When I first hear the restaurant at the sleek new Treasure Island Beach Resort is a burger joint, I wonder what’s up. The restaurant seems too casual for an upscale oasis that looks like it just teleported from South Beach. After parking in the free, open street-level garage under the lobby, my erroneous preconceptions are blown away once I ascend the stairs.
BRGR Kitchen & Bar is a “culinary experience designed with an atmosphere and attitude that doesn’t forget you’re a sophisticated eater.” It’s a bright space with a long wall of tall windows looking out onto the gulf. The restaurant screams fun with some retro touches amidst hip, contemporary decor, and the bar offers both modern and classic cocktails with house-made syrups, fresh-pressed juices and garden herbs. Wines by the glass come in a carafe-like jug and are a real bargain. It’s a great place to sip and snack even if you don’t fancy a full meal.
But my posse is here to eat. We start with smoked local fish dip punched up with jalapeño and garnished with pickled onions. It features rustic hearth-baked crackers and is really delicious for those who don’t mind the heat. The same is true of the spinach and artichoke dip, which is often pedestrian — not so here. Made with heirloom Bloomsdale greens, marinated artichokes and tomato bruschetta, the lively dip is served with three shades of stone-ground tortilla chips.
The entree menu has recently expanded to include “comfort” choices — free-range chicken, hook-and-line-caught grouper and New York strip — but the stars here are the beautiful burgers.
The Nooner is as good a burger as I can recall. BRGR’s signature custom-blended beef grind is a perfect medium-rare with smoked bacon, aged Cheddar, fried hen’s egg, grilled portobello mushroom, crispy onions and greens, all topped with roasted shallot-truffle aioli on a freshly baked toasted brioche bun.
Little Bo Peep takes spiced artisan lamb and dresses it with caramelized onions, a layer of aged feta cheese, field greens, tomato and tzatziki for a Greek twist. It’s just delish. Tree Hugger is a house-made vegetarian burger that has nice flavors, but the patty doesn’t hang together well. Still, highlighting garden greens, grilled portobellos, melted mozzarella, vine-ripe tomato, avocado, onions, spicy aioli and a toasted wheat roll, it’s a nice meatless alternative. There’s eight more scrumptious selections, plus the build-your-own option, so no one should be disappointed.
Moving away from buns, the ale-battered fish (and chips) is odd. The deep-fried coating around tasty grouper fingers is strangely thick and not crispy. It reminds me a bit of a stickless corn dog, only with beer batter. The fish tastes fine, though it’s a different approach. And the accompanying key lime tartar and cabbage slaw are great.
I’m almost always disappointed by fries, so I’m nearly giddy to report the BRGR kitchen hits a grand slam. All four variations show thoughtful prep that pays off. There are hand-cut fries with truffle sea salt and herbs; thin, crisp and absolutely delightful sweet potato fries; hot thick-cut, pale ale-battered onion rings with tangy horseradish mustard; and crisp, long, tempura-battered zucchini fries with yogurt ranch. I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite.
Since I love to taste as much as possible, I’m happy to see the restaurant offers a flight of sweets. However, instead of a sampler, it’s really just a discount for grouping the three desserts on the menu. What arrives looks great. These are essentially three large flared glasses, layered parfait-style and described on the menu like so: “strawberry shortcake (layers of strawberry-soaked pound cake, fresh strawberries, chantilly cream), chocolate s’mores (double chocolate mousse, graham cracker crumbs, torched marshmallow, chocolate shavings) and key lime (layers of buttery graham cracker, key lime custard, fresh whipped cream, key lime zest).”
One of my guests takes a big spoonful of the “crème chantilly” topping the strawberries. This is an essential dessert element, which I first learned about from reading Julia Child. The cream is lightly whipped so that it just barely holds its shape, adding a one-of-a-kind taste that is unmistakably yummy. “Did you taste the cream?” asks my friend, who is an unparalleled baker. I reach my spoon across the table for a big scoop, assuming the question is prompted by ethereal bliss. As I bring the contents to my lips and taste, our eyes meet and we simultaneously exclaim, “Cool Whip!” My heart sinks.
The sweets are as disappointing as the burgers and fries are exceptional. Nearly every part of the desserts is underwhelming. The lime and chocolate are timid, beautifully torched marshmallows never get warm enough to melt, and plain ground graham crackers seem like a mouthful of sand.
Take a lesson from what makes the rest of the menu soar. Go bold and fresh with impeccable technique. Teach someone to pick up a balloon whisk “à la minute” and leave Cool Whip alone. There’s nothing fake about the delicious burgers; use the same standard to upgrade the sweets.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.