The line between novel and gimmicky is thin and delicate, with dishes, drinks and concepts often aiming for the right kind of offbeat but falling flat instead. The massive, two-story burger joint Charcoal's Gourmet Burger Bar tries for novelty but often hits gimmickry, with a sprawling list of dishes that ultimately are hit-or-miss.
Located on a Lower Garden District block featuring a few recently opened restaurants, Charcoal's is visually arresting as a newly constructed, mammoth temple of burger worship. Its size — with a downstairs kitchen devoted to more casual counter dining and an upstairs area with table service — is impressive, but the space often feels cavernous and seems empty. Charcoal's could make better use of its prime location and amenities, including one of Magazine Street's only wraparound balconies and large televisions ideal for game day dining.
Charcoal's menu is as large and rambling as the building itself, offering a number of exotic meat patties as a way to stand out from the many other burger restaurants in New Orleans. From fine dining to free-standing spots, many restaurants have attempted to jump on the burger craze as a way to take a classic dish to another level. Charcoal's take ranges between hunter-friendly and downright weird combinations.
Two of the most successful dishes at Charcoal's are the venison and elk burgers, which are appropriately gamey and lean. The venison burger is topped with items you'd expect to find at a steakhouse — pungent Gorgonzola mixed with wilted spinach, sauteed onions — on a fluffy brioche bun. Venison is more concentrated and richer in flavor than a regular beef burger and is eager to stand up to the bold flavors with which it's paired. Its undertone of woodsy flavors (notably sage) is pushed to the forefront. The elk burger is well-supported by crisp tasso and needs the added salt to offset the meat's leanness. While some diners are squeamish about ordering meat rare or medium rare, these specialty burgers will be unappealing if they are served any other way.
The restaurant offers a build-your-own-burger option including uncommon meats, such as antelope. It would help if there was some description of the the flavor and texture of each meat on the menu.
The shrimp burger has a messy presentation, with a watery patty that made the bottom half of the bun act as a sponge for excess juices. The burger also is drowned in oddly paired flavors — like bacon and avocado — that overpower the delicate crustacean. The burger would be improved with the addition of more substantial binding agents and flavors, more like a crab cake than a loosely formed mound of ground shrimp.
Non-burger menu items — including salads and appetizers — prove serviceable, though unremarkable. Jalapeno poppers are crafted with a delicate blend of crab and cheeses inside, but the jalapeno shell is distractingly crisp and undercooked. The B&BLT salad — with thick, jeweled beet slices alonside buttery avocado and praline-crusted bacon — seems like an amalgamation of trendy ingredients, with each element lovely on its own but overwhelming when brought together.
Charcoal's service is amiable, but the restaurant could excel by simplifying the menu and playing to the strengths of its spacious location by presenting a handful of burgers worth seeking out.