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It begins before I even cut into my burger at Grease Burger Bar in West Palm Beach: A nervous swelling fills my stomach, the same mixture of fear and anxiousness I get every time I order a hamburger at a restaurant I've never been to before, knowing it's probably going to come out two shades darker than it should. It feels something like that scene in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen is freaking out in his hotel room while the Doors' "The End" plays in the background. Only I'm not going off to find Col. Kurtz. I simply want a burger cooked medium rare.
I move my knife through the toasty bun and into the burger, cutting it in half. It's barely pink inside, a far cry from the warm, red center I was after.
I'm a firm believer that cooking a piece of beef past medium should be a punishable offense. I also figure a joint that so unabashedly names itself Grease and specializes in nothing but burgers ought to put out the juiciest, most perfectly cooked, most true-to-form version of the dish around. And Grease has a ways to go before it can claim to have even a passable burger.
213 Clematis St.
West Palm Beach, FL 33401
Region: West Palm Beach
Since it opened it January, Grease has enjoyed a steady stream of clients looking to escape the economic downturn with the comforting embrace of cheap, fatty food. It's a concept that's worked as of late for the owner, Big Time Restaurant Group, whose Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar across Clematis Street buzzes like a juiced-up bug zapper.
On a recent Saturday night, the 6-month-old eatery bursts with families pounding burgers in unison, young couples on informal dates, and businessmen with Grease's cutesy, dish-towel napkins tucked into their starched collars. The restaurant space — which formerly belonged to the bar Nobles — is abnormally long, with a 50-foot-plus bar that marches down the entire length of one wall, past dozens of glossy high-tops and a spattering of flat-screen TVs. Along the brick wall opposite the bar are hundreds of photos of old-timey hamburger joints, nostalgic propaganda pieces decrying vegetarianism, and even a picture of President Obama gazing longingly into a beer. Another poster extols the salutatory qualities of the hamburger (one of the dish's lesser-known traits). I think to myself, I'm in good company after all.
We sit down at a high-top in the middle of the long room and take a look at the menu. Grease keeps things decidedly simple: There are a half-dozen salads, from standard caesar to one chock-full of veggies; some burger alternatives, including hot dogs and a chicken sandwich; and six or so specialty burgers, all of which are customizable by adding or subtracting toppings like sautéed onions, applewood-smoked bacon, and a standard selection of cheeses for about a dollar each. Fries and onion rings too are à la carte. When our server comes around, he's eager to answer our questions. I ask him for a medium-rare cheeseburger with mushrooms and Swiss ($8.95). My companions order onion-studded sliders on potato rolls done medium ($10.95); a medium-rare black and blue burger with gobs of blue cheese, bacon, and blackened seasoning ($9.95); and an organic burger with cheddar cheese done medium well ($11.95). On the side, we get a basket of "OMG" cheese fries ($3.75) and some house-made onions rings ($2.50).
While we wait, we take a stab at Grease's sizable list of craft beers, proudly displayed on a wall-spanning chalkboard along the back end of the restaurant. It's an impressive collection, with more than 50 entries from American breweries like Allagash, Dogfish Head, Stone, and Rogue, including a few from Native Brewery, the in-house label of Fort Lauderdale-based craft beer distributor Fresh Beer. Most bottles are reasonably priced: A bottle of smooth-drinking Brooklyn Lager sells for $5, while harder-to-find selections like Sprecher Brewing Co.'s Special Amber go for $6. For those who don't crave beer with their burger, there are just over two dozen bottles of wine to choose from — though many are supermarket labels such as Kendall Jackson, Beringer, or Fat Bastard. I choose Midas Touch ($7), a Turkish-style brew infused with honey, saffron, and muscat grapes. The golden brew is tangy and crisp with a wine-like fruitiness, and, at 9 percent alcohol by volume, it leaves a throaty hum in its wake. It's just one of the great selections in a beer list that's by far the best thing about the place.
When our burgers arrive, they look picture-perfect. The ten-ounce patties are made from grass-fed beef ground daily, loosely packed and griddle-cooked to a caramelized char. Each comes with quality lettuce, tomato, and onion and a few slices of dill pickles on the side. The cakey, yellow buns are served open face so you can see the nicely toasted interior, which crunches slightly when you bite into it. But the outside is wet with a layer of grease, making it somewhat messy to handle.
Sadly, the illusion of perfection dissipates from there. Grease's meat itself is seasoned well and tastes deep and earthy, with the slick mouth-feel demonstrative of a good fat-to-meat ratio. But my burger is way overcooked, with only a thin, eighth-inch strip of pink running down the middle. And oddly, the slice of Swiss cheese on top is not even melted, like it came straight from the fridge during plating. The same problem plagues our black and blue burger — it's also overdone, and the blue cheese is cold and mealy. And the only evidence of the blackened seasoning used on the burger is a slight peppery tingle. For a sandwich that combines such roaring flavors — strong cheese, hearty meat, bacon, pepper — it tastes like it has been dialed down to a dull moan.