Review: Burger Study

Higher Learning: Burger Study marches out the great American backyard classic with plenty of pomp and circumstance.

Indianapolis has no shortage of high-minded burger joints, from the culinarily ambitious (Bru Burger Bar, Burgerhaus, 317 Burger) to the greasy by design (Kuma’s Corner, BurgerFuel, B Spot). You could say that ground beef’s outrageous new guard picked up where the downtown steakhouse dynasty left off, with patties and buns subbing in for filets and martinis—except in the case of Burger Study, a St. Elmo Steak House spin-off that opened in September. It stands out because it seems to straddle both genres.

Like its iconic parent, a special-occasion beacon since 1902, Burger Study’s 179-seat spread has that solid, timeless aesthetic that emanates from gleaming cherrywood accents and crisp, button-tufted booths in a shade of muted ruby that would not look out of place in an Edward Hopper painting, all arranged under an old-timey pressed-tin ceiling. The servers wear nice blue dress shirts and ties, and the bartenders mix a proper private-selection Journeyman Manhattan. The scene feels cultivated and aloof. If Steak ‘n Shake had gone off to an Ivy League college, read a lot of British literature, and acquired a taste for dark sipping liquor, it would have come home as this handsome go-getter with an old soul.

In that sense, Burger Study seems like the kind of place that would be above gimmicks. Unfortunately, it’s not that kind of place. The burgers are colossal and elaborate, groaning under the weight of their gourmet fixings—that gloppy albatross around the neck of any restaurant that specializes in double-digit hamburger prices. Here, the creations have names that cleverly connect with the academic theme. The Homecoming, for instance, gets its smoky sweetness from root beer–glazed bacon and a slip of Gouda. The Double Major involves two thin-pressed, diner-style Prime beef patties topped with American cheese, Thousand Island dressing, pickles, and lettuce—a squishy, greasy masterpiece that owner Craig Huse (who also helms St. Elmo and the company’s Harry & Izzy’s progeny) calls a tribute to westside burger-and-beer mecca The Workingman’s Friend.

“I think everyone who works downtown loves the Workingman’s burger,” says Huse, who was part of the group effort to build out a menu that stars items like the Southern Classic. Its decadent mash-up of creamy pimento cheese dip, thick-cut bacon, frizzled onions, and bread-and-butter pickles resembles something Huse whipped up once during a vacation cookout with friends on South Carolina’s Kiawah Island. Which is ironic, since, as with nearly everything else on the menu, it’s not exactly bathing-suit food.

On several visits, I tried (believe me, I tried) to polish off a complete burger from bun to bun, but these towering meat stacks seem designed to foil everyone outside of the competitive-eating circuit. The toppings are, for the most part, copious but not complex. Bacon overpowers everything it touches. The layers of condiments over chutneys over cheeses tend to distract from what is, at each burger’s core, a solid, luscious Prime-grade puck of beef cooked over an open flame and seasoned simply with St. Elmo’s salt-and-pepper blend. For purists who just want to appreciate the juicy beefiness of these beauties, the menu offers an à la carte option that, in keeping with the college theme, goes by the name of B.Y.O.B., of course. For the record, there is also a veggie burger called Ivy League and another one named Going Greek, a tzatziki-topped lamb burger.

Sushi-grade ahi on wonton chips stands out among the appetizers.

Among the non-burger dishes, a starter of four wonton chips topped with spicy Asian mayo–drizzled tuna poké makes brilliant cubes of ahi taste both bright and buttery. The same dice of seafood is lightly seasoned, seared in a ring, and eased into a sesame-seeded brioche. Dressed with ponzu mayonnaise and Napa cabbage, it is called the Semester at Sea. A shaved Brussels sprouts salad loaded with little hunks of lilting burrata cheese manages to bring together so many big flavors, from toasted pumpkin seeds to a tuft of candied onions, in one big bowl of decadence disguised as rabbit food. I plan to devour one of these after every workout that I blow off.

Most of the sides represent the breaded-and-fried food groups, some (like the hot, crisp zucchini spears that taste like the Indiana State Fair’s interpretation of a garden vegetable) more successfully than others (rubbery slices of avocado rendered even less edible under a hot panko crust).

The menu also includes a bourbon-spiked salted-caramel milkshake and a sandwich made out of Buffalo hot chicken dip formed into a patty and topped with Gorgonzola aioli. But nothing else on this checklist for overindulgence would render your personal trainer as speechless as the $30 Doctorate, a burger that begins with a hulking patty made with dry-aged beef, a richer, earthier, beefier version of the standard Burger Study platform. A slice of foie gras goes on top of the patty, the goose liver’s silky, fatty essence seeping into the surface of the beef. The brioche bun is swiped with triple-crème whipped Brie. Caramelized onions play up the sweetness in the liver, and Dijon mustard is the piquant glue that pulls the entire French kitchen of flavors into one lovely monstrosity. If that sounds like an expensive restaurant’s answer to the burning question, “Where’s the beef?”—well, it is, kind of. “We are used to high check averages in our business, so we wanted to do something extravagant,” Huse explains. They came up with the decadent idea to add Brie and foie gras to one of their test burgers. But it wasn’t decadent enough. “So we decided to just double everything,” says Huse. “Our motto is, ‘More of a good thing is better.’”

At press time, Burger Study already had at least one more location in the works, a spot in Fishers to follow up this original in Circle Centre. That’s not surprising, since the concept seems designed for replication. More important, its thesis is an easy sell: that our burger-educated palates have evolved. We have advanced from fast food to higher-quality burgers, learned to cook them ourselves, developed opinions on seasoning, thickness, and temperature. And here we are now, putting foie gras on top of ground beef. Even if we are not all breathing the same medium-rarefied air, we can appreciate a thinking man’s burger.