Restaurateurs Brag about Their Beef

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — A couple is seated in a nice restaurant. It’s date night. While they study the menu, they ask for a bottle of wine. They make up their minds and order, he the capellini, she an All-American classic.

What’s quickly become one of the bragging rights of restaurants isn’t the marbling of their steaks or the authenticity of the pasta sauce. It’s how well they make their hamburgers.

“A lot of people prefer burgers over steak. They order a burger and fries and just love them,” says Eddie Moses, manager of V2 Wine Bar Trattoria in downtown Youngstown. “It works the same as steak. A nice Chianti will go good with a burger. A nice pinot noir also works well.”

At Mike’s Penn Grille in Salem, owner and chef Mike Cranmer has put years of training from the American Culinary Federation to use not just on steaks and seafood, but on burgers, one of the hottest items on his menu.

And Cranmer doesn’t limit his kitchen to regular ground beef. He uses ground Kobe beef or cuts of ground beef mixed with brisket, top round or rib eye. Among the classes he took to become certified by the federation, he says, was one on charcuterie, an indispensable ingredient in making flavorful burgers.

“Each makes for different varieties of burgers. We can get it so it tastes just like a steak when you eat it,” Cranmer says. “I talked to the butcher. We figured out how to add prime cuts of lamb and make a lamb burger. Being a chef, it takes you to the next level and makes it more than a burger with toppings.”

Beyond the meat, what sets some of the area’s upscale restaurants and burger menus apart are selecting the ingredients and how they’re combined.

“The ingredients have to harmonize. … That’s what makes you stand out. Everyone has burgers. But you have to have something to bring people in and back,” says Marc Altier, chef at Kennsington Grille in Canfield. “They don’t want the same ol’ rigmarole every time.”

Among the offering at his restaurant is an Italian burger with provolone cheese, roasted red peppers, fresh greens and Italian seasonings.

Menu listings along the same lines can be found at V2, where burgers include the wine bar’s signature burger topped with hot peppers, Fontina cheese and a golden barbecue sauce, in addition to traditional toppings such as lettuce and tomato. Also available is a burger topped with prosciutto, mozzarella, arugula and house-roasted red peppers.

“We’re trying to distinguish ourselves from McDonald’s and Wendy’s. They do basic burgers. We want upscale burgers that people want with upscale flavors,” Moses says. “What burgers bring to us is a lot of great flavors and a great presentation.”

V2 chef Bryan Stephens agrees that what separates a more upscale restaurant from fast-casual – think Five Guys Burgers & Fries – or family-friendly casual restaurants are the ingredients. The downtown Youngstown V2 gets its ground beef from Catullo Prime Meats every morning and the meat is never frozen.

“Your toppings are what’s important. Who wants a Plain Jane burger?” the chef asks. “Hot peppers on a burger are good. Good cheese on a burger is good.”

At these restaurants, hamburgers have found a home along side ribeye steaks and fresh seafood, and sometimes are more popular. Moses says burgers are often at the top of customers’ lists, especially when it’s their first visit to V2.

“They’re quite a bit of our business. We have pasta and steaks and seafood, but at lunchtime burgers are our main staples,” says Frank Anderson, manager of Rachel’s Roadhouse in Mercer, Pa.

One of the Springfield Restaurant Group’s seven restaurants, Rachel’s opened in 1983 and is a half-mile from another restaurant in the group, the Iron Bridge Inn. And before it closed a few years ago, the Springfield Grille another mile down the road gave the restaurant group three locations along one short stretch of road. By adding burgers to the menu, Anderson explains, it was a way of distinguishing among the three.

“It would be foolish to have three places within a mile-and-a-half that all serve the same thing,” he says. “We’ve built up a reputation for burgers and that’s why people come here. There is some pressure with that. We know we have to put the best product out.”

Part of what goes into maintaining that reputation, chimes in chef Doug Matthews, is choosing the best ingredients.

The Springfield Restaurant Group has staff, he explains, whose job it is to sample products, assemble a short list of suitable items directed to Rachel’s, where the restaurant staff makes the final decision.

Beyond just a menu item to make each restaurant try to stand out from its competitors, burgers at upscale restaurants are also born out of customer demand.

“This area loves burgers,” Matthews says. “We couldn’t not have burgers. Customers want them.”

Adds V2’s Moses, “Burgers are the new up-and-coming thing that’s been up and coming for a while,” he laughs.

And what can set an upscale restaurant apart, Cranmer says, is the ability to adjust for local tastes or, in some cases, personal ones.

“I know that what they do in Chicago wouldn’t fly here because of the price or because of certain ingredients they use,” he explains. “You can take Mediterranean food and bring it to Salem, but you have to make it taste like we think it should. As a chef, you have to take the flavors and make it work for this area.”

V2’s Stephens adds that he’s created burgers, mostly through trial-and-error, to appeal to customers who might not want a hamburger.

“Most people in this world want steak. Or they want seafood. Or they want something that’s not a burger,” he says. “Sometimes you can make a burger and stuff it with something and give them the best of both worlds.”

Pictured: V2 chef Bryan Stephens says being able to add ingredients such as prosciutto or fresh mozzarella sets upscale restaurants apart from fast-casual diners.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.