The Old Man dropped into Morton Plant last week to get his gall bladder prodded and his bile duct bored out and re-lined. That gave me a chance to check out the renowned MP Bistro L'Hôpital. As a true connoisseur of fine hospital cuisine, I was supremely anxious to sample the lunch menu, which is daringly similar - the very same, in fact - as the breakfast, brunch, and dinner menus. I was duly impressed by the chef's approach, deftly spurning the creativity and originality that mars the work of so many poseurs in the field of contemporary hospital dining.
The MP Bistro is simply but elegantly appointed, with great splashes of organic color on the walls: liver mauve, muted mucous beige and, no doubt in the Old Man's honor, bile. Furniture was understated Formica in necrotic tan, with chiropractic seating done up in a surgical instrument motif - a humanizing touch of medical kitsch. The open kitchen featured acres of gleaming stainless steam tables, and an attentive chef regaled in artfully splotched whites, festooned with dabs of multicolored sauces and exotic cooking oils. A very "together" look indeed.
I sampled first the Jello-mold appetizer with freshly drained irradiated grapes and just a hint of pineapple and - was that mango, by any chance? The promised mold itself was barely in evidence, a disappointing bit of overstatement, I thought.
Choosing an entree was a daunting challenge, as racks and racks of gorgeously foil-wrapped goodies lounged under infrared lamps, aged to perfection and emitting marvelously unidentifiable aromas and wisps of steam. I chose a freshly reheated hamburger, billed ostentatiously as the "Burger Chez Nous." It lived up to its billing, presenting on a crunchy white bun no doubt out of the oven only in the past few days. The array of options was staggering: cheese? no cheese? pickle wedge? Embarrassed by my own gluttony, I went with the full boat. Damn the calories, I thought, this is the opportunity of a lifetime.
I peeled the burger from its mylar cocoon and devoured it like a man desperate for sustenance. Nothing could stop me from stuffing myself with delectable bits of charred beef and oozy-oleaginous cheese-like substance. I had swaddled the burger in freshly opened packets of yellow mustard, preternaturally green sweet relish, and just a hint of Morton Plant's famous catsup du jour. Perhaps this was gilding the lily, but the flood of condiments went far to embellish the je ne sais quoi rush of tantalizingly vague meat flavor, reminiscent of long-dead cow, with haunting notes of dry-aged armadillo.
Sated to the groaning point, I reluctantly passed up the dessert tray heavily mounded with whoopie-pies and Cool Whip parfaits sweet enough to send Paula Deen into paroxysms of diabetic shock. Small wonder that the entire Pinellas County medical establishment calls this noisome bistro its home away from home and the wellspring of its livelihood. Before I waddled toward the swinging doors, empty tray in hand, I took enough notes to recreate for you the recipe for Morton Plant Hospital's prodigious entry into the anals of hamburger fame.
Cheeseburger Chez Nous
Remove from the freezer a generous 3-ounce slab of the finest USDA Commercial Quality ground beef, preferably prepared with pink slime and added water. (Ask your butcher.) Without allowing the frozen meat-product to thaw, drop the burger onto a hot grill - it should make a satisfying "clank" - and go find something else to do for a half-hour.
When the burger is burnished almost black on both sides, quickly quench in a cauldron of tepid water to halt the cooking at just the perfect shade of drab, which the Morton Plant chefs refer to as au pointe. Allow to marinate up to forever, adding burgers periodically as swarming patrons locust down the first-cooked specimens. (Oops - I suppose "specimens" is a poor choice of word.)
To finish, pluck the meat puck from the marinade, allow to drain briefly, and flip adroitly back onto the hot grill. Cook tenderly until last vestiges of color dissipate. Turn and cook 20 minutes more to drive off any lingering flavor-causing elements. For the final 5 minutes, drape the burger lovingly in slices of cheese-like substance and allow to congeal slightly.
While your burger finishes charring, drop a bun cut-side down on the greasiest part of the grill to soak up residual cooking essence from previous burgers. Allow to toast gently until soaked and delectable.
To serve, quickly pop the burger with its cheese-like mantle onto the glistening bun, wrap quickly in foil, and nestle into a paper plate folded into the shape of an origami coal scuttle. Garnish with small pickle wedge and an overwhelming heap of fresh kale or any inedible green foliage. Serve tomorrow.