Is there any more quintessentially American food than a hamburger grilled outdoors? As Memorial Day weekend approaches, millions of families will fire up their grills and pile on the patties to welcome in the summer season. To help you make the best, tastiest burger possible, we consulted with Jim Leiken, executive chef of DBGB Kitchen and Bar, the casual, burger-centric downtown Manhattan restaurant that's part of chef Daniel Boulud's culinary empire.
To complete the party, we've suggested several recently rated Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet-based blends whose range of flavors and full-bodied nature make them a good match with grilled beef. Plus their prices top out at $21 (and there's even one for only $9), encouraging you to expand the guest list for your first outdoor party of the summer season.
Leiken has worked for Boulud since October 2001, cooking at Daniel and DB Bistro Moderne before being tapped to open DBGB in June 2009. He has a relatively simple burger philosophy, as befits a chef whose restaurant serves 200 to 300 of them every day. The chef says that his three basic burger rules are: "Quality meat, good seasoning, high heat." The restaurant's burgers are made from a blend of four cuts of beef: two different cuts from the chuck, or shoulder; a cut from the round, or leg; and a short-rib cut.
The meat is ground in-house and shaped into 6-ounce patties. While many cooks like to season the meat with spices, herbs, onions, garlic, sauces and the like before shaping it into patties, Leiken warns against this practice, explaining, "Salt naturally draws moisture out of whatever it touches. So if you season that mixture before you even shape your burger, it's going to start to 'cook' that meat from the inside, the burger will start to sweat and you won't get that nice sear from the grill."
DBGB's cooks give each burger an aggressive once-over with freshly ground black pepper and salt just before the burger hits the super-hot grill, whose high heat is necessary for the caramelized, crusty exterior that is arguably the whole point of cooking on the grill. Leiken uses the exterior of the burger as a measure of its doneness: "Once you've got a nice caramelization on both sides, the burger is cooked to medium-rare, which is how our customers tend to order it."
DBGB serves burgers topped with arugula, confit pork belly, morbier cheese (for a burger called "the Frenchie") and barbecued pulled pork and jalapeño mayonnaise ("the Piggy"), but there is also, refreshingly, a burger topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, bacon and cheddar cheese, called "the Yankee." It's unimpeachably American (save for the brioche bun), and it should serve as a great model for your own Memorial Day entertaining.
RECOMMENDED CABERNET SAUVIGNONS AND CABERNET BLENDS
CONCHA Y TORO Cabernet Sauvignon Puente Alto Marqués de Casa Concha 2007 Score: 91 | $21
Rock-solid, with dark currant, fig and blackberry fruit flavors supported by briar, licorice snap and coffee notes. The long, muscular finish should soften with moderate cellaring. Drink now through 2012. 83,500 cases made. —J.M.
CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2007 Score: 89 | $16
Lithe, supple and appealing for its polished texture and pretty cherry and chocolate flavors, lingering well. Drink now. 150,000 cases made. —H.S.
COLUMBIA CREST Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Grand Estates 2007 Score: 89 | $11
Supple and surprisingly complex, this is generous with its meaty currant and blackberry flavors, remaining polished and finishing with clarity. Drink now through 2015. 170,000 cases made. —H.S.
THE MAGNIFICENT WINE COMPANY House Wine Red Columbia Valley 2007 Score: 89 | $13
On the lighter side, showing lovely red berry and sweet red pepper flavors that settle gently onto a bed of silky tannins. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Drink now through 2014. 60,000 cases made. —H.S.
WARWICK The First Lady Western Cape 2007 Score: 89 | $15
Juicy, with a good core of dark cherry, currant and fig fruit laced with sweet spice hints. There's a lingering plum sauce note on the full-bodied finish. Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Drink now. 15,000 cases made. —J.M.
BLEASDALE Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon Langhorne Creek The Broad-Side 2006 Score: 88 | $14
Smooth and generous, a distinctive mouthful of mint-accented black cherry and tar flavors, long and appealing. Drink now through 2014. 8,000 cases made. —H.S.
COVEY RUN Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2006 Score: 88 | $9
Deftly balanced, supporting its bright raspberry, red cherry and delicate herb aromas and flavors with refined tannins. A stylish wine that never flags. Drink now. 25,000 cases made. —H.S.
MONTGRAS Quatro Colchagua Valley 2008 Score: 88 | $15
Bright and juicy, with a nice graphite-driven core of blackberry, raspberry ganache and tobacco notes. Very solid. Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Carmenère and Syrah. Drink now. 20,000 cases made. —J.M.
CHARLES & CHARLES Volume II Red Columbia Valley 2007 Score: 87 | $12
Polished and generous, with a green olive edge to the dark berry flavors, lingering softly. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Drink now. 10,500 cases made. —H.S.
CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Indian Wells 2007 Score: 87 | $18
Bright, focused and juicy, with cherry and espresso aromas and flavors, lingering easily against refined tannins. Drink now through 2012. 42,000 cases made. —H.S.
CONCHA Y TORO Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah Maipo Valley Casillero del Diablo Reserva Privada 2007 Score: 87 | $14
Ripe, with a tasty core of blackberry, fig and boysenberry fruit, laced with mocha and melted licorice notes, followed by a fleshy finish. Drink now. 70,000 cases made. —J.M.
FIRST DROP The Red One South Australia 2009 Score: 87 | $12
This soft, fragrant red offers ripe currant and herb flavors that linger easily. Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Barbera, Trincadeira, Tempranillo and Nebbiolo. Drink now. 14,000 cases made. —H.S.
HOGUE Cabernet-Merlot Columbia Valley 2007 Score: 87 | $11
Crisp, with juicy red berry and cherry fruit on a lively, focused frame, picking up meaty notes on the finish. Drink now through 2011. 10,125 cases made. —H.S.
SEBASTIANI Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2006 Score: 87 | $18
A subdued, rich and chewy youngster, full-bodied, offering currant, blackberry, cedar, anise and graphite, ending with chewy tannins. Drink now through 2016. Tasted twice, with consistent notes. 120,123 cases made. —J.L.