. While the grill marks were not well defined, it did not appear that the meat was handled improperly by the grill-person. All things being equal, the flavor picked up off the grill might have been the only thing saving this burger from being totally devoid of flavor.
Our waitress indicated that we could request an item not be added to a signature burger, but no changes or substitutions were allowed. For my classic burger, this meant several slices of tomato, a selection of lettuces and raw onion. The lettuce was a spring mix, fresh but not overly crisp. The tomato was soft, bland and had an out of season taste that I could have done without. The raw onion was sliced thin and had a pleasing sharpness to it when eaten. In hindsight the onion might have been the most flavorful part of this burger.
"For what I paid for the burger, the least they could have done would be to put what they said they would put on it."
"Amazingly, the hummus on the burger was overpowering both the feta cheese, and the lamb flavor. I *saw* bits of mint, but couldn't really taste that either, thanks to the hummus."
The bun for my burger appeared light and airy on the inside when examined, and provided a pleasant crinkle of crust when held. For me, the bun was not quite a classic hamburger bun and not quite a brioche. More than anything it reminded me of a large slider roll. When eaten there was a quality to this bun that made me think of a store bought potato roll that was left out and reused the morning after a back yard cookout. An underlying staleness to the bun did little to help the dry and unseasoned patty. When bitten there was no toothsome pull of the bread before the teeth moved out of the bread and into the denser meat. Instead I was left feeling like each bite consisted of a journey from stale to dry and sadly back to stale. Disappointing.
"A dry bun that couldn't possibly stand up to the litany of toppings offered at Sub Zero, leaving me a very sober worshipper."
"The bun failed. It literally fell apart on me."
"The bread would have been more solid if it had been dough."
"The bun was a bit tall and dry for my taste."
"The "brioche" bun was dry and relatively tasteless"
Readers voted the burger at Sub Zero Vodka Bar the eleventh best burger in St. Louis. Given all the issues with this burger, I have to disagree. In my opinion, it appears that the effort of the kitchen has gone into appearance of the burger but not its substance. This represents the worst in dining, where a high sheen is placed on the product to give the appearance of value.
Many diners commented that there was a disconnect between the quality of the burger and its menu price. Truth be told, this burger would be bad at most, if not all price points.
One member of our group opined, "I was surprised we were going to a vodka bar for the burgers. I would go back to Sub Zero if they have a good vodka tasting option, but why do they try to have such fancy burgers? Stick to vodka and cocktail foods that go with vodka. I don't get it."
To me, it seems Sub Zero suffers because it does not know what it wants to be. The signage says that it is both a vodka and American Burger bar. However, when you walk though the door you come face to face with a sushi table. Why? Its not clear to me how all the parts fit together. Each theme seems more of a hail marry than a well executed plan. Its as if management has attempted to integrate dining trends as they appear, leaving them to lay stagnant in their restaurant long after the fad has passed.
To sum up, I can't help but bestow upon Sub Zero the adage of "Jack of all trades, master of none".
The search continues.