At a time when restaurants are struggling, when many people's dining budgets are severely curtailed, it's quite a feat to be the guy who's drawing a two-hour wait on a Monday night.
That guy is Richard Blais, molecular gastronomist, reality TV star, inventor of the foie gras milkshake, and now, purveyor of hamburgers so pedigreed they require a "boutique" to sell them.
Flip Burger Boutique is Blais' first project since leaving Tom Catherall's Home, where he stopped by for a while after almost winning Bravo's "Top Chef." There's a vast difference between Home's forced nature and boring Buckhead sensibility and Flip's freewheeling nuttiness. Located on a congested strip of Howell Mill Road between tire shops and used car lots, Flip's clean, modern lines and playful aesthetic are apparent before you even turn into the parking lot. Once inside, it's obvious that fun is the objective. Design team ai3 has created a room that's both modern and decadent, with huge white cushioned booths, baroque picture frames holding mirrors and plasma screens, and colorful graphic walls that look like highly stylized graffiti.
The restaurant's mission is contained in its catch phrase: "fine dining between two buns." I'm not completely sold on that concept, in part because one of the main joys of fine dining is the ritual. A meal at Flip can take as few as 20 minutes, and service is (thankfully) not particularly formal. But what they're getting at is the idea that a burger can be as coddled, as respectfully sourced and as fussed over as any other dish.
The case for the outrageously upscale burger has been made before, most famously with the DB burger in New York, where a few years back Daniel Boulud (one of Blais' mentors) unveiled his $28 foie gras and truffle studded burger at DB Bistro Moderne. Blais had a similar (and similarly priced) burger at Flip in the first few days of business, but it was removed from the menu before I had a chance to try it.
Much has changed on the menu in the first weeks of service. Gone are the steak tartar burger and the codfish burger. The menu's stars are emerging and its duds being cast aside. Blais is showing that he understands the difference between something that's conceptually awesome and something that has to go out quickly and feed 800 hungry people every day.
So what are the stars of this menu? The pâté melt, a cute take on a classic European pâté plate, pairs veal and pork pâté with swiss cheese, mustard and puckery cornichons. The po boyger, inspired by the shrimp po boy, has a patty so redolent of fresh shrimp it's astounding, and comes with fried lemons (one of the best uses of a lemon or a fryer). The lamburger tastes pleasingly lamby when it's cooked right, and the raisin ketchup provides just the right amount of sweetness, cooled by cucumber yogurt. This is one burger that the kitchen often overcooks, though, and when it does the dry results steal much of the dish's appeal.
Many of the beef burgers lack the pizazz of their counterparts, but are entertaining nonetheless. The butcher cut, which encompasses blue cheese and red wine jam, is tasty, as is the Southern burger, if you like a heart attack on a plate; the meat is fried and topped with pimento cheese. I wasn't thrilled by the Philly burger, but I did appreciate the twisted Blais-ian genius in the house-made cheese wiz, which tastes appropriately fake and is ethereally airy. The same is true elsewhere on the menu – while I wasn't able to fathom the chunky, overwhelmingly sweet Krispy Kreme milkshake, I was surprised at how much I loved the sometimes-available foie gras milkshake. The mellow fatty flavor deserves to be ice cream's friend, and is far more harmonious than you might expect.
Many times the best dish on the menu is the vegetable of the day. The most memorable thing I've eaten at Flip was a special of buttered turnips, perfectly cooked and a refreshing palate cleanser to all that grease. Tempura rutabaga has gotten better in recent weeks, the soft/crunchy dichotomy becoming more pronounced, the crispy exterior more golden. And the fries, made fresh, are medium-weight and addictive, especially when dipped in the smoky mayo.
The one drawback to all this is that while most first bites are exciting and interesting, by the end of these burgers the thrill is gone. I've heard people complain that the burgers are too expensive and too small – I couldn't disagree more. For the quality, the price ($7-$11) is fair, and I found one burger to be exactly the right amount of food. But they could shrink even more – I'd rather have two bites of these creations and move on than eat a whole one of any of them.
Blais says he isn't planning to rest on his burger laurels, and he has more projects in the works. While Blais has been present at the restaurant during most of my visits, chef Mark Nanna is obviously running the kitchen day to day. Blais won't specify his exact plans for Flip in terms of expanding to other locations in Atlanta or other cities, but if the place's early popularity continues, it would be foolhardy to miss the opportunity. And the name provides enough fodder for an empire of great puns. (My favorite idea so far came from my husband, who proposed opening a gourmet chicken nugget spot next door called the Bird).
All puns aside, it's good to know that there's more from Blais down the road than endless riffs on one kind of dish. But Flip deserves its own share of the limelight. Do I still long for the type of ultra-creative, unrestricted cooking Blais has delivered in the past? Yes. Does that make Flip any less fun? No. Flip invites us to revert to childhood, where we can stop taking ourselves so seriously and find that tear-open-the-wrapper kind of enthusiasm we may have lost along the way to adulthood. There's still a lot of joy to be found in a burger and a milkshake.