Sometimes a room is just a room. Other times, it's a warning that you're about to pay $20 for a pretty good hamburger.
Located on the Phoenician resort's golf course, Relish Burger Bistro's ambiance screams "hotel restaurant!" Facing a window is recommended: The nice views of the golf course are mitigated by the strictly conference-room décor of this clubhouse cafe's interior.
But no one is coming here, presumably, to admire Relish's décor. Not yet a destination for burger fans, this newish bistro wants to do battle with the spate of other burger joints that have been popping up like nutgrass the past couple years. Its menu promises more than most resort diners, and delivers on some of those promises, too.
On an initial visit to Relish, I was joined by a friend for whom the perfect hamburger is a holy grail; she's made it a personal goal to eat at every new restaurant with the word "burger" in its title. We were both impressed by Relish's impressively large collection of tequilas and tempted by its persuasive list of "adult milkshakes" made with ice creams, flavored vodkas, and chocolate liqueurs, and both unsettled by the four big-screen TVs in one dining room, all blaring different sporting events, and each anxious about the grungy ketchup and mustard bottles on our table.
But we were there to eat hamburgers. While we waited for them, we dug into an order of maple bacon tater tots, one of Relish's signature starters. Crisp and hot and perfectly delicious, the tots were neither helped nor harmed by their sweet-savory accents. Both flavors, likely meant to recall breakfast hash browns sopping up bits of bacon and puddles of syrup, were so subtle, they were barely there, maybe because the bacon was crumbled on top and not baked inside the tots.
The corn chips in Relish's gorgeous nacho plate managed to stay crispy under a pile of sweetly tangy achiote barbecued chicken, pickled jalapeños, black beans, tomatoes, and cilantro crema. Fried pickles were as disgusting as you'd imagine. Served with a side of robust ranch dressing, these limp, rubbery slabs of gherkin were crispy outside and lava-hot inside, and prove once and for all (in case anyone was wondering), that not everything is better when it's battered and fried.
All thoughts of maple syrup vanished when our gorgeously presented burgers arrived. Relish patties are all eight-ounce, natural Kobe pucks served on either a housemade brioche bun or knife-and-fork-style atop a pile of garnishes. We ordered ours sandwich-style on buns, which came topped with a jalapeño, a cherry tomato, and a quarter dill pickle cleverly speared into the top of the bun with a golf tee. Our photo-ready plates were accompanied by a mini fry basket full of more hot, crispy tots. (One can substitute sweet potato fries, which we didn't try, or order a side of crispy, cheese-rich garlic Parmesan fries, which we happily did.)
The burger's meat-to-bun ratio was perfect: The brioche bun paired nicely with the moist, densely chunky beef patty to deliver a consistent bite throughout. In each case, the patty was cooked perfectly to order, but weak in the beefy-steak-flavor department.
The classic burger was perfectly salted, juicy but not greasy. Without any yowza beef notes, and served on simple egg bread, it needed help from the toppings menu. Sharp cheddar cheese contributed a necessary note of savory flavor to an otherwise competent burger, but not enough to elevate it.
More imaginative combinations, also served on brioche buns, include the cowboy burger topped with onion rings, bacon, and pickled jalapeños, an earnest mélange that overpowered the lightly seasoned patty. And there's the trouble with a Kobe patty that's only just fine: It's easily vanquished by a pile of other flavors, as with the Relish Cobb burger, which may as well have skipped the grilled Kobe altogether, lost as it was beneath a heap of bacon, tomato, blue cheese, avocado, jalapeño dressing, and a fried egg. Where, as the saying once went, is the beef?
Relish also serves irony: The most satisfying sandwich on this hamburger joint's menu is the salmon burger. A thick, slightly pink-in-the-middle Faroe Island salmon steak came glazed with soy ginger and seared, then topped with pickled sesame cucumbers and crispy shaved bok choy. A mildly sweet wheat bun spread with wasabi mayo complemented the lightly smoky flavors of the moist fish.
Relish uses a lot of locally sourced ingredients in its entrées and sides, and its food is well-thought-out and prepared with care. Eighteen bucks for a cheeseburger would have been reasonable, especially at a Scottsdale resort, had the burger been more flavorful, unusually seasoned, and perhaps cut with some other ground meat (how about a lamb-and-beef burger?). But at this price point, I'd hoped for something better than just-above-average; a burger that I -- dare I say it? -- would relish and want to come back for.
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Relish Burger Bistro The Canyon Suites at the Phoenician 6000 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale 480-423-2530 www.starwoodhotels.com
11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
Maple bacon tots $8 Nachos $15 Cowboy burger $18 Salmon burger $19