A new upscale hamburger joint lives up to half of its name
Most folks would call Federal Hill's Abbey Burger Bistro a bar. A handsome bar with dining tables, a gastropub, if you must, but a bar nonetheless. So if you're looking for moules frites, faux French, and that certain je ne sais quoi that the use of "bistro" connotes, you won't find it here. What you will find, however, as the other, sensible, part of the restaurant's name suggests, are burgers. Lots of them. Made from different animals (and vegetables), topped with all matter of garnishes, and served up with homemade chips or fries in black-and-white-checkered-waxpaper-lined baskets. If this sounds a little gimmicky, think of it as upscale fast food for grownups.
Gourmet burgers run a close second to mac 'n' cheese as the restaurant comfort food of the moment, but unlike mac 'n' cheese, I've yet to tire of a well-prepared burger (although enough with the sliders already; they've had their five minutes of fame, thank you very much.) Of course, a burger appeals to that basic carnivorous desire for meat, but playing with the basics by changing up the meat and toppings adds even more to the pleasure, and Abbey impresses with its range.
Beef burgers--there are only three of them--are made from locally raised Roseda beef. The remaining burgers cull from the rest of the barnyard--chicken, turkey, lamb, and bison--as well as from the garden, and the menu offers a BLT, a grilled cheese, and slider dogs, plus salads and chili for the burger-averse. The menu also advises no substitutions, but servers come to the tall four tops in the brick dining room toting clipboards with checklists for building-your-own burger--from meat to garnish to type of bread, so you can have it your way.
We opted, however, to order our burgers from the list of house specialties and began at the top with Harry's Bistro Burger ($9), a beef burger that included bacon, Lincolnshire Cheddar cheese, and a fried egg, sunnyside up, on an English muffin. Eggs are popping up on burgers all over the place, a double decker of protein that's sturdy and creamy at the same time; if you like your burgers messy, this guarantees it. But even without the drippy egg, this burger was succulently moist. When we removed the cocktail pick stuck through a garlic-stuffed olive, the hamburger's rare juices bubbled up through top of the English muffin.
A lamb burger ($9), on the other hand, benefited from a crunchy sprinkle of cucumber and a swirl of yogurt, but the overall mildness of the meat coupled with overcooking disappointed. Lamb can taste much better than this. But if the lamb burger needed a little more, the foie gras burger--more Roseda beef topped with sautéed onions and lobes of foie gras--needed a little less. In theory, the whole notion of foie gras on a burger is ridiculously decadent (and the $19 price tag reflects this); in practice, it is even more so. Neither the flavor of the onions nor the grainy mustard that garnished the burger overwhelmed the foie gras, but the whole effect of the pairing is more texture rather than flavor, with the foie gras importing a silky, earthy tinged essence to the burger. If you can finish one without beginning to feel ill, you're a heartier eater than I. This is rich stuff, folks.
Burgers come with crispy, house-made chips, which we preferred to the standard sweet potato fries (you can also order regular fries), and the size and substance of the sandwiches should make ordering anything else unnecessary. But if you crave more carbs, the waffle fry nachos ($6)--waffles fries smothered in the usual nacho toppings including a tangy chili, black beans, avocado slices, and fresh, sliced jalapenos--are a beguiling, tasty mess of a dish we kept nibbling compulsively. "They'd make good hangover food," someone at our table aptly pointed out. Desserts at Abbey include a variety of grown up spiked milkshakes in flavors like chocolate banana or chocolate peanut butter, as well as several ice cream-based desserts, like an uninspired, but serviceable brownie sundae ($4).
The restaurant also has an impressive beer list with a variety of domestic and international beers available on draft and in bottle, but inclusion of even the most basic descriptor (i.e., lager or strong ale, etc) would go a long way in making the list easier to navigate, as would the inclusion of prices. I appreciate that the beer menu changes frequently, but two of the three servers that waited on us gave us incorrect information about the style of beer we ordered. If the cheese list can include place of origin, there's no reason the beer list can't as well.
The snugness of the Abbey's two small rooms might make it a liability once folks shake off winter and start looking for a place to eat after Orioles' games, so this might be the time to make a beeline for Federal Hill, grab a burger and a beer and get in touch with your inner Wimpy.