March 14, 2012
Burger scandals in East Sac, and how they can be resolved

20111102_AOC_Junos_320w.jpgTwo of the best gourmet hamburgers on planet earth can both be found on J Street within a couple of blocks of one another in East Sacramento.

But life at the top isn't all it's cracked up to be. In fact, there's burger-centric controversy simmering at both restaurants - Juno's Kitchen and Delicatessen and Formoli's Bistro.

This isn't about a rivalry. Each "controversy" stands on its own, the only connection being the excellence of the burgers and the sometimes negative reaction from customers.

Let me explain, beginning with Juno's.

For a good while after opening last fall, chef/owner Mark Helms was using Wagyu beef from New Zealand for his hamburgers. It was pricy, but Helms thought it was worth it to make his burgers stand out. Just one problem: this kind of heavily marbled, full-flavored beef should be cooked no more than medium-rare. That doesn't mean pink in the middle. That means red. And that, it turns out, is not for everyone.

Last November in a "First Impressions" piece, this is what I said about Juno's, "Our burger was cooked perfectly medium-rare. With beef of this standard, going beyond medium would defeat the purpose and dry it out. Add caramelized onions, manchego cheese, aioli, pickled cucumbers and a special bun from Acme, and we're looking at a trophy burger possibly without peer."

Despite the fanfare from burger aficionados, not everyone was picking up what Helms was putting down. And lo and behold, not everyone read what I wrote! I just got off the phone with Helms. I called him when I heard he had changed beef products. I was startled.

Helms explained: "There were a lot of medium-well orders. At first, I wouldn't cook it medium-well; I would suggest they try something else, but the reaction was not good. Past medium, it's just going to dry out and it will be horrible - and I don't want you to eat something horrible in my shop. When it's cooked down, it starts to taste like liver and it starts to taste like cheap meat."

Helms tells me about 25 percent of his customers were ordering their burgers well done. That's alarming. I thought this subject was closed 25 years ago. I thought people realized that with a premium product, it was not only safe but desirable to eat it at medium-rare or even rare, temperatures at which the meat can express the most desired flavors and texture.

One night, the chef tells me, "I got in an argument (with a customer) and that's when I decided - after I calmed down - that I should watch it. I don't want to ruin my business."

So, Helms made a change without necessarily sacrificing quality. He stopped carrying the Wagyu and went with an Angus ground beef product.

"Angus is a stellar product and it makes everyone happy," Helms said.

Now, for well-done orders, Helms will grill it, then put the burger in a pan with butter, sauté it and then finish it in the oven at 450 degrees.

He still doesn't think burgers should be cooked past medium-rare, but he also wants to keep his customers.

To me, a big part of the dining experience is placing your trust in the hands of the chef. Helms is someone you can trust. He's earned it. He makes his own brioche burger buns. He's making the sourdough bread the way it was made a century ago, absent any commercial yeast. He's the real deal.

But if you want a burger that's really, really cooked through, he'll give you his best and try to make you happy.

RCB_20091016_Whiskey Burger_ 084.jpgFormoli's is a different case. I spoke with owner/chef Aimal Formoli about the controversy that erupted when he and his staff decided recently to take the bistro's famous "whiskey burger" off the menu on the weekends.

Huh? That's right, this chef and his kitchen staff hope to elevate their games and they wanted to encourage customers, regulars and newcomers alike, to try some of their new creations.

This is a sophisticated kitchen, but customers kept demanding the whiskey burger, which had become too famous for its own good. And when customers couldn't get the burger, they had a digital hissy fit by slamming Formoli's on Yelp.

Suddenly, the beloved restaurant that moved to larger digs so it could continue to grow and evolve, was getting its first real dose of negativity. Formoli was clearly hurt by the digs on Yelp and told me "it's hard not to take it personally."

While it's not my place to offer advice to chefs and restaurateurs, I told Formoli that while he has, indeed, grown as a chef and that his talents are not in dispute, he has not done a very good job telling his story and explaining his thoughts about food, cooking and creativity.

I looked at his Facebook page. I looked at the website. Not good. Not active. Not lively. Not really up to date.

If Formoli wants his customers to follow him as he takes chances and creates new dishes and flavor combinations, he needs to explain what he is getting at and share his passion with his fans and skeptics alike. With Facebook, with blogs, with Twitter, it's easy and unfiltered. Say your piece. Then wake up the next day and say some more. And never stop explaining and telling your story.

I suggested to Formoli that he monitor the local restaurants that really do well at banging the drum, connecting with customers and using social media to get their message out there. I'm thinking of places like Hot Italian and the Selland Group (Ella, The Kitchen and Selland's Market-Café). Even the stately old Firehouse Restaurant is skating circles around Formoli's when it comes to connecting with readers. Did you know the Firehouse has lots of recipes on its website? That it has its massive wine list formatted for the iPad? Before chef Michael Tuohy left Grange last year, he maintained an excellent blog on the restaurant/hotel's website, explaining his thoughts about food, farms, butchery, cooking and anything else related to the culinary experience. The reader would learn a lot about Tuohy the chef and the person, and Tuohy demonstrated just how effective the blog could be in connecting with folks who loved food. And beyond cyberspace (do people still use that word?), look at what restaurateurs like Biba Caggiano and Patrick Mulvaney do in the community.

Once Formoli explains himself, I think he'll win back those disgruntled customers and gain even more fans. Being a chef these days involves far more than sourcing products, designing menus and cooking food. You have to be a multi-media impresario if you want to compete.

That whiskey burger, by the way, is still available at lunch and on weekdays for dinner. Just don't order it well-done!

So there you have it, two great burgers that somehow got out of hand. If you want to support these two chefs, try their amazing burgers, then go back and try some of their other excellent offerings. If you want the city's restaurant scene to continue to evolve, it's a good idea to get behind those chefs who push themselves to reach higher and be better.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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