Hal Burgers (244 Adelaide West, at Duncan, 416-979-8787) Complete dinners for $30 per person ($25 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $12. Open Sunday and Monday 11:30 am to 9 pm, Tuesday to Thursday 11:30 am to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: 10 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
A hamburger with delusions of grandeur is nothing new in Hogtown.
Witness the upscale moves made by the simple beef patty 'n' sesame seed bun sandwich at Bymark, where Mark McEwan's gourmet-extreme Whopper goes for $36.95 and comes topped with Brie de Meaux cheese, grilled porcini 'shrooms and shaved summer truffles.
Czehoski's Nathan Iseberg goes one better and festoons his quirky quadruple quarter-pounder dubbed Exercise In Bourgeois Excess on the menu with heirloom tomatoes, double-smoked bacon, unpasteurized cheese and pure gold leaf, charging a penny less than Bymark for the privilege.
Why, even Harvey's has jumped on the bandwagon with its current Texan Burger promotion.
Clearly, Hal Burgers a newly launched resto in the club district that comes branded with the slogan Rethink Your Favourite Hamburger didn't come up with the concept on its own. Hello, Hero? And just who the hell is Hal?
"That's my dad," says owner Peter Le Fave.
Hal's is very much a family affair. The former home to both faux English pub Dirk Me Gently and the forgettable Radical Jack's Fondue Lounge, the bright second-storey room has been given a stylish upgrade by Le Fave's decorator wife, Michelle. It's a winning look, too, all bright lime-green walls, dark wooden trim and cute café tables rung with Umbra's iconic translucent white Oh chairs, designed by Toronto's internationally renowned Karim Rashid, a graduate of nearby OCAD.
Unlike at Hero Certified Burger, when Hal says its basic burger weighs 8 ounces ($10.50/5-ounce $9), the patty, and not the entire package, does exactly that. Roughly chucked and made from the Butcher Shoppe's aged Alberta beef, the model I customize features two lean rashers of pancetta ($2.50), a spoonful of chili mayo (75 cents) and a few scant slices of portobello mushroom ($2.50). Sadly, the bun is supermarket-issue Silverstein's.
From the section of Hal's card titled World Burgers, the Baton Rouge ($11) finds a meaty blackened beef patty sandwiched between grilled slices of Fred's terrific baguette, dressed with mild pico de gallo salsa and strips of chorizo that would be better at home on a pepperoni pizza.
The pricey and almost too-undercooked venison Burger Chasseur ($15) tastes of too-strong citrus zest and little else, although its side of sweet potato frites benefits from guava-sweetened ketchup.
We forgive the crappy pita that accompanies Hal's Earth Burger ($9.50), which is not much more than a glorified falafel despite its tasty chickpea, fava and roasted pinenut crunch. But the same sorry flatbread cannot be excused when paired with the otherwise quite lovely tandoori-spiced lamb burger ($12).
And here they are again, only this time in miniature form with Hal's rotating-daily burger trio, today 2-ounce veal, chicken and pork patties ($11). Although the regular 8-ounce versions come garnished with sweet roasted red peppers and provolone ($15), Westphalian ham and melted Brie ($11) and coriander pesto and roasted cashew respectively, as specials they're topped with only caramelized onion. Coffee Shop (see Recently Reviewed, page 35) does mini-burgers so much better.
But there's more to Hal's than meat and bread. Roughage rears its head in the house organic greens and slightly sour slaw that are optional sides with most mains, along with serviceable frites. But stay well clear of the house's diabolical pakora onion fritters ($4.50/$7.50) unless you're a fan of skinny, greasy onion rings.
For some reason, nearly every restau-rant in Toronto feels obliged to include Caesar salad ($5.50/$8.50) on its card regardless of cuisine, and Hal's no different. Spinach salad ($6.50/$9.50) comes mixed with a considerable toss of shiitakes shame none of them could find their way onto my Hal burger and a fruity splash of mango coulis. As there's no sign of the greens' menu-promised warka crisps, I can't describe what they taste like, let alone tell you what they actually are.
But I do know this: undressed tabbouleh with beets, feta and pistachios ($6.50/$9.50) is as dry as a feedbag full of hay. The house-baked butter tart ($3.75) may be runny as advertised, but its thin pastry shell is as hard as a rock.
Still, Hal Burgers has a lot going for it, including good location, stylish digs and a friendly, competent staff. If Le Fave and crew can sort out their suppliers Fred's good, Silverstein's bad Hal will be around for a lot longer than Radical Jack and his Fondue Lounge.
But until then, Hal Burgers is strictly BYOB bring your own bun.