Hamburgers: Five Fifty-Five (Fine Dining Burgers)

For this month’s hamburger wrapup, Portland food bloggers tackled restaurants from the “Fine Dining” category of local eateries. It was a category I looked forward to with mixed expectations; while you can almost always count on having a burger that has been cooked with care at a “Fine Dining” restaurant, there is also the potential to have to endure a lot of “house-made tomato compote” and “Kobe beef sliders with tarragon aioli.”

[Here’s an aside about THAT particular bit of nonsense. You know why Kobe beef is prized? It’s not because of the way the cows are given beer to drink. It’s certainly not because of the profound beefy flavors of Kobe. It’s because of the way the fat is intricately marbled throughout the meat. Its value comes entirely from its texture, from the way it feels in your mouth. You know what happens when you smash that exquisitely marbled beef through a meat grinder, squash it into patties, and cook it medium-rare? You end up with a pile of under-flavored, offensive mush. It’s a waste of Kobe beef, and the Japanese guy that spent months giving that cow massages and spoon-feeding it Cream of Mushroom soup would scream and commit seppuku if he saw what you were doing with it. The chef is shaking his head when you order it, though he is pleased to have charged you $26 for what essentially amounts to a cat-food-burger.]

At Five Fifty-Five, the signature hamburger is served only on the bar side of the restaurant. That can be a mixed blessing: while you can’t expressly make a reservation for a bar seat, you can ask to have your reservation noted that you would like to sit at the bar, and the staff will informally try and keep a seat open for you.

555 changes its burger selection every few months, and the one being served now is exceptional. $12.95 grinds you a beautiful hamburger (we’re guessing in the 10 ounce range), served on a brioche bun, with melted Gruyere, horseradish aioli, and what the menu describes as “melted” mushrooms.

The first thing you notice about the burger, is the thick slice of Gruyere that positively enrobes the burger in earthy deliciousness. The brioche bun is a very soft, buttery, braided roll, almost like a slightly more dense croissant. While delicious, the bottom half tends to fall under the weight and juiciness of the burger itself, after the first few bites. It all but disappears into a gratifying wash of butter flavor and hot, running beef blood. The top half stays strong, continuing to provide structure as you keep eating.

The hamburger itself is an excellent grind, with plenty of fat and strong, pleasantly husky beef flavors, and is cooked to the temperature you specify, if not, wonderfully, a little under. Great care was clearly taken not to overwork the beef while the patties were formed; there are still intact tendrils of the ground meat, providing great texture and chew, rather than the dusty little pucks you tend to see in inferior hamburgers. This is a simply-seasoned hamburger for people who care about hamburgers, prepared by a chef who likes their subject, showing fine attention to all aspects of preparation and cooking, instead of tossing “hamburgers” on their fine-dining menu because it’s hip, trendy, or because it is wildly profitable.

The only thing I was a little unclear on was the thinking behind the mushrooms, and had the menu not drawn attention to them by referring to them as “melted,” I wouldn’t have given them a second thought. They were sliced so thinly as to barely affect the flavor of the burger, and weren’t a huge contributor to the overall impact of the dish. That may have been the point: to shave slices of mushroom so thinly, that they “melt” in your mouth. It’s a nice idea, it just didn’t influence the overall flavor of the burger.

The burger is, in general, very lightly topped, allowing the beef flavor to shine through. Dressed with only a dab of horseradish aioli, I was offered a bit of ketchup on the side. I was happy to see that Five Fifty Five wasn’t taking itself too seriously about its hamburger, and arbitrarily forbidding ketchup (like those lunatics at Louis’ Lunch* in Connecticut). And, even though I am very solidly in the pro-ketchup camp when it comes to cheeseburgers, this burger just didn’t need it. I didn’t have the urge to change a thing about the way this burger tasted.

Having a burger at the bar at Five Fifty-Five is just so much fun. While the dining room is certainly more appropriate for spendy nights out or special occasions, the atmosphere on the bar side is much different. While service remains impeccable, attentive, but not overbearing, there is the slightest hint of a more easy going approach. The bartender, when she finishes pouring you a perfect martini, will take your order with a smile, making conversation, and generally paying the perfect amount of attention to you. Sure, you may have to listen to some wang loudly describe his idea of a perfectly “chewy” Malbec to the patiently waiting staff, but on the whole, the view from the bar is good, offering a great vantage point for people-watching, with just the right amount of easygoing friendliness with the staff. For nearly the same amount of money that you would spend on an abysmal tray of fettuccine Alfredo in some neglected Old Port restaurant, you can dine at the bar at 555, have a few courses, or a burger, be treated very well, and leave sated and sleepy, full of great food.

Our “Hamburgers” series teams us up with other local area food bloggers, as we review Portland’s best burgers, broken down by category. You can view our other entries from this series here, , or you can read our colleagues’ takes on other hamburgers in the “Fine Dining” category here, here, here, here, and here.

