Get used to seeing fine dining chefs flipping burgers, because running a high-end restaurant just isn’t paying the bills anymore.
The win? They’re really, really good burgers.
Chef Todd Kniess of Cotati’s new Acme Burger is one of a growing legion of classically trained chefs exchanging their sous vide immersion circulators for a griddle, fryer and spatula.
“The reason for me doing fast casual is because of the overwhelming expense of running a fine dining restaurant,” said Kniess, who ran upscale cafes in Berkeley for nearly two decades. Two years ago, he closed up shop and moved “to the country” — meaning Sebastopol. “It’s the best move I ever made,” he said. After a stint opening the Grove Cafe at Santa Rosa’s Redwood Credit Union, Kniess decided to go solo again, and Acme Burger was born.
Located at the former North Light Books and Cafe near the Cotati Oliver’s, the space has been transformed into a family-friendly eatery with heavy wood communal tables and benches, pretty much forcing interaction with your neighbors (unless you snag one of the handful of bar tables for two). That’s not a bad thing, because we saw lots of friendly French fry sharing and convivial chatting on every visit. A foosball table keeps wiggly kids entertained, along with an outdoor patio.
Burgers are the thing here, natch, made with freshly ground beef, daily. Their Sonoma Mountain burger is a grass-fed quarter-pounder with premium Sonoma Mountain beef. But “burger” is really a state of mind here, with a hard-to-pick-one lineup of Willie Bird turkey, plant-based burger, buttermilk fried chicken, ahi tuna, Bodega rock cod or seared pork belly confit sandwiched between soft, sesame buns.
On three different visits with three different friends, we all remarked on the perfection of the buns — not too bready, not too soft, not too big, not too small.
“I tested 12 to 15 different buns. I was thinking brioche, but these are a take on the classic potato bun,” said Kneiss. Made specially for Acme Burger by Franco American, they soak up the sauce and become part of the burger experience rather than a monstrous bread bomb threatening to carbo-load you whether you like it or not.
As summer approaches, Kneiss hopes to bring more to the menu, like an oyster night, live music and pig roasts.
“I want this to be a great place for everyone,” said Kneiss.
Acme Burger, $5.95 (single), $8.95 (double): Entry-level burger made with Angus beef. It’s as straightforward as you can get, with lettuce, tomato and “Awesome Sauce.” Toppings are add-ons, meaning you’ll fork out an additional 50 cents for grocery store cheeses (American, Swiss, cheddar), $1 for fancy stuff (brie, Pt. Reyes Blue, goat cheese, onion rings, sautéed mushrooms). For $1.50, you can get applewood smoked bacon, roasted red peppers, avocado, an organic egg, homemade chili or truffle butter. It’s still a deal, even loaded with toppings, for the quality of the product. The secret? A good caramelization on the griddle and not overcooking it, says Kneiss.
Sonoma Mountain Beef Co. Burger, $6.95 (single), $9.95 (double): Spring for the extra dollar it costs for this locally-sourced, grass fed, hormone-free burger. Because the beef is finished on grain, it doesn’t have the gamey flavor of some grass-fed meat, and plenty of juiciness to really sink your teeth into.
Seared Pork Belly Confit Burger ($8.75/$11.75): Here’s where Kneiss’ culinary prowess really shows. Crispy cuts of pork belly might be too heavy on their own, considering the bun and sauce, but get a fresh, crunch with a slaw of kale, Brussels sprouts, golden beets, carrots and cabbage. Don’t muck it up with anything else. Oh my god, good.
Daily Soup $4.50/$6.75: You might overlook the daily soup selection, but do so at your own peril. Kneiss makes soup from scratch daily because, as he says, it’s easy to do. On our first visit, the mushroom truffle soup was undeniably awesome. Made with three kinds of mushrooms and a truffle porcini paste he gets from Italy, we had to roshambo for the leftovers of the creamy, earthy, lush soup.
Fries ($2.95 to $3.50): If you love long, skinny fries with minimal grease, you’ve found your nirvana. Try them with the Cajun spice, which Kneiss doctors up with his New Orleans skills.
Impossible Burger ($8.75, $11.75): Plant-based “meat” that could pass for the real thing. We topped it with bacon, smoked Gouda and Awesome Sauce (made with a mix of condiments and sauces that’s similar to Thousand Island, but with more of a kick), and it was excellent. If you want it vegan, it comes with hummus. If you’re into that.
Buttermilk Fried Chicken Breast ($7.50, $10.50): A thick, juicy slab of breast meat with a crunchy coating. It’s not a game-changer, but it’s solid as heck.
Ahi Tuna Burger ($8.50/$11.50): This one fell a little flat, despite sounding amazing. Seared tuna, wasabi mayo, teriyaki glaze, pineapple salsa. What could go wrong? The tuna was overcooked and we didn’t see any pineapple salsa anywhere. We’re willing to give it another chance, especially since Kneiss promised to fix it on our next visit. Props for customer service.
Kale Salad ($6.95): Let’s just say, stick to the burgers. It made me feel a little sad.
And the rest…
Local brews like Old Caz and Cooperage, decent wines by the glass, shakes and cones.
Weekly specials for families, students and seniors.
Overall: A chef-led burger bonanza that’s fun with the family, affordable and will make everyone happy.
Location: 550 East Cotati Ave., Cotati, 707-665-5620, acmeburgerco.com.