First look: Flip Burger Boutique

Pity Richard Blais. The brilliant runner-up in Bravo's "Top Chef: Chicago" has a local history of jumping from one restaurant kitchen to the next.

Critics – by which I mean average foodies – grouse repeatedly about Blais' peripatetic ways. They want him to stick to one kitchen for a few years, pushing out the same menu night after night, refining his skills, holding his nose to the grindstone, learning to be miserable, laboring under owners who wave market receipts in his face and scream, "Less liquid nitrogen! I beg you! It's eating up our profits!"

My guess is that Blais would stick around a restaurant that a) gave him enough freedom to experiment fully and b) attracted the kind of business his work deserves. In the meantime, who can blame him for enjoying himself by following his bliss? Go, Richard.

His title at Flip (1587 Howell Mill Rd., 404-352-3547) is "creative director." He has designed a menu for owner Barry Mills that features wacky and mainly delicious takes on the classic American burger. I've visited the restaurant twice and found Blais cooking both visits. While I'm all for this concept, I think it would be ridiculous for Blais to devote his talents exclusively to this undertaking, no matter how much foodies think he should chain himself to one stove.

Not surprisingly, Flip has been packed, with waits of 30 to 45 minutes since the day it opened. The building design is by those edgy folks at ai3. I really love their work. It's heavy on graphics and a kind of abstracted playfulness with space. (Think the Globe design.) At Flip, the firm has riffed on the diner of the past, with oversized booths and long communal tables (as well as a literal counter with stools at the bar). Warning: It's noisy, really noisy.

Everything I've tasted was intriguing and tasty. My favorite has been the lamb burger with green olive relish, cucumber yogurt, raisin ketchup and mint. My reasons for this are partly nostalgic. My mother used to make me lamb burgers when I was a kid and I got a bit misty-eyed eating this more rococo version.

Nostalgia is part of the appeal of hamburgers, isn't it? It's a sandwich most of us grew up eating. But I think that also poses a problem. If the recipe drifts too far from the classic, I find myself balking for at least a few seconds.

I think maybe that's why the steak tartare "burger" was a stretch for me. I didn't like the squishy texture of the tartare on bread and there was a bit more garlic in the mix than I like, too. (I wonder if heavier toasting of the bun would help.) Being raw, it was kind of an "anti-burger" to my nostalgic palate.

Then again, I've not encountered anything like the Southern burger before and I liked it very much. It's a beef patty that's been "country-fried" in a bit of batter, lathered with pimento cheese and doused with "green tomato ketchup." The truth is that I liked it so much that I refused to share even a taste with a friend.

That brings up another point. These burgers are not sliders, but they're not huge either. You'll want sides and a milk shake if you just have one. If you're a professional eater, you'll eat the sides and shake and still order two burgers.

Other burgers I've favored include the pate melt made with veal and pork, Swiss cheese, cornichons and Dijon mustard. The bun mi, a take on the Vietnamese sandwich, features pork sausage with pickled veggies and herb salad. People who don't eat red meat can have a shrimp burger or a codfish sandwich. (I preferred the cod.) There's also a vegetarian choice, a mushroom burger, which I have not tried.

Blais is famous for his kinky milkshakes, especially the one made with foie gras. You won't find that on the menu here but you will find one made with Nutella and burnt marshmallows. There's also one made with a Krispy Kreme glazed donut blended in a glass. Maybe it was my mood, but I found the latter way too sweet, while the former – probably because of the scorched marshmallows – had a tingly note of distracting bitterness. There's also one made with pistachios and white truffle oil. I haven't tried it, mainly because I'm sick of white truffle oil.

I've liked all sides. In both my visits they were served as starters, which I don't quite understand. My favorite has been the Caesar salad with a smoky dressing, a spidery chile and two tempura-fried anchovies. (I would love to have an entree-sized portion of this.) I've preferred the tempura rutabagas over the French fries and vodka-battered onion rings. Roasted button mushrooms were oily and spicy. If it's available, don't miss the special of roasted cauliflower with strips of hot chilies.

Flip, by the way, is part of a national movement to elevate the burger to gourmet standards. The Counter (850 Mansell Rd., Roswell, 678-461-9661) allows diners to concoct their own combinations. Although, the national chain offers a "Japanese style ahi burger," most of the weirdness relies on the novelty of combinations individual diners choose. ...

The Lamplighter (280 Connally St., 404-567-3666) will debut its own menu of lunchtime "Shame Burgers" to go on Jan. 5. The "shame," I assume is simply consuming Chef Carmen Cappello's less-than-diet-conscious burger topped with cheese, scrapple and a fried egg.

The new menu takes the basic overladen double burger and adds everything from marinara to hot sauce. There's a "Shame Challenge," featuring the "Doctor Doctor" special – two of the double burgers, fully dressed. Anyone who manages to eat the entire thing will be awarded (a presumably XXXL) "Get Down with the Crown" t-shirt and a photo portrait to be posted on the restaurant's "wall of shame."

The Lamplighter will also be selling sandwiches made with chicken-fried tofu, hot dogs and fried chicken thighs. ...

Meanwhile, Ann's Snack Bar (1615 Memorial Dr., 404, 687-9207), whose "ghetto burger" was declared the best hamburger in America last year by the Wall Street Journal, continues to pack them in.

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