Try a specialty burger or build your own at Abbey

In an earlier column, I facetiously dubbed 2008 the Year of the Burger. I was inspired by the number of celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay and Laurent Tourondel who were opening burger joints, and on a local level by several white-tablecloth restaurants adding an upscale burger to their menus.

What I didn't mention at the time, because it wasn't on my radar yet, was a better example: the Abbey Burger Bistro, which opened recently in Federal Hill where the Sky Lounge used to be. The Abbey is a bar that specializes in high-end burgers but also allows you to create your own, choosing the meat, bread, toppings and condiments. (One correspondent did the math and figured out there were 32,760 possible combinations.)

I got interested in the Abbey when I heard that Chris Paternotte, the chef who opened the presently closed Vin in Towson, had ended up there. Run by former Ryleigh's Oyster manager Russell Miller, the bar-restaurant isn't like any other burger place you've ever been to, starting with the looks of the place.

The renovations uncovered brick and added new wood floors. There's an upstairs dining room, but it wasn't open the night we were there. Downstairs is the bar, five or six high-top tables and another five wooden tables in back. The juxtaposition of exposed pipes, a couple of flat-screen TVs and ornate gilt-framed mirrors works in a weird but good way.

I can't, however, decide how I feel about making the restrooms the focal point of the decor. You walk in the front door and your eye is immediately drawn to the wide opening framed with theaterlike curtains. Inside this "stage" is the contemporary unisex sink. On either side are doors to the bathroom stalls.

Um. At least you know if an employee takes a bathroom break and doesn't wash his or her hands. Believe me, no one doesn't wash his or her hands.

We were there on a rainy weeknight, so we had no trouble getting a table and the service was good. I worried, though, that the Abbey might get busy because our waiter was also the bartender. (He did a good job, all things considered.)

Serving up burgers isn't all that complicated, I guess. If you don't want one of the specialty selections, such as the peanut butter burger (local Roseda beef, bacon and creamy pb on a bun) then you create and order your own (including its temperature) using the checklist provided - something like ordering sushi.

Not everything on the menu is a burger. You could start with one of two excellent salads. A wedge of iceberg lettuce had a better-than-average blue cheese dressing, a bit of tomato, crumbled bacon and, a nice touch, crisp slivers of fried shallots. Even better was a salad with bibb lettuce, soft pieces of avocado, snowy lumps of crab, cucumber crescents and a fine balsamic vinaigrette.

One of the hits in Abbey's opening weeks has been the "nachos" made with waffle fries. They are good, but all they prove to me is that you can put ripe avocado, creme fraiche, black beans, chili cheese and tomato on just about anything and it will taste good. Tortilla chips would also be good, and crunchier. Wonder why no one ever thought of them?

I would guess that a lot of people build their own burgers, and that's what I would have done if I hadn't been reviewing. I would choose the bun, which is better than an ordinary bun, rather than pita, English muffin, thick toast or lettuce - the no-carb option.

I would get the Black Angus beef from a Monkton farm and ... oh, too bad. Boursin isn't one of the five gourmet cheeses (one organic) as well as American cheese offered. No matter. I would instead top the meat with avocado, bibb lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. And I would have a fine hamburger. But I wouldn't have a great hamburger, because the ground beef is too high quality, without enough fat mixed in to create a great, juicy burger. That's a matter of personal preference, of course. You may be very, very grateful you aren't eating extra fat.

If you want a lean burger, you might as well get the bison burger, which I think has more flavor. If you get the Gunpowder Bison Burger, it comes with blue cheese, lettuce and tomato. Another relatively healthful option is the chicken burger, with ground chicken, avocado, chili mayonnaise, bibb, tomato and sprouts. Hold the sprouts.

Any of these is a decent choice, depending on your mood; but I was actively unhappy with the lamb burger on pita. I expected it to be having a sort of Middle Eastern thing going, but instead of a juicy, sloppy burger in a pita pocket overflowing with yogurt, onions and cucumbers, it was quite sedate: rather dry, presented between two miniature pitas, with only a bit of yogurt.

Burgers come with crisp, salty, house-made potato chips, which are even better than the fine fries and sweet potato fries you can get as sides. The burgers, by the way, are served with lots of style on black-and-white checked paper and topped with a stuffed olive stuck on a toothpick. Nice attention to detail, folks.

Drinks can be had from the long list of imported beers or - at least the night we were there - from what the bartender remembers of the wines he has available. (A wine list is in the works.) You can also delight the child inside and get one of the spiked milkshakes, in an old-fashioned glass with two fat straws. We had a smooth Monkey See Monkey Shake made with premium chocolate ice cream. It was given a jolt with 99 Bananas schnapps and Malibu rum.

Other desserts are childhood fantasies like a brownie sundae, banana split or "chipwich" made with Abbey's own chocolate chip cookies. Speaking of childhood, children are welcome here; there's a kids menu - although it was odd to see two very young boys sitting at the bar with their dad, and they were pretty boisterous.

If this were my restaurant, I'd offer at least one burger that had a higher fat content, that was a greasy, guilty pleasure. Not every burger should be that way, of course. There need to be healthy alternatives to America's national obsession. But when I say our burgers were the weakest part of our enjoyable meal - well, that's a fairly easy fix if you want customers beating your door down. In this economy, I can't think of a smarter restaurant concept if you're opening up a new place than this one.

abbey burger bistro
Address: 1041 Marshall St., Federal Hill

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch, every night for dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6; burgers, $6-$19

Contact: 443-453-9698

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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