Climbing up on Granite Hill, I Could See the City Lights (this song will be in your head all day)
Some people love Stephen Starr because he’s a celebrity restaurateur who brings international experiences and cuisine to an audience ill-afforded the opportunity otherwise. Other people hate Stephen Starr because he’s a trend-hopping oompa loompa who bastardizes international experiences and cuisine to an audience ill-equipped to know better. For all the bickering on both sides of the butter battle, most seem to gloss over a simple fact: homeboy isn’t a chef. Our esteemed Temple alum is a businessman, and with $125 million in revenue last year, he’s a good one.
One way to tell a bullshit food writer (e.g., Laurence/you) from a pro (e.g., moi) is in their opinion of Starr’s restaurants. Anyone who universally loves or hates the food at his joints probably hasn’t tried most of it, since the diversity in menu and talent across his résumé is vast. You can and should hate El Vez, but a person who thinks Barclay Prime is in any way similar should be set upon by boars in heat.
Me? I hate Starr’s personality and ABC Family ideas of diversity. But the man occasionally hires a good chef.
Granite Hill, his temporary engagement at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is cute. Nice, even. Part of that is due to the fact that Starr can only do so much to turn a wing of the art museum into an amusement park, and as a result, the corner restaurant is a stark and minimal affair. A few paintings here, a flower on a white tablecloth, and otherwise bare. It’s a refreshing break from Starr’s usual reaching-for-the-stars-and-grabbing-Uranus shtick.
The Burger: The Hill Burger (Get it? Because it's called Granite Hill.) comes with comté cheese and grilled onions alongside a handsome side of steak-cut frites. According to the GH website, the burger also comes with sautéed mushrooms, but thankfully it didn't, because mushrooms and anyone who like them are the worst, amirite?
Kyle: Like the décor and the entire menu, the burger is a straight-laced and austere affair. (Fun Fact: My favorite George Saunders quote is “they’re only austere because they've got no other options.”) The few ingredients used here are all of fine quality. The beef is very lean and clean-tasting, without a hint of gristle or filler, and it was cooked exactly to order. From the gooey cheese to the confitted onions to the wheat bun, there’s nothing to complain about.
There’s also not much to be excited about. The rather sparse preparation leaves little complexity. Yes, everything is bright and fresh and natural, but it’s a little too sanitized. The beef could benefit from a higher fat content, and while the toppings were good, there was no interplay between them. Aside from fat crystals of sea salt on the top-notch steak fries, seasoning was minimal all around.
Again, it’s not bad. I want to emphasize that this is a good burger. The wheat bun is fresh and dry in the right way, and the comté is a perfect balance of milky sweetness and strong aroma. There’s nothing to complain about on this burger. Or, there wouldn’t be, if the burger didn’t cost $15 and was located in the most overburgered city on the planet.
Philadelphia has better burgers. Hell, Starr has better burgers. The Granite Hill burger is good in the least remarkable way possible, a meal above average by a single percent. Still, I can’t help but recommend the restaurant. Not for the burger, but because you’ve been saying since you moved to Philly three years ago that you really want to check out that building next to the Rocky statue. And while I hate you for calling it "that bulding next to the Rocky statue," and I know you do, the museum needs money to survive whatever Nutter-cuts are coming up in the next budget and you deserve to be fleeced a little. Rating: 7/10.
Laurence: Granite Hill is the best place to eat in the art museum, which is kind of like saying the best to eat in the airport is the Chinese fast food kiosk.
I felt as though the entire experience was a facade the minute I walked in and was greeted as though I had just entered Le Bec Fin. The fawning waiters and host seemed as though they were working in the wrong restaurant, as though perhaps they had all just consumed some powerful hallucinogens and were seeing a significantly fancier reality that I was not privy to. It felt as thought they were compensating for something. What could one possibly be compensating for in a restaurant? Oh yeah, the food.
I had a feeling things were going to be a bit off after I ordered a cocktail. Usually I stick with beer, but there was a Calvados-based cocktail on the menu and a taxing week at work called for something with a kick. It was after the first sip that I though perhaps I had made the wrong play. The drink left a boozy taste in the mouth but not the nice warm brandy flavor of Calvados, and certainly not the subtle but well blended flavors of a crafted beverage. It was more like brandy and sugar water. It was, in short, bad. Like many trips to the art museum I found myself wondering what had inspired such a creation and if the world was really better for it. I also pondered the age old question, “does this belong in a museum?”
Having apparently stumbled into the middle European wing, which is where all the art I really detest seems to be housed, I had little hope that the next creation would be any more appealing. Lucky, somewhere between my order and being served I found myself in the modern art wing where time and space are allowed to flow in multiple directions at once and reality is often depicted as melting. For me, the melting reality was fine comté cheese over a nicely sized burger that was purposefully keeping a wad of caramelized onions in check.
Don't be mistaken, there's nothing inspired about this burger. It's a poster in the gift shop as compared to an original Van Gogh. And like a gift shop poster, its good enough to hang in your apartment, or in this case, eat before wandering around the permanent collections. To be sure, it's not worth a trip to the PMA to get this burger, but its a worthwhile stop if you want to see some of our city's excellent art anyway and need a decent lunch.
The bun is on the sweet side, coated in sesame seeds, as it tries to mimic the genius of Village Whisky. The fries too, try to take a page out of Iron Man's book, presentation. The small silver cup which holds the salty, golden delights, is an almost identical reproduction of those you will find on 20th and Sansom. The fries are incomparable to those at Village Whisky because they have no duck fat on them. That said, they are quite nice and worthy fry in a city with many variants. They were crisp, salty, flavorful, and plentiful. Somehow “great fries” appeared twice in my notes.
The onion and the cheese worked really well together creating a salty, sweet, and savory mass that did a good job compensating for the fact that the burger itself was slightly overdone. The meat was decent but not particularly well spiced. And being on the lean side meant that, at medium-well, was a tad dry. It is easy to eat though, with quality meat, ground well and lightly spiced. Meanwhile the tomato and lettuce that accompanied the meal were afterthoughts. The tomato was passable and worked well on the burger but the lettuce, while fresh, detracted too much from the other flavors of the burger so I removed it after a few bites.
While its not the best burger you'll find in the city, it is pretty good considering the venue. In the end, the quality of this burger like art itself is affected by context. If your kid brought home a Jackson Pollack painting from school, you'd wonder if all those cuts to art programs have been such a good idea but in the MOMA he gets his own room. And if you're in the PMA you'll be happy to have such a good burger but in the city at large you'll wonder why they bothered making it in the first place. Rating: 6/10.
There are worse places to go than Granite Hill, and much worse places to go than the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Take a half day this summer, swing by the Parkway and pretend you have a little class for once.