Burger Supreme: Dave Bailey strives to perfect the patty at Baileys' Range

Feb 9, 2012 at 4:00 am
A new entree at Baileys’ Range: a center-cut chop of Berkshire pork from Jones Heritage Farms in Cape Girardeau.
A new entree at Baileys’ Range: a center-cut chop of Berkshire pork from Jones Heritage Farms in Cape Girardeau. Jennifer Silverberg

Baileys' Range, the latest, most ambitious venture from restaurateur Dave Bailey (Baileys' Chocolate Bar, Rooster and the Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar), could be the perfect restaurant for St. Louis' current culinary moment. It's a burger joint writ large, and even allowing for the fact that burgers never stopped being scarfed, right now that most iconic of American foods is sriracha-red hot.

Fast-casual spots serving so-called better burgers continue to multiply, and some of our best chefs continue to outclass them. (Seriously, try the burger at Five Bistro or Home Wine Kitchen, and you might never again darken the door of a restaurant with "burger" in its name.) And of course there are the classics, the O'Connell's and the Seamus McDaniel's, whose partisans are vociferous whenever I clear my throat and politely suggest St. Louis has room in its heart for the new as well as the old.

What sets Baileys' Range apart is its scope. Here Bailey wants to serve quality burgers made from the same locally sourced, grass-fed beef that he feeds his family. "Why the hell wouldn't I serve my customers that, too?" he exclaims. Yet he seeks to do so at the same volume that one usually associates with a Five Guys or Smashburger: 140 seats, turned over twice during the downtown lunch hour.

As at Bailey's other restaurants, the design of Baileys' Range deserves — demands — comment. The space, at the corner of Olive and Tenth streets downtown, is enormous, and the dining area encompasses two floors. Bailey and his sister-in-law, Brynne Rinderknecht, who executed the design in tandem, equipped the main dining room with a single long communal table, echoed by an equally long bar to one side. Around the perimeter of the room is the kitchen — not only this restaurant's kitchen but the commissary kitchen for all of Bailey's ventures. A striking latticework made from old, framed mirrors forms the "wall" between most of the kitchen and the dining room proper. The light fixtures above the communal table are installed inside large vintage milk jugs. The second floor is a mezzanine with traditional tables. The overall effect is airy and quirky, impressive if not breathtaking.

The menu features sixteen permanent burgers and "burgers" (with patties made from pork, lamb, chicken, duck or bison as well as a vegetable patty). There is also a weekly showcase of two new burger styles; the one that sells the best faces off against a new opponent the following week. The beef patty is six ounces of locally raised, grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef is leaner than its corn-fed sibling — order it past medium-rare at your own culinary risk — but at Baileys' Range, across several different burgers, I found the patty to be very juicy, even on the one occasion that my ordered medium-rare came out a bit closer to medium. The flavor is rich, with a hint of grill char and that clean, mineral edge characteristic of grass-fed stock.

The "Basic" burger lets you enjoy this patty on its own or with cheese (your choice: white cheddar; a thick, lightly tangy cheddar sauce; Fontina; or Emmentaler) and the classic toppings (lettuce, tomato, onion) and condiments (ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise). Variations include nods to our love of topping meats with other meats — the "Carolina" is topped with pulled pork, the "Slinger" with chili, a sunny-side-up egg and fries — but most are restrained, even a little elegant. The "ABC" is outstanding, with the sweetness of roasted apples balancing pungent Camembert cheese. (Strips of thick, crisp bacon don't hurt, either.) The "Paris" is topped with sautéed crimini, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, arugula, Taleggio cheese and — a nice change of pace from onions — caramelized shallots.

I ordered a patty melt with bison rather than beef. (You can pay a bit extra to swap any patty into any of the burgers.) Bison checks in even lower on the body-mass index than grass-fed beef, but at medium-rare it remained juicy with a strong, even bright, flavor. The patty comes smothered in grilled onions and Emmentaler cheese (let's just agree to call it Swiss from here on out, OK?) with lettuce, tomato and the creamy, spicy "Rooster" sauce, on very thick slices of toasted rye bread. Make that too-thick slices of toasted rye bread, so thick, in fact, that they make the meat look lonely in there, like an M&M on a birthday cake. Come to think of it, the housemade buns that accompany the other burgers are thicker than they need to be. (Note to self: Devise a mathematical formula to determine the ideal bun dimensions and mass based on those same figures for the patty. There ought to be an app for that.)

Of the non-beef patties I tried, lamb was the standout. Cooked medium-rare, it was luscious, brimming with lamb's natural, verdant flavor. This burger comes with arugula, feta cheese and a caramelized-onion chutney — a satisfying blend of peppery, salty and sweet. The smoked-duck burger was intriguing, but its flavor was too much smoke and not enough duck, and the topping combo of barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese was overbearing, which only made the lack of quack more apparent.

As you'd hope at a burger joint, the fries are topnotch, crisp and flavorful. (The onion rings, on the other hand, are done in by a too-thick batter; it's pleasantly crisp, but it dwarfs the main ingredient within.) With each order of fries, you choose an accompanying sauce from a selection of ten varieties, all of them excellent, including the aforementioned "Rooster" and cheddar-cheese concoctions. Several of these sauces are variations on ketchup — wasabi, ginger and, the standout, chipotle, smoky, sweet and a little hot — though purists may opt for ketchup, plain and simple.

The beer list features 30 drafts. All but one are area craft beers, a testament to the rapid boom in local brewing. (The last draft is a rotating "guest" beer.) There's also an extensive selection of craft sodas, almost all of them made with cane sugar. The shakes are blended with housemade ice cream. I'd like to unreservedly recommend these, but the one I chose, made with delicious salted-caramel ice cream, wasn't blended very well. I suppose I could have sent it back, but instead I ate it like ice cream, the straw my spoon.

Great flavor, flawed execution: That shake is emblematic of the single nettlesome shortcoming that too often undermined my meals at Baileys' Range. It's one thing to make a great-tasting burger, but another thing entirely to make hundreds of them at a stretch. On one visit I waited half an hour for my burger; a friend I ran into there on another day told me he'd just waited an hour for his.

Not surprisingly, Bailey didn't need me to tell him his restaurant had timing troubles. "There was sense [in the kitchen] that, 'We can't do it, we can't go any faster,'" he says. Range, he admits, "didn't have strong people in the right positions." Bailey doesn't exclude himself, either. He and his wife welcomed their first child, a daughter, only weeks before the restaurant opened. Consequently, he says, "I didn't have my thumb on everyone as I usually do."

Bailey has brought aboard a new executive chef and sous chef (Peter Clark and Angel Acevedo, respectively), and he says both are experienced in the art of balancing quality and volume. He's confident that his latest venture has the kinks ironed out.

Given his track record, I'm inclined to believe him.