Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In re Sparkle's Hamburger Spot

Before the Burger Court of Houston, Texas

Docket No. 3



Opinion for the court filed by LAHAD, J, in which JJ. GUTTING and BRINKMANN join.

LAHAD, J. Before the Court is the submission of Sparkle’s Hamburger Spot (“Sparkle”). We hold that Sparkle, despite its nearly unconscionable sides, serves a flavorful and well-made hamburger thus warranting an A- rating.


Sparkle petitioned this Court in forma pauperis but declined to have counsel appointed. After the required Faretta colloquy, this Court granted Sparkle’s request to proceed pro se. Located on the corner of Dowling and Jefferson streets in Houston’s Third Ward, Sparkle consists of a small blue building that serves as the kitchen and front desk. Seating is limited to a pair of picnic tables that have seen better days. Based on discovery obtained, no one actually eats at Sparkle’s location. Rather, food ordered and taken to another location for consumption. The picnic tables provided at Sparkle, then, are primarily used to wait for one’s order.

The extensive menu at Sparkle includes single and double versions of hamburgers and cheeseburgers, the expected sides, as well as some interesting fare like “pork chop sandwich.” Indeed, several amici have pointed to such unique menu elements, real ice cream shakes and local flair as factors. Pork chops and ice cream aside, this Court limits its holdings and reasoning to genuine burger cases and controversies. Petitioners and amici would do well not to view dicta within our case law as advisory opinions about sides, shakes, or scenery. However, it is emphatically the province and duty of this Court to say what the burger law is.

The Court reviewed three Sparkle offerings: 1) a double hamburger; 2) a cheeseburger; and 3) a double cheeseburger. The aforementioned lack of seating and the steamy weather forced the Court’s conference to Justice Brinkmann’s chambers.

The Hamburger

While waiting for the burgers, this Justice observed a gentlemen in the kitchen grab hunks of ground beef and roll them into baseball-sized globs of meat. The resulting burgers indicated that these meat baseballs were the patties’ progenitors. Simply, the patties at Sparkle are, to use the parlance of our times, large and in-charge. Transporting the meals back to chambers constituted a workout sufficient to offset a few of the burgers’ calories. The fear, however, is that such large mounds of ground beef will have charred skin yet raw centers. At Sparkle the adept grill-mistress knew exactly how to handle the patties. Despite easily crossing the half-pound threshold, the patties on each burger were well-cooked to medium.

Similarly, often the larger a food item, the less flavor it has. Grapes are a prime example. Fortunately, the patty at Sparkle does not fall into this category. The patty was not too salty or peppery. Rather, it had a welcome beefy flavor, perhaps enhanced by its sheer mass. It would have been a major disappointment had Sparkle’s beefy patty been bland or tasteless. Special mention should be given to the temperature of the patties. The patties were piping hot even after the additional time from receipt to conference.

In a world of brioche and where custom buns are nearly as prevalent as custom wheels, Sparkle’s bun exemplifies ordinary. Of the three burgers, only the double-hamburger’s bun integrity failed. The other two pairs of burger buns held up to the patties. The potential culprit could be the additional patty on the double- hamburger. This is, however, difficult to reconcile with the fact that buns on the double-cheeseburger maintained their structure.

A continuing debate among members of the hamburger bar concerns onions. The question is not whether onions should be include, for it is well-accepted that onions enhanced flavor and freshness and add moisture. Rather, the debate surrounds whether those onions should be diced or not. This Justice’s hamburger had a single large ring of onion – about 4 inches in diameter and about ¼ inch thick. Regardless of one’s position about onions, it is evident that a single fat onion ring on a burger results in the awkward pull-the-entire-ring-out-in-a-bite situation. Highly disfavored.


Sparkle offers the basic side items as well as chili-cheese variants of each. The approach to sides at Sparkle is the exact opposite of its approach to burgers. The French fries were an odd consistency conservatively dusted with some kind of seasoning. The curly fries almost eluded review for lack of sufficient fries to review. The $2 order of chili cheese curly fries lacked the chili and cheese and maybe came in at 1 oz. Poor form on two counts.

As this Court has made clear, a party is reviewed on burger alone. Suffice it to say that this standard has benefitted several parties. In sum, this Court finds that Sparkle burger serves a large juicy hamburger, well seasoned and cooked, that warrants an A- rating.


Gutting, J., concurring. I join the Court's opinion but write separately to explicate on Sparkle's side dishes. Deplorable, though inexpensive, they are, it is virtually impossible to judge what, if any, merit they have. The sample size simply is too small. Eating an order of Sparkle's fries is like taking the slightest gasp of air. It is essentially without substance. Or sustenance. It is fortunate for Sparkle's Hamburger Spot they make such outstanding and generous burgers. This Court cannot and should not allow itself to be distracted by lesser subject matter in its pursuit of burger justice, as the final (and correct) judgment of Sparkle Burger has been rendered today. I applaud my learned brethren for this judicious evaluation of an excellent hamburger.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review: Cyrus

Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, California, has played a leading role in making Sonoma County in general and the Russian River Valley in particular the trendy pick in wine country since it opened in 2005. In 2006, it became one of four Bay Area restaurants to garner two Michelin stars in the guide’s first San Francisco rankings. It’s a restaurant with flair — from the Champagne and caviar cart to the formal service — and a compelling narrative. Chef Douglas Keane, a protégé of Gary Danko, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004 during the planning of Cyrus. The tumor turned out to be benign, and Keane has blazed the trail of success since.

