The sharply dressed Dubai lunch crowd probably didn’t choose Nobu because they fancied a hamburger. But according to the chef de cuisine, Hervé Courtot, a miniature burger slider has become one of the exclusive Japanese restaurant’s most popular starters since it appeared on the menu a few months ago. Of course, these are no ordinary quarter-pounders: think Wagyu beef, shiitake mushrooms and truffle mayonnaise, all encased in an egg-tofu bun invented by Nobu Matsuhisa himself.
And Nobu isn’t alone: a global trend for luxury burgers means that fine-dining establishments everywhere are putting their own spin on a dish that was once the preserve of fast-food outlets. At Kitchen 45, the Wagyu beef burger is topped with Boschetto al Tartufo, a soft cheese made of cow’s and sheep’s milk while, at his Twenty10 restaurant, Gary Rhodes has dispensed with the traditional bun, placing chopped fillet-steak patties on discs of roast confit potato and topping them with foie gras.
“It was just giving a burger a different identity,” says Rhodes. “Ours uses the finest, most melting-textured meat. It’s got a devilled sauce made with crushed black peppercorns and that piquancy cuts through the foie gras. And then we’re making these lovely potato cakes, which are slowly confit in either butter or duck fat. It’s really quite sensational to eat and something that we’ve become renowned for.”
The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal’s steakhouse, The Forge, offers the WOW Burger, which offers 300 grams of Wagyu beef, pan-fried duck liver, truffle sauce, caramelised onion and ceps (mushroom) compote – all for Dh350. The restaurant has a High-End Burger promotion until the end of March, featuring six selections including the Black Truffle Kobe and Surf and Turf. Some chefs have gone even further – at Le Café in the Emirates Palace, camel burgers are scattered with edible gold leaf – but for Chris Lester, the regional chef director for Caprice Holdings, simplicity is key. “A burger is the ultimate comfort food; a little reward after a hard week,” he says. “At Rivington Grill, we make the patty ourselves, chopping Angus rump beef and serving it with either a Welsh rarebit or applewood-smoked cheddar topping and a small garnish of fat chips.”
Under Lester’s purview The Ivy Dubai has served a lobster burger, and while a shrimp burger appears at Scott’s in Abu Dhabi from time to time, he fears to take the beef burger off the menu at Rivington Grill. “I think I’d be lynched,” he says.
The trend for premium burgers is generally traced back to Daniel Boulud, the French chef and restaurateur whose New York restaurant, Daniel, holds three Michelin stars. When his countrymen protested against McDonald’s in the early 2000s, Boulud remarked that the French were jealous that they had not invented the hamburger themselves – and went on to create the DB burger, a dish that changed the landscape of the American staple. A sirloin burger with a cube of foie gras in the middle, topped with braised short ribs and black truffle, served in a Parmesan-dusted bun, the DB inspired chefs around the world to come up with their own luxury creations using everything from caviar to veal bacon.
In the process, they often created an accessible entry point to their menus for cautious or cost-conscious diners. “People love a good-quality burger and it tends to be a more affordable option on what can otherwise be quite an expensive menu,” says Samantha Wood, the founder of the restaurant review blog www.foodiva.net and contributor to The National.
Happily, for those who rarely frequent luxury restaurants, there has been a trickle-down effect, with several mid-range gourmet burger brands appearing in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Wood is a fan of Elevation Burger’s lettuce wrap as a lighter take on the dish (certainly lighter than the “vertigo burger”, a stack of four or more cheese-topped patties), while the New Zealand chain Burger Fuel recently opened the world’s first gourmet burger drive-thru on Sheikh Zayed Road. Now connoisseurs are looking forward to the first international outpost of Krush Burger, a Californian chain that began life as a high-end burger truck, in Dubai.
With so much activity in the market, Krush’s “chief burger flipper” Davin Vculek believes that staying premium is the key to success. “It will be interesting to see how the ‘better burger’ segment plays out in the next few years,” he says. “I think many businesses are riding the heat while forgetting about setting themselves apart.”
But with the likes of Nobu and Rhodes at the luxury end of the market, the heat is certainly on.
• Look out for Arts&Life’s burger road test on Wednesday, March 26, where we test and rate the many burger offerings in the UAE – and choose the best