You remember Spike Mendelsohn from Top Chef Season 4: Chicago, right? Well, the Fedora-clad Bouchon, Le Cirque, and Mai House alumnus opened up his own Good Stuff Eatery 25 months ago (July 2008), only a month after Top Chef Season 4 concluded.
I don't chase chefs around just because they were on Top Chef, but I knew that he had a burger joint in DC, and I was going to be in DC to meet up with some friends for an inexpensive dinner. For me, I've never had a burger that made me roll my eyes into the back of my head...and I've wanted to find one. Perhaps this would be the place. Good Stuff Eatery also promotes local food, sustainability, and charitable donations: all things I highly support.
And hey, the Top Chef label doesn't hurt. Despite finishing on the bottom several times, Chef Spike survived pretty far into the process, packing his knives only two rounds from the final. So the guy clearly has some talent, and I was curious to see what he does.
As I drove down a museum- and tourist-packed Pennsylvania Ave, I was shocked at how quickly it morphed into a residential street. The avenue's restaurants and bars, including Good Stuff Eatery and Chef Spike's latest creation next door, We, The Pizza, sit on a on the edge of what I assume is an impossibly expensive collection of tree-lined brownstones and a small, but pretty urban interruption: Seward Square Park.
My initial impression of the neighborhood may have been falsely elevated, as a parking spot materialized before me right in front of the restaurant! But leave it to my notoriously bad luck to set things straight: street signs stated that parking was metered until 6:30 pm but the meter said 8:30 pm. Add to my worries a ticket-adorned vehicle behind me and a meter maid decorating another car down the street. Pressing my parking meter's "Maximum Time" button deducted $3.00 from my credit card. At $1.50 per hour it should have given me two hours' worth of time -- enough to get me to 8:10 pm -- but instead gave me 20 minutes' worth, enough to get me to 6:30. (It should've been called the "Maximum Money" button.) I assumed that the meter's 8:30 pm sign was wrong, but with a conspicuous meter monitoring presence on the prowl, I was going to sweat bullets all throughout my dinner.
The restaurant interior pretty much aligned with my expectations: a deep but not wide interior space, an informal ordering counter, menu on the wall, visible chefs cooking the food, and polite staff who take pride in their work. You pour your own fountain drinks, though I don't know why anyone would want one when the restaurant hypes up its selection of hand-spun shakes and a handful of Boylan's old school soda choices beckon from a refrigerator before the counter.
Stairs lead up to the main seating area, where with two flat-screen TVs on the wall, one for MSNBC and one for CNN. (Hard to tell you're in DC, huh?) The Unpaid Gourmet said that their TVs premiered Top Chef Season 7: Washington, DC this year. I don't know if they show all Top Chef episodes every week, but they are open late enough to do that.
The menu was what I'd consider to be an appropriate size: too small and it's labeled not creative enough; too large and it's unfocused, or at least gives that appearance. To lengthen the menu would mean more ingredients and perhaps the need to compromise on what could be sourced locally versus purchased in lower-quality bulk. Those are my thoughts, anyway.
At the time that I went, there were three "handcrafted" burgers, and 10 standard burgers (they aren't handcrafted, too?), including a 'shroom veggie burger and a turkey burger. One also has the option to "cluck it" (hardy-har-har) and turn a burger into a chicken sandwich. No word on whether the 'shroom burger applies or if the restaurant possesses the alchemy necessary to turn a turkey into a chicken.
The burger menu at the time of my visit:
- Farmhouse Burger: natural farm raised beef
- Farmhouse Cheese: dairy fresh American cheese
- Farmhouse Bacon Cheese: applewood bacon and American cheese
Our Original Burgers
- Spike's Sunnyside: dairy fresh cheese, applewood bacon, a farm fresh fried egg on a brioche bun with Good Stuff Sauce
- Blazin' Barn: pickled daikon and carrots, mint, cilantro, Thai basil, lettuce, spicy mayo
- Free Range Turkey Burger: chunky avocado, muenster cheese, ruby tomato & lettuce on a Pennsylvania Dutch whole wheat bun
- Colletti's smokehouse: applewood bacon, sharp Vermont cheddar, fried Vidalia onion rings with chipotle BBQ sauce
- Big Stuff Bacon Meltdown: double patty, lots'a bacon, double cheese, ruby tomato, onions, lettuce & pickles with Good Stuff Sauce
- Good Stuff Melt: melted cheddar & muenster, caramelized onions & mushrooms with Good Stuff Sauce
- Uncle D's Chili 'n Cheddar: topped with spicy chili, cheddar sauce & green onions & a spoonful of sour cream
- Michelle Melt Free Range Turky [sic] Burger: caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, ruby tomato, lettuce on a freshly baked wheat bun with southlawn herb garden mayo
- Prez Obama Burger: applewood bacon, onion marmalade, Roquefort cheese & delicious horseradish mayo sauce
- Vegetarians are People Too 'Shroom Burger: organic portobello tops stuffed with muenster & cheddar, flash fried with Panko crumbs, ruby tomato, onions, lettuce & pickle with Good Stuff Sauce
Were it not Barack Obama's birthday yesterday, I might've ordered myself a Spike's Sunnyside to inspect the orangeness of the egg yolk (orange is a sign of grass-fed chickens that get more beta carotene) and to find out what that secret sauce is all about. I don't know what's in it other than molasses and homemade mayonnaise.