Cyrus stands out in Sonoma County’s casual answer to the more showy grandeur of Napa Valley, because it is so formal. At the same time, it is just the sort of standard the area needed to be taken seriously at the highest levels — plus the magnificent wines of Sonoma deserve a restaurant that is a showcase.

In its earlier days, Cyrus suffered from occasional variability. But the past two years, it has been consistently excellent and quite worthy of its two stars. A recent visit confirmed Keane and his staff have settled in nicely, comfortable with the style and striding forward with marvelous creativity.

The meal began with a tower of canapés, each showcasing a different flavor: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and that ill-defined but popular umami. It was an almost Alinea-like focus to begin the meal and quite interesting. The main event began with an amuse bouche of gorgeously fresh kona kampachi topped with a extra small fried shrimp that added texture.

Next, a Keane signature: Thai-marinated lobster with avocado, mango, and hearts of palm, topped with a Thai basil sauce that brings the entire refreshing dish together. It is so alive and delightful, complemented beautifully by a dry German Riesling from the Pfalz, Okonomierat Rebhold “vom Rotliegenden” 2005.

The lobster, perhaps the high of the meal, preceded a choice between torchon of foie gras or gnocchi with morels. The torchon, salt-cured and accompanied by tamarind and dates, got a terrific acidic bite from pickled onions and a reliable German wine, Selbach-Oster Riesling Spatlese Zeltinger Scholossberg from the excellent 2007 vintage. The gnocchi also shone, tasty pillows with bite, but the fresh morels stole the show.

Up next was a delightful scallop dish with a Spanish touch. Cooked skillfully and crusted on one side with chorizo, it was complemented beautifully by a mussel broth and fresh cockle. The downside was the wine pairing, a Manzanilla sherry from Hidalgo that did nothing for the food. What is with the trend toward pairing sherry at least once during a tasting menu? This could have been such an opportunity to complement the scallop and chorizo with the spice of Tempranillo or Garnacha. Or just stick with the classic scallop pairing, Albarino. Sherry overpowered the delicacy of the scallop and didn’t mesh with the chorizo.

Keane’s Asian influence came through in the fourth course. Crisp duck breast came atop a scallion rice cake with maitake mushroom and ponzu. The duck was delightful, but the rice cake was tough and chewy, like a Rice Krispie treat that has been left out on the counter overnight. The marvelous sauce and mushrooms cancelled it out, as did a terrific Camus-Bruchon Savigny-les-Beaune 2006.

Up next, a magnificent wagyu beef with burdock and shiso with a remarkable, richly flavored oxtail umeshu consommé. It is possible the wagyu was one of the most tender and delicious pieces of beef in human history, rivaling even the awe-inspiring product of Bryan Flannery. Almost as good, however, was the other fifth-course choice: lamb roulade with celery root, parsnip, and turnip. A slice of black truffle in the roulade cut the lamb flavor slightly, adding an earthy note that played well with the root vegetables.

The cheese plate is notable, although not as profound as Tru in Chicago, but it was complemented by a tremendous 2006 Vouvray from Champalou.. There is a variety of selection, including a sheep’s milk cheese that betrays no sweat-sock notes. To cleanse the richness of the meat dishes and cheese, Keane goes beyond the usual sorbet. Out comes a verjus sorbet, with a crisp, palate-sharpening blood orange and Riesling soup. It’s served with a piece of crystallized picholine olive brittle. This was supremely refreshing, clearing the way for dessert.

Dessert was a bit hit-or-miss. Each choice contained excellent elements, but each also included an unsuccessful flirtation with savory flavors. There was a remarkable, classic tiramisu with a spoonful of cappuccino foam and a surprisingly delicate espresso gelato. The dish suffered from out-of-place caramelized fennel sprinkled on it. Then there was a terrific five spice cake with a passion fruit macaroon, each of which stood out for its flavor and execution. But a Thai basil-coconut milk gelato was bizarre, sticking out as inappropriate on the plate. This was a fine example of the need for serious reflection before pastry chefs make forays into sweet-savory interplay. Such experimentation isn’t required. Sometimes a sweet dessert is enough, and the night’s efforts underscored that fewer elements would have been more. Fortunately, each dessert came with an interesting and tasty wine. The tiramisu showcased the viscous and surprisingly acidic Maury Roussillon Mas Amiel 1990, while the five-spice cake provided a nice foil to the tropical richness of another German 2007, the Weegmuller Scherebe Auslese Haardter Mandelring.

As a whole, however, the tasting menu at Cyrus is well worth the trip. It is thoughtfully constructed and well-executed. The service is smooth, with enough casual touches to remind you you’re in Sonoma. Additionally, it’s worth remembering what a young restaurant this is. Open for a little more than four years, it’s astonishing the level Keane and his staff operate at. This is a worthy dining experience and an attraction worth seeking out. Cyrus hasn’t even reached its adolescence, yet it already hits high notes worthy of some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country. With supreme focus and continued dedication, it’s plausible, if still a long shot, to see how Keane and company might give the French Laundry and its ilk a run for their money.