For the third time this year I gathered up a group of friends and food bloggers to take down a burger on a sunless Saturday 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 this coming December.
Tagging along for the ride were the core members of The Church of Burger; Kelli Best-Oliver (South City Confidential / Food Blog Mafia), Bill Burge (STLBites), Stefani Pollack (Cupcake Project) and Church of Burger photographer Jonathan Pollack (J. Pollack Photography) who graciously provided all the pictures for this months update.
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 March Burger of The Month from The Sweet Art Bakeshop & Art Studio.
From the moment that votes started rolling in for a veggie burger, I knew that Sweet Art would present a challenge for this burger project. Besides the obvious - how do you judge a veggie burger against a meat burger - I was worried about participation as well. The feedback on this months burger came fast and almost always had a negative aspect associated with it. Among my favorites were the opinions that veggie burgers are not burgers or the simply stated belief that most veggie burgers inherently suck. When our group would meet it seemed that faces grew a bit longer when the topic of the Sweet Art burger came up. From time to time I worried if this would be the point where the wheels came off of my burger project.
To help fortify the more skeptical members of the group we agreed to meet early at Mangia Italiano for a pre-burger drink and final discussion on what makes and breaks a veggie burger. Beers were consumed and we shared a small pizza topped with greens and pancetta - as if the consumption of bacon would somehow compensate for the forthcoming vegetable patty.
Things seemed grim, but fortified with some liquid courage we ventured over to Sweet Art and headed to the counter with our orders. Listed as the "Sweet Burger" on the menu, this burger is a veggie patty topped with organic mixed greens, a house vegan spread, ketchup, "magic" and "love" on a toasted wheat bun.
Upon reaching the register, our party of five was informed that only three Sweet Burgers remained for the day. We quickly bought the remaining burgers, commenting to one another that not only was demand for this burger strong, apparently only a limited number were made each day. We agreed that the five of us would split the burgers and share family style around the table so everyone would get a chance to try.
Of the three burgers, two were ordered with cheese. The last was our baseline burger, ordered just as listed on the menu for my judging.
With orders in we moved back to our table where we talked and checked out the owners art which lines the walls of the restaurant. The vibe at Sweet Art is crunchy without being pretentious, hip without making you feel alienated. It was all to easy to sit back, dominate one of the few large tables available and enjoy the company of friends. All to quickly our burgers appeared, standing tall on vividly colored plates.
Behold the burger from The Sweet Art Bakeshop & Art Studio:
Like the paintings on the walls, the veggie patty of the Sweet Burger is a work of art with specks of roughly cut vegetables mixing with textured vegetable protein (TVP) and whole nuts. From a distance the heady scent of spice - what seemed to be a mixture of coriander, cumin and possibly turmeric - reaches the nose, inviting a quick succession of bites.
The varied textures that all the players contribute to make for a mouthfeel that is not quite meat or vegetable. The patty springs back against your bite, compressing to a point of chewiness before breaking away from the burger.
Tasters were of like mind, commenting:
"The Sweet Art veggie burger was truly a burger. It had just the right amount of juiciness, but it held together when I bit into it."
"The Sweet Burger was fantastic."
"As a former vegetarian, the Sweet Art burger is probably the best veggie burger I've ever had. It has great texture without trying to be meat-like. Beats the hell out of Gardenburger."
"I have no fucking clue what was in that patty outside of the obvious carrots and onions. It seemed like maybe there was some eggplant, nuts, and what I'm assuming were lentils, but I really have no idea. Regardless, what I do know is that instead of trying to give it the texture of meat, it was more of a patty sandwich, and I particularly liked that about it."
Many run of the mill veggie burgers seem colored to give the appearance of meat, sometimes going as far as to include "grill marks" to suggest that they have been licked with flame before being flash frozen and boxed up for the freezer section. These types of veggie burgers are intended to be replacements for meat, a sacrifice in the name of healthy eating.
What is nice about the Sweet Burger is that the folks at Sweet Art achieve a decent amount of caramelization during cooking which stands out against the orange hue of the patty. As the name suggests, this burger does have a sweetness to it and its reasonable to assume some sugar is used in the patty to help achieve a good char. Very impressive.
"The sear they were able to achieve on this patty were impressive given that they weren't dealing with real meat."
My burger was topped with organic mixed greens, a house vegan spread, ketchup, and according to the menu both "magic" and "love". The greens were crisp enough to have just been cut, making a nest for the burger to sit upon. Being mid March, I found the out of season tomato to be pale and bland. The tomato was cut thickly to contribute to the overall height of the burger. For me the spread and ketchup were lost behind the spice of this burger, which dominated each bite.
Tasters offered up the following thoughts:
"The "special sauce", which seemed to be some kind of remoulade, gave it a spicy zing that really rounded out the flavor of everything that was in that patty. It did get a little messy to eat towards, the end--but then what great burger isn't a little messy."
"The cheese melted over the top worked just the way that I would expect it to on a good burger – adding flavor and some grease. I enjoyed the mixed field greens so much more than the sad piece of iceberg that I often find on burgers. I know that others were bothered by the out of season tomato, but I thought it was pretty good for an out of season tomato. It wasn’t gray and wimpy."
"Mixed greens added a bit of crunch and imparted a subtle flavor that enhanced the burger more than shredded, bland lettuce would have. I think the best ingredients in the burger, however, were the advertised "magic and love"."
The whole wheat bun resembled a traditional hamburger bun. While it is not thick or overly dense it did a good job holding up to being halved and shared around the table. While it did its job, for me it was the weakest part of the burger. With all the thought that went into the patty and the fact that Sweet Art is more of a bakery than anything else, I expected something more than was plated.
"The bun was hearty (not the kind that turns into a sticky Wonder Bread-like glue in your mouth). It definitely enhanced the burger."
"The bun seemed like it might have been heated in a microwave. I could have used a little better bun, also, but that's the best of the three buns so far. It was real similar to the Rudi's Organic buns I use at home, but the Rudi's are a little better still."
Readers voted the Sweet Art Sweet Burger the tenth best burger in St. Louis. As a veggie burger in a hamburger contest, I would have to agree that it not only holds its own against the competition so far, in many ways its superior.
I'm struck by the comments of one taster, who offered, "As a vegetarian entree, it represents everything that vegetarian food needs to be to keep people from making fun of it. As an eater of meat, I'd choose it over most of the hamburgers I've had in St. Louis. I will eat many of these things while Sweet Art is in business. It's just a delicious sandwich."
I'm a reluctant consumer of vegetarian fare because it often tries to be a replacement for its meat counterpart instead of a cuisine unto itself. The Sweet Burger succeeds because it bucks this trend. Instead of being reminded of what the diner is missing, even a meat eater can appreciate the Sweet Burger - which is hearty and satisfying without betraying its roots as a veggie burger.
Truly a treat and a rare find here in St. Louis. Kudos to my readers for the suggestion.