EDITED JULY 18, 2012: This has become one of the most popular of all the posts on this blog, so it behooves me to update it. Since I wrote this, the Vert Anglais has changed owners amidst some scurrilous rumors. I'm sorry the old owners have gone, and their chef departed long ago. Thus, I haven't been back, and I'd be surprised if any of the information about the Vert Anglais Burger below still holds. It might -- and there's no doubt that the publicity this place got upped the quality of burgers elsewhere in town. But until I try them again -- unlikely, but possible -- this judgement of Europe's Best Burger has now been suspended until further notice. Sorry!
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Okay, let's admit it: nobody comes to Europe to eat hamburgers. There's simply too much European food around. But most of us Americans who live here miss them from time to time. And boy, can finding a decent one be a chore.
I first felt the craving a few months after moving to Berlin. I lost it almost immediately: a friend stopped by a place offering hamburgers and ordered one. The cook reached into the freezer, extracted a frozen patty, loaded it into a fryolater basket and dunked it in the hot grease.
Some years later, some friends opened a Tex-Mex restaurant, for which I consulted on the Tex end of the menu. I gave them my secret recipe for hamburgers, which involves a little something to be mixed into the meat. The chef, a Chilean (and, hence, a know-it-all), decided not to add the stuff to the meat, and, instead, sauteed it along side and put it on top. This doesn't work. (But he also decided my chicken-fried steak recipe was too simple, so he added enchilada sauce to the cream gravy, thereby ending the flood of transplanted Americans who were patronizing the place). They soon pulled the Tex part of the menu except for the burgers, which were the same frozen patties.
In fact, frozen patties were in use all over town until The Bird opened. Owned by transplanted New Yorkers, it made everything -- hamburgers, fries, sauces -- from scratch. Only the buns were problematic: for some reason, European hamburger buns dissolve before you're through eating the burger. The Bird compensated for this by using toasted English muffins, which were almost, but not quite, as bad.
But that's not a Bird burger atop this post. It's the Vert Anglais Burger, €12 worth of triumph over improbability. By this, I mean that it's served at a place owned by British people, who, collectively, have never figured out what a hamburger is, and cooked by a French chef, one of a people who, while quite good at le steack haché, have never thought the hamburger was worth figuring out.
And I am awarding it the prize of Europe's best burger because, although the Bird's chef has many wonderful variations, he's an American. The Vert Anglais Burger is an interpretation of an American cheeseburger by a chef who's aware of both American and French traditions and has fused them perfectly. For instance, that little dish with the orange sauce in it? That's nothing more or less than a sort of hommage to la sauce sécrete du MacDo. It bears some resemblance to rouille, the cayenne-infused mayonnaise served with fish soup in classic southern French cuisine, and some is also included on top of the burger, which needs no ketchup. Also atop the burger is a bit of lettuce and some extremely fresh tomato. And note that bun: the chef has discovered how to toast it to a point where it is structurally sound. This also has the salutary effect of toasting the sesame seeds to a nutty goodness.
The fries, I think, are frozen, as are most fries in Montpellier restaurants, but they are so well cooked that I have to say "I think." And the salad yesterday wasn't the best I've had with this dish, because it was based around soybean sprouts, but it was certainly good enough.
What is happening at the Vert Anglais is interesting: when I was virtually living there, between last November and this March, I was always there for lunchtime, which was mostly served upstairs because the outdoor patio was too cold to eat at. There was a decent number of diners, although the menu wasn't terribly interesting. In recent months, however, there's been a decided upgrade of the lunchtime menu, while holding the price steady. The wine-list has expanded slightly, and now includes one of the local masterpieces, a 2007 Ollier-Taillefer red AOC Côtes du Languedoc. I rarely eat a large lunch, so I haven't tried the seiches à la plancha (cuttlefish briefly cooked on a hot sheet of metal) or one of the daily specials, but I have reports from at least one professional chef that superb work is taking place in the kitchen of the Vert Anglais.
I'm happy to see this upgrade happen, and was pleasantly surprised to get a new business card which no longer said Bar Vert Anglais, but Brasserie Vert Anglais. It'll be nice if they can figure a way to offer a dinner selection, although with the perils of the restaurant business being what they are, being conservative about this is always the best course. Meanwhile, though, in the evening until 9, there are "tapas," which is to say various fried items and a charcuterie plate, and one main-dish: the Vert Anglais Burger.
If you're visiting Montpellier from the States, the Vert Anglais is a great place for a French lunch or before-dinner drinks. But for those whose stomachs get homesick, it's great to have a superb hamburger so close at hand.
Brasserie Vert Anglais, 3 place Castellanne, 34000 Montpellier; phone 04 67 66 03 03. Open for lunch noon-2:30pm Mon-Sat (special English brunch on Saturday), tapas and burgers 6pm-9pm Mon-Sat.