Local restaurateur David Fink’s newest eatery, the swank burger joint 400° in downtown Carmel, certainly makes a statement with its high ceilings, polished metal furnishings, funky light fixtures and crisp checkerboard tiling. But when a restaurant’s interior design outshines what’s on the plate, it’s hard to leave the table, however sleek, feeling completely satisfied.
The restaurant’s numerical nombre is a testament to the ideal temperature for searing a burger on a cast-iron grill, and the kitchen boasts a custom-made griddle by Montague Company, America’s oldest handcrafted stove company.
My strategy for the 400° experience was to start with the headliners, sharing the original cheeseburger ($8.95), the favorably Yelp-reviewed Kobe ($13.95) and the albacore tuna burger ($14.95) with friends.
The cheeseburger, which came with Swiss – perhaps the default cheese, as the kid taking my order never bothered to ask which of the six cheeses listed on the menu I’d have preferred – is served on a toasted brioche bun or wrapped in lettuce upon request. The usual suspects of lettuce, tomato and pickles appear on the scene, as well as something called 400° spread, which was indiscernible from Thousand Island dressing.
Hats off to the baker of 400°’s brioche. A most essential ingredient in a stellar sandwich is the bread and here 400° does not disappoint. But what’s between the buns matters too.
A blurb of text on the tri-fold paper menu posits all 400° patties are a house blend of “100 percent Angus ground chuck and skirt steak cooked to medium doneness.” Perhaps the heat was on too high, or the cooks are still learning how to finesse that custom Montague, but there’s nothing medium about a burger with no hint of pink in the center.
Same deal with the next sandwich, The Kobe, a decadent composition of American Wagyu – though calling Wagyu, or “Japanese beef,” American is oxymoronic – plus soused onions, cheddar, house-made potato chips and 400° spread was again overcooked, though this time the tangy soused onions, smokey cheese and crispy potato chips helped compensate.
My hopes were high for the albacore, a hearty steak of grilled tuna on a bed of sweet chili slaw and topped with wasabi-lime spread. Only the experience was much like sitting down for a film with great trailers and no payoff. It was a nicely grilled piece of fish, but the flavor of the slaw lacked the operative qualities “sweet” and “chili” and I can only hope the kitchen forgot the wasabi-lime spread, as I couldn’t detect it.
Fortunately a desirable list of toppings, including roasted jalapeños, crispy sweet onions, applewood smoked bacon, fried eggs, and the cheeses (cheddar, American, Swiss, jack, blue and goat) are at your disposal, so the potential for a deliciously designed custom burger is there, provided you don’t mind shelling out $1 for cheese and $1.50 for each specialty topping on top of the base price for a burger ($7.95).
The 400° Wedge salad ($4.95 or $8.95) came loaded with blue cheese crumbles, lots of applewood smoked bacon, a stout buttermilk bleu cheese dressing and a rainbow of multicolored bite-sized tomatoes, and was about as satisfying as a wedge salad can be. The garlic fries ($3.95), which have been panned on Yelp, were so garlicky I could detect their aftertaste for an hour after I’d eaten, and that is a good thing in my opinion. They also weren’t overly greasy or messy. (The duck-fat fries no longer appear on the menu.)
Another item for the plus column, and perhaps the highlight of the entire 400° experience, are the milkshakes ($5.95), which are simply works of art. The sea salt-caramel shake comes in a pint glass with ribbons of chocolate drizzled inside the glass, and the sweet/salty-meets-icy/milky flavor combo is a revelation. The specks of vanilla in the Madagascar vanilla bean ice cream (used in several dessert items and in a shake of the same name) can be seen from across the room. Some people may find the consistency of the shakes – almost Slurpee-esque – contestable, but the sipability made it refreshing and enjoyable.
Two-thirds of the tri-fold paper menu is devoted to drinks. Pineapple-shiso and lemon-raspberry housemade soda are available for $3.95, and so is a fun selection of bottled soda for a dollar less. The beer list is heavy on the ales, offering three on tap and twice as many in the bottle ($5.50-$19.95). Four red and four white wines are available by the glass ($8-$11), and vintages dating back to 2007 (c.f. Ramey Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, $55) are available by the half-bottle.
The restaurant’s ordering scheme is a little funky. Nab a paper menu on your way in, seat yourself upon one of the plush, fire-engine red vinyl seats (or upon the sliver of patio seating, provided you don’t mind getting cozy with other diners), figure out what you want to eat, then get up and walk to the counter to order, receive a plastic teepee with a number on it, then go back to your seat to wait for your food to be dropped off. You pay at the end of the meal, the check dropped off by whomever isn’t busy doing something else (none of the staff acted like they work for tips).
I was left thinking it’s hard to screw up a burger, and indeed, I’d be lying if I said 400° burgers were bad or that I didn’t like them. But for a burger to really stand out at these prices it takes something special, and special is an ingredient the kitchen is still searching for.
400° GOURMET BURGERS AND FRIES Corner of Mission and Seventh, Carmel. •11am-9:30pm Sun-Thu; until 10pm Fri-Sat. • 244-0040, http://400degrees.com