Monday 31 August 2015

New York Burger Tour in 36 hours

It’s not every day you get to play in New York and eat great burgers. But I had that chance very recently when I was travelliong to Washington D.C. with work and took the opportunity to spend a day and a half, a mere 36 hours, in NYC. I hopped onto AirBnB and booked myself into a flat in the heart of Greenwich Village (right on MacDougal Street, and a stone’s throw from Bleecker St.) arriving around midnight on Friday.

Inevitably I was stoked about being able to try out some of the New York burgers on my bucket list and with a host of recommendations from Fred Smith, Zan Kaufman, and Will Leigh (not to mention numerous others) I had a hard job picking and choosing.

This is where my recommendations took me:

Brunch, 10:30am: Breakfast Melt, Murray’s Cheese Emporium

I started my Saturday with a Breakfast Melt from Murray’s. A combination of Fontine Fontal cheese, free range egg, smoked bacon and English muffin. It was all chucked onto a panini press and grilled to melty perfection. I had it to take out and hoovered it down in seconds in the park up the street. This was the appetizer to my first burger at the Legendary Minetta Tavern…

Lunch, 12pm: Black Label Burger, Minetta Tavern, MacDougal Street
$28 – Black Label Burger with Pommes Frites

The Minetta Tavern has been on my hit list since day dot. Back when Serious Eats was A Hamburger Today and Kenji was conducting his awesome experiments to replicate your favourite burgers at home, I read a meticulous, blow by blow account of the burger at The Minetta Tavern and was determined that when I visited New York it would be the first on my list. I even created my own recipe inspired by this burger.

Simplicity is the focus here. It literally is just a bun, braised onions, and a hand formed, loosely packed 8oz beef patty. And you pay a princely sum of $28 dollars for the pleasure ($50 if you grab a beer, and add tax and service). Trust me, it’s worth it.

 The toasted, pillowy, and dark glazed medium-sweet brioche is a pleasure to eat on its own, while simultaneously being in perfect proportion to the beef with enough give to wrap it all up and avoid #bunfail. Sticky, semi-sweet aromatic braised onions are layered between the top bun and the patty in a generously thick covering. The aromat sweetness of these onions balance the buttery tones that roll across the palate from the brioche bun making neither too rich nor sickly.

The beef is supplied by Pat La Frieda, and is rumoured to be cuts from x y z . It is cooked to order – mine a perfect medium rare throughout, and as a hand-formed patty it is purposely loosely packed to allow the juice and fat to literally gush out of the burger when you bite into it. The earthy tones of the aged beef, along with a higher riff from the juice, marry with the onions and bun to fill your mouth with pleasure. I found myself sighing after mouthfuls, it was that good.

It this burger were an orchestra, the bun would be the warm wood, the onions the lively string, and the beef the bold wind. It’s harmony at its most fundamental level. And that’s it. It’s a burger that defies the laws of burgers (balance sweet, salt, fat, acidity, and umami) and yet it’s (almost) indescribably good. A pleasure to eat, and will remain an enduring burger memory.

Afternoon snack, 2:30pm: Little Cheeseburger, Five Guys
Having been so utterly disappointed with Five Guys in the UK (read about their cheap tasting, expensive burgers here) I thought I’d take the opportunity to run a comparison on Five Guy’s big brother in the States. I had the little cheeseburger with mustard, ketchup, lettuce, tomato and pickles and watched as the grill chefs smashed out the burgers on the flat top and created my burger in just a few minutes.
I had it to take away, and sat down to eat it fresh on a step just around the corner from the restaurant. Given the pure joy of the Minetta Tavern burger I’d just had for lunch, I was expecting to be disappointed. I wasn’t. I was pleasantly surprised. Aside from the appearance (those Five Guys burgers always look like they’ve been stepped on in their wrappers), the burger was well seasoned and had great flavour. It was perfectly seasoned and the sticky American cheese melded the burger and bun together giving that satisfying fast food burger hit on the bite-through.
So why can’t they do that in the UK?

One thing to note is this burger is the same price in dollars as it is in pounds sterling in the UK. And it tastes better. Go figure.

First Dinner, 4pm: Chargrilled burger, Spotted Pig
$21 – Chargrilled burger with Roquefort cheese and shoestring fries

The Spotted Pig is a Chelsea institution – a gastropub situated on the corner of a residential street a few blocks south of the Meatpacking District. It arrive at around 3:30pm, without a reservation, but manage to get a bar seat by one of the pillars in-between the bar and the kitchen. I grab a local IPA, order my burger medium rare and start chatting to a trader and his girlfriend while I wait for it to arrive.
Twenty minutes later, my burger appears with its trademark heap of shoestring fries and criss-cross marks of the grill branded into the top of the bun. After some obligatory (and rather disappointingly blurry pictures), I got stuck in.
This is another very simple burger comprising a glazed white bun, blue cheese, and a 200g rare cooked beef patty. I ordered medium rare, but they were being generous with the cooking. It didn’t matter as the rich, juicy ground beef melted in the mouth and dripped down my chin.

One thing that everyone told me when ordering the burger at the Spotted Pig was to ask the chef to hold the blue cheese. I didn’t. And it was marvellous. The patty is roughly formed and the salty blue cheese melts into grooves and undulations delivering hits of salt and umami to the palate as you eat through it. It’s moreish, and I can testify to that as this is my third burger of the day.

Second Dinner, 10pm: Sebastian's Steakhouse Burger, The Brindle Room
$15 - Sebastian's Steakhouse Burger
The Brindle Room is off the beaten burger path for most people, and it was a recommendation from Fred Smith – who noted that the burger there was Grub Street and Meatopia founder Josh Ozersky’s favourite before he passed away in May this year. I turned up quite late on Saturday night – passing a host of bars in the East Village packed with college students from the University of New York. It was quiet but I sat at the bar where the baseball was on and ordered the cheeseburger and a craft beer to wash it down.

The Brindle burger is yet another simple burger. It consists of braised onions, American cheese, and a loosely packed, hand formed patty wrapped in a very simple, trashy soft white bun.

It’s a soft, creamy, tallowy burger patty that combines beautifully with the unctuous braised onions and sticky American cheese. The bun is pure white trash, but a delight because of it. This is a comfort burger at a relaxed NYC brasserie – I can thoroughly recommend it and the experience.

Brunch: Bacon Cheeseburger, The Little Owl

$17 – Bacon Cheeseburger
Again a recommendation from Fred Smith, Little Owl was about 15 minutes’ walk from my Greenwich Village Airbnb, situated on the corner of Bedford Street and Grove Street, nestled in the heart of the leafy streets between Chelsea and Greenwich in Manhattan – the classic neighbourhood diner from chef Joey Campanaro.

I ordered take out and head around the corner to eat it on the street. It’s wrapped in one of those plastic Chinese takeaway boxes and when I lift the lid off a waft of weaponised cheeseburger is released – revealing a mega melted cheeseburger, rosemary salted fries and accompanying salad with my own private bottle of Heinz ketchup. It’s the most beautiful takeaway I’ve ever looked at. And it’s pretty damn tasty to boot.

It’s a pretty simple bacon cheeseburger, to be honest, just cooked perfectly medium rare, loaded with thick, sticky, yellow American cheese, a thick, salty tongue of bacon, braised onions, and hiding a secret hit of homemade pickles.

Of all the places I visited in New York to eat burgers, the burger from Little Owl was the biggest 
surprise, and is one of my fondest memories.

I would recommend all of these places as a microcosm of New York's burger scene. There are many, many more, so looks like I'll just have to go back. What a shame!

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