Story by Vacay.ca Food Columnist Janine MacLean
TORONTO — When you step into a burger joint in downtown Toronto the last thing you expect to find is an art exhibit. That, however, was exactly what was going down at BQM Burgershoppe on Ossington Street last Tuesday with the launch of the Dart Burger.
Burgers and art are pretty far removed from each other, so what’s special about this one?
Artist Steve Rockwell and BQM owner Saeed Mohamed combined their talents to come up with this special creation.
“Maybe we’re going back to basics,” muses Rockwell over a glass of beer at BQM’s communal table.
On a grilled and buttered bun, the burger (priced at $9, $11 or $13 depending of the type of beef you want) combines medium rare beef with aioli, red onion, tomato, iceberg lettuce, jalapenos and pineapple. I wanted to know if taste or aesthetics played the more active role in the creation of the burger, which is now featured on BQM’s menu.
“Taste, absolutely, was extremely important to me. It was important that the burger represent what a really well-made burger tastes like,” responded Mohamed, who says he is an amateur art collector. His vision for the burger was to retain its artfulness while maintaining popularity as a menu item. It is fairly obvious, though, that this addition has also been an example of clever marketing.
Twenty-one years ago, Rockwell first delivered a sandwich as his original food-as-art exhibit in Toronto. “The Steve Rockwell Sandwich” was well received by food and art critics alike. “I thought, you know, if famous people can have sandwiches named after them artists should be able to as well,” Rockwell explained with a wicked gleam in his eye.
Rockwell said that original Italian-style sandwich was tasty, aesthetically pleasing and sent a message. A message which, two decades later, Mohamed not only picked up on while attending the anniversary party for the sandwich but was so inspired by that he felt he and Rockwell could do the same sort of thing again. With Mohamed’s burger know-how and Rockwell’s original vision, the Dart Burger (named for Rockwell’s biannual publication Dart Magazine) was born.
“It’s gonna be unique, it’s gonna be amazing and it’s gonna change the burger experience,” said Mohamed. While taste was more important for him, he also admitted that it may not have been as important in the other half of the partnership. “For Steve it was probably more about aesthetics.”
It’s safe to say both Rockwell and Mohamed succeeded with the Dart Burger, which is not only yummy but also pleasing to the eye. You can smell the charcoal from the grilled burger before your mouth even reaches the bun. Layers of red onion, jalapeno, juicy tomato, iceberg lettuce and aioli toy with your tastebuds before you get to the perfectly cooked, medium rare beef. It’s definitely an example of burgers at their purest level — minimal sauce, juicy meat and crunchy toppings. I’m not sure if the artistic process will continue when Mohamed’s cooks are flipping burger after burger as it becomes an ingrained part of the menu, but the ones at the launch event were superb.
Discussing the burger and his own personal correlation between food and art, Rockwell said, “Where do we get our ideas of beauty? It’s something that makes your mouth water.”
He connects food and art by using the example of pre-historic man and the subjects of their cave drawings. The fact there are more images of “man chasing ox” than of cave-man pornography indicates food has an innate ability to create the flow of art — even as much as more mainstream types of beauty. Art is, after all, created because of something that makes our mouths water.
When I suggested the Dart Burger could be a more grown-up version of the Steve Rockwell Sandwich, he concurred.
“The burger,” he admits, “can sort of represent the idea of aging gracefully in a society where we worship youth.”
This is evident when you taste the minimalist burger. Combine that with the Dart Burger video exhibit and you start to wonder how anyone could make you think such deep thoughts about a burger. The silent, two-part video goes through snapshots of the burger intermingling with shots of a cowboy, hunks of raw meat and a man petting a dog, among others. Attached to the shots are typed phrases like “From the start, survival is in every gesture” and “Putting money where the mouth is.”
Whether each Dart Burger will be a little work of art on your plate remains to be seen, but it is there nonetheless for the consumer to discover.
BQM LOCATIONS IN TORONTO
OSSINGTON: 210 Ossington Ave.; 416-850-1919; hours: noon-11 pm (Sunday-Wednesday); noon to midnight (Thursday-Saturday)
DOWNTOWN DINER: 354 Queen St. W.; 416-792-7792; hours: 11 am-10 pm (Monday-Thursday); 11 am-11 pm (Friday-Saturday); 11 am-9 pm (Sunday)
RIVERSIDE: 688 Queen St. E; tele: 416-850-7026; hours: 11 am-9 pm (Monday-Friday); noon-9 pm (Saturday); noon-8 pm (Sunday)