*As regular readers know, I have a longstanding feud, that exists strictly in my own mind, with “Louis’ Lunch,” self-proclaimed “Inventor of the Cheeseburger” in New Haven, CT, who finds their burgers so precious that they forbid people even from bringing their own ketchup into the restaurant to put on their hamburgers. While this fact is wildly outside of the scope of discussion here at From Away, I have a compulsive need to reference it at every opportunity. Thank you for your patience.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as the taco-centric blog "Eat More Tacos," and the junk food-centric "Spork & Barrel." His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.


  1. Chances are, if you’re eating a burger in the US that has ‘Kobe’ anywhere near it’s name, there’s going to be the word ‘style’ right after it. True Kobe beef is just too cost prohibitive to import for many, so for restaurant chefs, you go for Wagyu. And, more likely than not, there’s going to be a tall mid-western man named “Mac” tending to the steer and you can enjoy your burger with out fear of offending a far away farmer.

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  2. But, doesn’t that go against the fact–or at least the notion that we’re told–that fat=flavor? So, wouldn’t it make most sense that a fattier cut of beef, ground up would be more flavorful than a leaner one, like filet or even bison?

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    1. I don’t think you go to Kobe or Wagyu for boldness of flavor. We’ve got ribeyes for that. And I don’t think that it’s the quantity of fat that makes Kobe desirable, I think it is the way it is integrated into the leaner meat. And when you grind it, that characteristic texture is completely lost, leaving only a mash of a much more subtly-flavored beef, that, quite simply, doesn’t grill very well. Or, worse yet, the chef then has to add additional fat to the grind in order to make up for the fat that instantly melts out of Kobe when it hits a pan, and then what is the point?

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  3. Malcolm, great review of 555’s burger. I’ll confess that I’ve only been there twice and it has never occurred to me to order the burger (both times I have been hooked by the Lobster Mac & Cheese). But after reading your review, I’m definitely planning a visit soon! (You also have a real knack for food-tography… would love to learn a little more about what you use to snap your photos. I just use my iPhone 3G, but the quality leaves much to be desired.)

    Anyway, good stuff, as always. I think you’re pretty much spot-on both with regard to Kobe beef and your comments regarding the anti-ketchup crowd down in CT. I’ve never understood that “no ketchup” thing… if its what you enjoy putting on a burger (or a hot dog) have at it!

    ~ CW

    PS: I saw your note on my blog. I did send you a reply. Hopefully you received it.

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    1. Thanks for the comments and the compliments. Everyone raves about the lobster Mac and Cheese at Five Fifty-Five, but I’ve never actually tried it. I’m not much for seafood in sauces, especially cheese…but I will have to give it a shot next time I go.

      I wasn’t super-happy with these pictures. I just couldn’t figure out what the light was doing, for some reason, which is always a factor when you are “in the field,” particularly in a dim place like Five Fifty-Five. You’ve gotta get off the iPhone…it’s never going to do what you want (unless you “Hipstamatic” everything). I actually have a post I’m working on for later in the month with the sum total of everything I’ve learned about improving your food photography. It’s not much, I’ll tell you that. But it should help most people get better pictures out of their cameras.

      And yes, I got your reply…I am just slammed today and will try and send you an email later. 🙂


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  4. I love that we’re getting philosophical on fat–but, I can’t honestly wrap my head around the image of a chef adding more fat to it to cook it up–unless, of course, we are talking about a ground filet but I would hope they’d be more likely to cut the ground filet with a richer like your rib eye or chuck. If you’re ordering Wagyu, most likely you’re a person that knows how delicate the flavor is and are probably ordering rare to medium rare. Therefore, it’s spending a smidge amount of time in the pan and all of it’s fatty, juicy goodness is staying relatively intact. As far as the texture, of course it’s going to change. The beauty of Wagyu is that it ‘melts on the tongue,’ but with proper respect being shown for the raw ingredient, that can translate to a burger. What size grind they’re using for that beef would be just as important as any type of seasoning that went into it. Keeping it as coarse as possible would help retain that textural beauty that makes many so weak in the knees when it comes to wagyu. But, that’s the beauty of food–nothing is absolute and perception is purely diner to diner.

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    1. But that’s precisely what I’m saying. If you’re a person who understands Kobe or Wagyu, you know better than to order it in a burger. And if someone familiar with Wagyu or Kobe DOES order it in a burger, they are going to order it more well done than usual, to avoid the cat food issue. But that’s just it. People who routinely order Kobe burgers aren’t doing it because of a “respect for the ingredient,” they’re doing it because they have an attraction to an overpriced hamburger attached to a buzzword they’re familiar with, regardless of how it tastes, or whether there are much, much better cuts to base a burger around.

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      1. Yea, maybe I can’t wrap my head around ordering wagyu for the sake of eating a ‘name.’ I’d eat it for the fat… the beautiful, rubenesque fat. I get more snarky over white truffles and other items on the burger and the like than the meat.

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  5. Looking forward to having a burger there, and the Lobster Mac & Cheese, when we move to Portland end of April! Although I’ve been away for many years, I used to live in Cape Neddick and Fryeburg….

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  6. I’m not entirely sure if this is the irrefutable proof, but I understand that shortly after Louis’ Lunch became the first restaurant to serve the cheeseburger, the predecessor to The Advocate became the first publication ever to use the word “over-rated” to describe a restaurant.

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