Or, I might have also ordered the Blazin' Barn, as it's the most out-of-the box burger on the list (it sounds kinda like bánh mì). If I were really hungry, I would've also ordered a simple farmhouse burger on the side to see what their unadulterated product did for me. ("Unadulterated" is a relative term, here. I don't know anybody who sits down to a naked patty on a plate.)
Prez Obama Burger
But, it was the President's birthday (August 4), so I had to order a Prez Obama Burger. And this is quite appropriate as it seems to be one of the most talked-about items on the menu. A John McCain burger (Southwestern chipotle mayo, corn and roasted red pepper salsa, jack cheese, lettuce, and tomato) also graced the menu during the 2008 presidential election. While that sounds pretty good to me, Serious Eats says the Obama burger outsold the McCain burger four to one (for politics or for taste?). So McCain got lopped off the menu. Who knows what would've happened if the McCain burger outsold the Obama burger, or if the Obama burger stayed the popular one but McCain won the race.
The burgers arrived separate from the shakes we ordered...odd because they buzzed us from the first floor and then took my buzzer; I had to get it back from them. They came individually (and tightly) wrapped, then packaged in a paper bag. Strange that a place with a Web page about its environmental commitment would use paper bags to serve food in-house. When I'm eating in, I don't need all that paper, and I certainly don't need a restaurant nudging my head into fast food mode.
Burger names marked up the wrappers in scribble -- a language in which I am sometimes illiterate -- so we had some work to do before distributing. As I peeled back the layers of taut hamburger packaging, I found an unevenly-smushed, ordinary potato bun glistening over a small stream of pooling beef juice. Observing this soggy scene unfolding before me, I opted to only partially fold back the paper and eat it as a burrito. The wet burger tasted quite good: it was cooked on the high side of medium (I didn't specify doneness...wonder if I could've ordered it medium rare), and the flavors blended nicely albeit a little too weakly for my taste. Burger purists might argue that as a good thing, but I don't see burger purists ordering an "original burger" in the first place.
The Roquefort on my first bite was awesome. When I peeked under the hood, I discovered the unfortunate reason why: all of the cheese had slid to one side. I fixed the problem, but then lost the intense cheesy goodness because each bite only had the normal, prescribed amount of cheese. More cheese! More flavor! My burger also missed a satisfying crunch I would've expected from the onion marmalade and the bacon.
My other dining partners had an Obama Burger and a Michelle Melt. Sadly, neither were impressed by their burgers, either.
One of my friends also didn't like her peaches n' cream hand-spun shake...I thought she was crazy for thinking so, but only badgered her a little over it because I became the recipient of said beverage. It was very good. So was the Oreo shake that I ordered.
(By the way, I don't know what "hand-spun" actually means. Good Stuff and Chick fil-A throw that term around a lot and I can't find a definition from a reliable source. As far as I can tell, it simply means that they are made to order, as I would expect.)
So what went wrong with the burgers? I place a lot of blame on the packaging. The tight paper probably squeezed some juice out of the burger, greasing both the top and bottom buns. It panini'ed my bun so it lacked some of the springy quality I like to see. Who moved my cheese? The bun probably did. I think losing the wrapper would solve 75% of the problems this burger has. "Squished," "ugly," and "wet" are not adjectives I like to see with my burger.
In my mind, changing out the potato roll would solve another 10%. If my bun wasn't mass-produced, I couldn't tell. If they want to go from "good" to "great," they should a) make their own buns, or b) source them from a local bakery (realistically, option b). They should also give us the option to toast.
Another 10%: More toppings, more flavor. That extra Roquefort made a big difference in flavor intensity. I imagine that a little more of everything would have helped. Even the horseradish mayo.
The last 5%: More crunch. I don't know how, though. I'm sure the onion marmalade probably takes some crunch from the rings...maybe a mixture of fresh onions with marmalade onions could do the trick? Doing so, though, would sacrifice the marmalade intensity. I wouldn't want that. Nor would I want them to cook their bacon longer for extra crunch; I'd rather have bacon than charcoal. Perhaps that bun toasting would take care of the extra 5% by itself.
Good Stuff Eatery was kind of a letdown for both me and my friends. But if the room were full of dissatisfied customers, you wouldn't know it by looking. The place has no shortage of business, though I do wonder to what extent the celebrity chef appeal drives their business. Spike doesn't have his own TV show (though he does have a Web show), so I wonder: if he stays out of the public eye long enough, would he and his would-be chain still remain popular and "relevant?" I guess time will tell.
I wish him luck, though. Anyone who uses their celebrity to promote causes such as local food, sustainability, and charitable donations is okay in my book. I'd still come back, and I'd like to check out that pizza place sometime. I just hope he doesn't wrap his pizzas.
[Teditor's Note: When I left the restaurant, no ticket on the car! Phew!]