The concept at Phil's Grill addresses the heated issue of what makes the best burger by lobbing the question at the customer. The menu at this bright, casual restaurant by Lakeside Shopping Center has a short list of house burgers with predetermined toppings. But most people order by taking pencils to long checklists of meat, bread and topping options, and the kitchen constructs each customized burger to order.
There's a lot to work with — 11 cheeses, 18 sauces, etc. — including some unique entries (salsa-like pineapple ketchup, jelly-tasting cranberry compote). But the patty and the bun always are more important than the add-ons, and Phil's essential burger building blocks are a good start. The standard half-pound beef version has the loose-grained texture of a hand-formed patty, and there are bison and turducken options (though the latter tastes just like a turkey burger). The veggie burger is refreshingly unlike the typical versions made from soy, oats or rice, and more like a frittata made from handfuls of the kitchen's vegetable condiments, such as potatoes, zucchini, black beans, avocado and tomatoes.
Ordinary, supermarket-brand buns often prove the Achilles heel of otherwise great burgers, but Phil's does right by the bread. The white bun is domed and has ample character without overpowering the toppings, and the thick-cut Texas toast adds substantial girders of crust.
Once the fundamentals are in place, it's fun to play with the toppings. I usually like a leaf of dark green romaine on my burger, but I enjoyed testing one with shredded cabbage. I discovered that fresh chives and pickled jalapenos give a pungent, crisp-but-wet one-two punch atop a bison patty, which always needs something to compensate for its dry leanness. When an ill-conceived attempt to marry goat cheese and pineapple rings on the hot sausage patty didn't work out, I had only myself to blame.
In the areas where the kitchen alone has the ball, it sometimes fumbles. Getting a requested temperature is an issue. Medium rare on one visit was rare. The same order on another visit was pushing well done.
Owner Phil de Gruy says the idea for his namesake restaurant is to transfer the city's tradition of big bar burgers to a more family-oriented setting, and his success in this area is proven by the many tables of people dining with children.
There's little danger of anyone whooping it up at Phil's right now. The bar is currently dry, and de Gruy says the liquor license was too costly to maintain over the slower summer months. He intends to restore it in time for football season, but for now, the bar serves only soft drinks and ice cream shakes, which also count as the most consistently available desserts.
Before opening Phil's in 2007, de Gruy worked in management for Chili's and the background is apparent in his restaurant's many franchise-in-the-making touches, like the "loyalty club" and the menu specials advertised on plastic napkin dispensers. In fact, expansion efforts are underway. A second Phil's opened in Mandeville, but it lasted just four months before de Gruy pulled the plug. He's trying again in Hammond, and the restaurant is scheduled to open in September.