French Bistro Burgers with Caramelized Onions, Bacon and Brie
Cheeseburger in Paradise: “Heaven on earth with an onion slice.” – Jimmy Buffet
The best burger I have ever had in my life was in the summer of 1995 at a place in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Adam and I were enjoying a leisurely day in this quaint little town and stumbled upon a bar and grill. It was housed in an unassuming yellow building in need of fresh paint and had big, pink flamingos wearing sunglasses tattooed on the outside wall, framing the name of the establishment: “Cheeseburgers in Paradise.” We both love a good burger and this spot looked promising, so we went in for a bite. The place was packed and clamored with the sounds of a busy restaurant during lunch hour rush. We scanned the interior while we waited for a table and gave it the once-over. The carpet was frayed from wear and tear, there was a distinct smell of fresh charcoal and old smoke. The lounge area had graffiti-covered stools, funky coasters and a neon jukebox blasting a Jimmy Buffett tune (guess which one). This wasn’t a restaurant. It wasn’t a dive. The place was a joint. We loved it immediately.
The menu boasted an impressive array of burgers and listed every conceivable fixing to top them. You chose your burger by weight: 1/2-pound, pound, or “Betcha can’t eat the whole thing.” I stayed classic and took mine straight up with lettuce and tomato and french fried potatoes. Adam went for the half-a-cow size and added bacon and extra cheese. When our order was up, the waitress plopped our lunch in front of us. What we were staring at were no wimpy burgers. We were looking at meaty leviathans, oozing with cheddar, and accompanied by a sea of seasoned curly fries. One bite displaced any question that the name of this eatery was overly optimistic. We were in Burger Utopia. It was hands-down the Mack Daddy burger of all time. Adam had no problem polishing off his (plus some of my fries).
Seventeen years later, I still haven’t found a better burger. I came close during a visit to my sister’s in Virginia a few years back. A self-confessed burger connoisseur, she was convinced that Five Guys would dethrone my Shangri-La title holder. Don’t get me wrong, they make a fine burger. Scrumptious, in fact. But not quite good enough to vanquish my all-time favorite. After we moved here from Nashville six years ago, returning to Blowing Rock and our happy valley burger joint was something that we talked about and relished: We’ll make a day of it! We’ll take the convertible! We’ll drive the Parkway! Maybe we’ll get an ice cream cone at Kilwin’s and do some window shopping! (Well, I would do some window shopping). We couldn’t wait.
Once we were settled in our new house, we made a date. We put the top down on our car, headed over the mountain’s viaduct, and anticipated the long-awaited burger reunion. As we edged close enough to spy the flaxen structure with the tropical wading birds in shades, our enthusiasm turned to devastation. “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” was not only no longer in business, the whole building had been leveled. We were inconsolable. Even two scoops of butter pecan in a waffle cone didn’t help (well, maybe it helped a little… alright, it helped a lot). Now, where were we gonna get a burger that good around here?
Off our grill, that’s where. With our paradise lost, I decided to make a burger even better than I remembered. It had to be weighty and moist, but cooked through. In order to get a juicy burger that is well-done, I would have to incorporate a panade – a thick paste made with breadcrumbs and milk – to keep the patty moist and help bind it. I figured since I would be using a French technique, I might as well go all out and make a Frenchy burger. The result: a delicious, juicy burger with a hint of garlic and Herbes de Provence, creamy, gooey brie, crispy bacon and topped with caramelized onions that had been slow cooked until meltingly sweet. It was fantastique!
- 2 slices high quality white bread, crusts removed
- ¼ cup heavy cream or milk
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 2 pounds ground beef (80/20)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
- 8 slices cooked bacon
- 4 slices brie
- 4 sandwich buns (see link below)
- caramelized onions (see link below)
- Place the bread in a mini food processor and whir into finely ground crumbs. Transfer the breadcrumbs to a small bowl; stir in the cream or milk and olive oil. Allow to stand for a few minutes.
- Sprinkle the meat into a large bowl; add in the bread/milk mixture and season with the salt, pepper, garlic powder and Herbes de Provence. Gently knead until well incorporated. Shape the meat into four 1-inch-thick patties. Using your thumb, make an indention in the top center of each burger. Drizzle a little more olive oil over the top of each patty and season each burger with a few more grinds of black pepper.
- Heat your grill to medium high. When the grill is hot, brush the grill grate with some oil so the burgers don’t stick. Grill the burgers until well-browned on each side and cooked to desired degree of doneness, flipping once. Transfer the burgers to a platter, add 2 slices of bacon to each, top with a slice of brie and loosely tent with foil (the residual heat will slightly melt the cheese). Place the burger on a bun and top with a heap of caramelized onions and serve.
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