Birmingham has a reputation for pretentious behavior, and it's well-deserved. Go out to the many eateries and bars in town, and you just might overhear the intoxicated, desperate housewife talking to the bartender about the struggles of owning personal aircraft. There are the teens who, armed with their parents' credit cards, spend afternoons splurging in high-end boutiques, and lunch hour for many of the well-to-do workforce often means cigars with the good ol' boys at Churchill's.
Along with that, there's the assumption that when dining in Birmingham, you'll encounter an air of stuffiness that's hard to ignore, which is why, when we learned about the new menu at the Townsend Hotel's Rugby Grille last winter, we couldn't help but chuckle at the irony.
At the heart of the new offerings is the obscenely priced foie burger. At $55, it screams "Birmingham." After all, who other than the extremely wealthy would spend that kind of dough, if for no other reason than to show that they can? At the same time, its mere presence says, "Yes, this is ridiculous, which is why you cannot resist."
The opulent burger comes from the imagination of Damian Yopek, who came onboard at Rugby Grille last fall as chef de cuisine. The metro Detroit native came to the Birmingham stalwart after stints in kitchens across the country, most recently as executive chef at D.C.-based Matchbox Food Group. His task was to come up with a menu that would renew interest in the longtime hotel restaurant. We think it's accomplished that, and then some.
The monstrosity looks more like it belongs in an eating contest than an award-winning, fine dining establishment. It towers with Wagyu beef, black truffles, a sweet onion jam, seared foie gras, arugula, parmesan aioli, braised short rib, and Thomasville tomme cheese, and is paired with summer truffle fries. For added effect, the bun is branded with the spot's signature "R," with a steak knife piercing right through it. The 8-ounce hamburger is then placed on an inches-thick cutting board, heavy enough for the server to strain while setting it on the table.
So, is this beast of a patty worth $55? Certainly the components are quite impressive. Black truffles these days go for about $95 per ounce. A pound of that coveted Japanese Wagyu can run almost $140 at Costco. And the foie is another $80 or so per pound.
Do the math alone, and the cost could be justified. Could, if not for the lingering question: What about the taste?
We attempted to find out during a recent visit. The first thing to consider: How does one even eat the thing? We cut through down the middle and made our first attempt. It took a few bites before we could fit all the ingredients in our mouth, but we made it. Each layer was delicious. Trouble was, when combined in a single mouthful, the many flavors conflicted with one another. By themselves, the short rib and jam would work well as a sandwich. Combined with the umami of the truffles and the rich, buttery profile of the cheese, plus the silkiness of the foie gras, not so much. Plus, with each bite, our hands became a sticky mess, with jelly spilling out all over them.
To remedy the disarray, we reached for a fork and knife and nibbled on each section one at a time, and we recommend you do the same. What we found was a treasure of a hamburger patty buried in between everything else. Finely seasoned, with a nice charred outer layer and sublime juiciness inside, and topped with the melted cheese and truffles — we could have fallen in love with that combination alone. The rest should be on their own.
To answer another question that's burning into your mind: No, we could not finish the burger.
Rounding out our experience, we also tried a divine appetizer of pear and Parmesan ravioli, with braised baby fennel, and fried sage, and a light yet flavorful tuna poke starter, with beets, edamame, hazelnut, frisee, and citrus thyme vinaigrette. Our dining partner chose the melt-in-your-mouth halibut with vegetable pot-au-feu. For dessert, a chocolate lava cake, with vanilla drizzle was simple — perhaps a little too simple compared to the intensity of what we had just indulged in.
Service was spot on, with our waiter taking care to match our courses with the appropriate wines, and giving thoughtful recommendations.
When we're exploring the many facets of dining in metro Detroit, we try to find the intention behind every meal that is prepared. In this case, we see a chef who's not afraid of to poke fun at the tony Birmingham establishment with the foie burger, while managing to prove his serious cooking chops at the same time.