One man's perfect burger is another man's imperfect burger.
Then again, one man's "perfect burger" could change from hour to hour. One minute, I might crave a chef's concoction like the bistro burger at Big Bear Brewing Co. — a beast mounted with Brie and bacon, slathered with a whole onion's worth of caramelized goodness, and smeared with red pepper aioli. It's halitosis on a plate, but damn, is it good! Other times, I like the honest simplicity of a griddled, thin patty of freshly ground beef like the ones at Jack's Old Fashion Hamburgers in Fort Lauderdale. There's absolutely nothing on the burger to muck it up — just the intense flavor of seared meat, echoing the flavor of a hundred thousand burgers cooked before it.
There are so many great burgers out there. That's why I like the idea behind Relish, a 2-month-old burger joint, probably more than any other new American eatery that's opened in the past few years. The entire concept — which takes mix 'n' match to a new level — revolves around free will, choice, and personal responsibility. It's one gosh-durned American approach to one gosh-durned American food.
But first: Do you have trouble making decisions? If so, Relish will give you fits.
To start, diners must choose from 12 types of burgers: beef, all-white-meat turkey, tuna, mahi-mahi, crab, shrimp, black bean, mushroom, lamb, buffalo, veal, or lobster. Relish's owners, Daniel and Desiree Tobin, put great effort into each variety, all of which are freshly ground or made in-house each day. It would've been an easy copout to sell a prepackaged black bean patty, for example, but Relish's version is made from scratch ($5.49). Ditto with the lobster burger ($15.99), made with big chunks of fresh Maine lobster that's trucked in daily.
Next, diners choose from Relish's 20-plus gourmet toppings. Each topping is called "relish," but that's really a loose interpretation of the term; not every one is a pickled vegetable in a sauce. There are relatively normal offerings like lettuce slaw and drunken onions cooked in lager. And then there's the wacky stuff I would never have thought to put on a burger in a million years, like oven-roasted beets with fresh herbs or shaved asparagus with white wine and tarragon. Burger geeks will swoon over the sweet and smoky bacon jam, and haute gourmet types will pine for the mushroom and leek with thyme and obsess over which patty it'll taste best on.
The mix-and-match concept is mirrored on down the menu, from fries and onion rings (top them with your choice of six gourmet salts) to milk shakes (there are more than a dozen flavors).
This unique approach to burgery is located in the heart of Northwood, a historical urban area in West Palm Beach. The area has been gentrified, but plenty of black-owned businesses, restaurants, and corner markets remain situated next to fancy wine bars and upscale Asian joints. The whole mini-downtown block of Northwood Road has something of a sleepy, bohemian vibe. Maybe too sleepy: On a recent weekend night, Relish was damned near empty despite brisk business at the wine bar nearby. I hope the place didn't miss the burger boat.
The restaurant occupies the end space on the block to its fullest. The two-story façade stretches tall with signage and broad glass windows that fill the place with light and life. Diners order at the bright counter and take a seat either inside or out; staff will bring the food when it's ready. This casual feel offsets the complexity of the menu somewhat, but Relish virgins will still probably spend a good bit of time at the front of the line wondering what the hell to order.
On my first visit, I had to order a simple all-beef burger ($5.29) just to see how Relish handles the basic stuff. And the verdict is "expertly." The half-pound patties are ground in-house daily and cooked on a good old-fashioned serrated grill. When I spoke to them over the phone, the Tobins were pretty secretive about their blend of beef used. But they did reveal that it contains both short rib and skirt to achieve a proper fat-to-meat ratio. The result of all that is a burger that comes out deeply charred with a core of rosy pink running through the center. Take a bite and flecks of fat and blood drip from the squishy Kaiser roll onto the paper-lined tray.
Each burger comes with one relish, but you can add another for 99 cents more. You'll pay a dollar more as well for cheese (choice of cheddar, Swiss, American, and Brie), though the standard trifecta of lettuce, tomato, and onion is free for the asking.
I brought a group of friends to Relish on another visit, and pretty much everyone decided to stick with red meat and get adventurous with the toppings. One friend topped a lamb burger with Swiss and piquant avocado ($8.99), which is a fancier way of saying guacamole. Another got buffalo with cold eggplant caponata ($9.49). The creamy, roasted vegetable was great on the steak-like patty, we all decided, but the temperature difference between chilled relish and hot burger was a bit jarring. Still, my favorite had to be the bacon jam, an idea so brilliant and heavenly that I could tell right away it was going to be my favorite thing in the place. In it, chunks of smoky bacon cavorted with sweet preserves (figs, I think). It made for one helluva combination on top of a beef burger lavished with plenty of sharp cheddar cheese.
Of course, with this many options, there are bound to be some things Relish doesn't nail. For me, it was the milk shakes ($4.69). Although they're made from scratch and come in an array of choices like bananas foster and red velvet, the flavor in each shake seemed dialed down to a dull moan. And as for the sides, the hand-cut French fries ($2.49) are fine, but the gourmet salts served with them (truffle, sea salt, chipotle, et al.) really need to be added when they're straight from the fryer instead of being served in a plastic cup on the side. (That's really the only way the food will absorb the seasoning, was one of my friends' scientific hypothesis.) The shoestring onion loaf ($2.99) needs work as well — I prefer a thick, crisp onion ring over mealy little wisps like these any day.
There's one other thing Relish totally delivers on: cookies. It's $3.49 for an order of three fresh-baked hunks of happiness. There are choices (of course!): six types of cookies (peanut butter, inside-out, toffee, sugar, chocolate chip, and carrot) and six flavors of dipping sauces (nutella, dark chocolate, marshmallow, cream cheese frosting, malted milk, and strawberries 'n' cream). We ended up with a tray of warm chocolate-chip cookies spread with a blanket of creamy Nutella. The lot of us just about died right there.