Let’s cut to the chase about the burger at Chez Fonfon. It’s good, maybe great. It’s made with care, handmade from local, organic beef. The bun is terrific and baked at another restaurant owned by Frank Stitt. On the day I went recently, I even ate the grilled onion – scored by marks from the grill – and for me, that’s something, because I profess a respect for the onion but no enduring love. And the pickles are like eating … tiny, delicious pickles.
The winner of the 2011 Birmingham News Best Burger, the burger at CF is top notch. I would add for the sake of honesty that I felt the meat was a bit over-seasoned, even approaching a bit briny. It was enough so that I noticed how salty the burger ended up being, seeing what appeared to be seasoned meat and salt/pepper on some of the lettuce. But this is a quibble. It’s delicious.
And the fries… The foodies of the world may cheer for the burger there, but I could eat my weight in the pommes frites (fries, for the un-Frenchy-fied). They are sliced small, fried and served warm, but not greasy. Not an easy task … or at least, I’ve not seen it accomplished too many times.
So, if you want an exceptional burger and fries … that comes with some baggage, then Chez Fonfon is the place to go.
All that fuss comes at a price. For one, a $12 price. Maybe it’s worth it, and maybe no hamburger – BY ITS NATURE – should be $12.
The restaurant, on its own website, calls itself a “cozy, casual French bistro that transfers you to Paris, Lyons or Nice.” That’s all well and good, just as is the grilled fish with ratatouille and aioli, the chicken provencal, or the veal paillard.
The problem is that the humble hamburger would have been part of the proletariat masses that would have stormed the place during the revolution and executed the pate-eating crowd. It’s not that the burger couldn’t be suited to the place (which it is), but that in many ways, the place is not completely suited to a burger.
I suspect that if Frank Stitt got it into his head that he wanted to jump on the back end of the burger craze, he could open one hell of a burger joint. But as it stands, one of the best hamburgers in the city is offered in a most unburger-like setting.
I’ve been recently and I’ve been in years past … and the thing that I leave with is confirmation that the meal was tasty, but wishing that I’d gotten to eat it somewhere else. A place that was less “transferring” and more homey. That wanted to commune with me, instead of educating and impressing. Less pretentious and more focused on making the experience fit the dish.
This feeling has nothing to do with the staff, either, who always have been professional. It’s about a burger experience. It’s about American familiarity, pride at humble beginnings. Where is the waitress who’s been working there all her life? The kids? Regulars who are known and greeted by name? Evidence that the place is loved more than respected? Where is the Chez Fun in Chez Fonfon?
When I think of a hamburger, I see a metaphor: a symbol of something American, something that can transcend the many things that pull us apart: a food – in it verisimilitude of varieties from veggie to Kobe — that we can share. So, in a way, the burger at Chez un-Funfun is a special envoy, a missionary spreading the gospel of the beauty of common food in a field populated with both ham and cheese and turkey sandwiches and steak tartare and escargot. And you know, in quiet times, in spite of what it’s accomplished and how terrific it may be (or how amazing the food and respectable the locale), that this lonely, displaced burger yearns to breathe the free air, go out for a night on the town with old bacon (not pancetta) buddies, flirt with other spicy mustards and maybe come home with a kiss from some fancy ketchup.
Meat – 8.75 … Ground meat is a tough thing when it comes to seasoning, even if you use steak and basically make your own. But I thought the meat was a bit too salty and hid some of the natural flavor. Kudos for delivering the patty cooked as I asked, however.
Bun and fixins’ – 9 … On the burger side this might be the best part. The bun is delicious, a bit crunchy. The sides are served on the side and I loved how they were not just thrown in.
Sides – 9.25 …Approaching fry perfection. I miss them already. Hand-made. Fried. Crispy. Hot/warm. They didn’t last long.
Service & Presentation – 7 … The waiter was attentive but also not particularly interested in me being there (alone also). The presentation at lunch is a bit showy — you know that “presentation” thing … when you’re kind of compelled to tell someone that the plate that has a burger on it is “lovely.” Let’s just say I would have been equally happy if it was wrapped in paper.
Bonus X – (-1) … Call it insult to injury … I know, we are spoiled in Bham, but you know what? We don’t pay to park and parking in Southside is a pain in the butt. Add to it the $12 you’ll pay for your burger …