When was the last time that food made you laugh? A meal so good, so decadent, that you laugh maniacally because you can’t believe your good fortune, and you’re delirious with delight. You laugh because encountering food so wonderful is so unbelievable, it is so improbable, it is laughable that someone could actually create something this good. Well, in a nutshell, that was my meal at Charcut.
I had the pleasure of meeting chef and co-owner of Charcut Connie DeSousa speak at a Women of Influence event. I was already a huge fan of the Alley Burger, Charcut’s famous elusive, exclusive burger. When I mentioned my interest, Chef DeSousa offered to have me visit Charcut and spend the evening watching their kitchen staff in action. Hard sell, I know, a Top Chef finalist invites you to get a behind the scenes look at their operation, sure, let me check my schedule.
After twisting my friend Andrew’s rubber arm, we strolled in just before the dinner crowd on a Saturday night. We were escorted to the back of the restaurant, where a small bar allows lucky patrons to get a front row seat to all the kitchen action. The kitchen has enough room for two people cooking on either side and one person can squeeze behind them in the middle to get back and forth. It’s amazing they’re able to get anything done at all. One wrong move and you’ll be wearing dinner instead of eating it.
In a HamburgerPants first, I have attempted a blog. This video post shows Chef DeSousa giving a mouth-watering description of the Charcut ShareBurger that Andrew and I ate. I’ll let her introduce it to you:
Andrew and I knew we were getting the ShareBurger before we looked at the menu. What we didn’t anticipate were all the extras that we ended up tasting. Connie and John set us up with an amazing sample of two of their starters: a warm Quebec raclette cheese served with house made brioche buns, and the fan favourite: the Pig’s Head Mortadella. Says Chef DeSousa “Our Pig head Mortadella is prepared using traditional artisanal techniques, but is cooked in a very untraditional way…inside of a pig head! It cooks for 9 hours, then cools overnight and we shave it paper-thin the next day and serve it with our local Brassica Mustard.”. Mortadella and mustard pair wonderfully, and I know it’s not the traditional way of eating it, but I may have made myself a raclette/mortadella sandwich on a brioche bun. Yum.
Back to the kitchen. My only kitchen knowledge comes from the movies, so I expected chefs to be barking orders like a drill sergeant. I mean, there’s a reason that kitchens have doors. But that’s not the atmosphere at Charcut. The only words you hear are the orders coming in (read only once, no repeats), and calls of “behind you” as chefs and sous chefs travel back and forth. Maybe the occasional comment that the pace needed to be quickened from co-owner and chef John Jackson, but it seemed more like encouragement than criticism. It’s complete focus. Not robotic focus, more like watching an intricate ballet taking place. Or maybe like he’s the Ian Malcolm of the Jurassic Park that is culinary arts (stay with me here), and the patrons are the hungry T-Rex chasing them. “We must go faster”.
And having the front seat to all this gave me the opportunity to preview all the dishes and taste! At one point Chef DeSousa was ladling a portion of some green, chunky mixture into a plate, at which point I asked what it was. ”Grits” she replied, but not just any grits, like the picture on the left. Chef DeSousa mixes whole corn kernels with an aged cheddar and (correct me if I’m wrong) a hint of pea soup to give the grits their unique green colour. The result is a rich taste and texture like scalloped potatoes.
But I digress. We’re here for the ShareBurger. If you didn’t hear in the video, they melt Quebec cheese curds (1 oz curd per oz of meat) on top of the burger and serve it on a fresh brioche bun. Guests may order as many oz they like. Charcut has even served a 100 oz. burger that had over a dozen fried eggs on top and a giant brioche bun. After Andrew talked me down from splitting a 20 oz burger to 16 oz., we finished the order with a side of duck fat poutine and sat back to continue watching the kitchen show.
A massive patty the size of a dinner plate with the thickness of a kitchen table thrown down on the grill. After it was cooked they let me backstage to see 16 oz of cheese curds get piled on the burger and then melted to caramelize the top of the curds and give the cheese a hint of crispiness. Watching it being prepared for final presentation is sweet torture. The finished patty oozing rivulets of grease drains onto the cutting board as brioche buns spread with aioli and poutine are placed alongside it. Finish it off with a mason jar of house made pickled veggies (carrots, cucumbers, mushrooms and beets), Chef DeSousa stabs a knife into the board and the meal is ready to serve. Chris, one of the servers, walks the piled-high board over as Andrew and I bounce in our seats like a couple of kids on their birthday. Chef John had to gently remind us to eat the burger while it was still hot, because we were taking pictures of it like tourists.
The sausage patty is tender and juicy, the cheese curds, now all melted together are both crispy and stringy like cheese on a pizza. Order the ShareBurger, do it. Get your friends together, and challenge the kitchen. I’ve had plenty of overcooked hockey puck burgers, dry and unappetizing. But the staff at Charcut cooks the burger perfectly, even though it’s twice the size of a what a normal restaurant would cook up. The pork is juicier than beef, and it’s nothing short of amazing. Andrew and I take our bites and Andrew remarks “I’m so happy I think I’m gonna cry”. There’s a corner of burger and cheese poking out of the side of the bun and when I bite it off, it’s the tastiest bite of the meal. It’s that moment when your eyes go wide and for a moment, you forget where you are and what you’re doing. The brioche bun is doing a great job of soaking all the run away juices and it’s this rich, lightly textured break from the rich, dense, sausage meat.
Honestly, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs. Heck, if I had the money, I would have asked them to make the 100 oz burger again, just to see it get made. And to think, I wanted to order 20 oz. About half way through our respective portions, Andrew and I start getting the puffy cheeks, we start leaning back in our seats, to give our stomachs some much-needed relief. Chefs and servers a like pass by us, each one with a remark similar to “looks like you’ve been beat”. I undo my belt a notch. Andrew is so full that he’s hiding anything that isn’t burger and cheese under half of a brioche bun as not to insult the chef.
We sampled the poutine at the beginning of the meal, but we were so full all we could do was ask for it to be packed up. Always order the poutine. ALWAYS. Even if you take it home, it’s still good the next day. The curds are brought in straight from Quebec and the finished poutine is drizzled with truffle oil before being served. If you need more to convince you, then you don’t deserve it.
We finish off our decadent feast by sharing a dessert, a lovely milk chocolate parfait with chocolate cookie crumbs and crispy ovaltine. It’s time to leave, but not before the kitchen sets us up with the best idea a restaurant has ever had: the bag of warm cookies. Two cookies in a paper bag with a cute little pig shaped paper clip to send you on your way. This is definitely a place to check out. The menu is creative, and I wish I had more stomach, so I could have sampled it all. I had so much fun during the meal, I wanted to hug the whole kitchen as we took our leave. I opted not to in the end, but Charcut folks, if you want a hug, I’ll be more than happy to come back.