The Stomach that Never Sleeps, part 4: “No Sleep till…”

I spent December 20 – 27, 2015 in New York City and ate a silly amount of burgers. Every day this week, I’ll document every fucking burger from my trip in a 5-part series of stories from what might be one of the most diverse burger cities in the damn world. Read part onepart twopart three, and part five.

No. 9: The Au Poivre Burger at Raoul’s

Raoul's banner

When I got back to Grand Central Station from New Haven, I took the subway to Soho and had just enough time to squeeze in a quick espresso as forgettable as the name of the chain coffee shop that pulled it before I absolutely without fail had to be at Raoul’s when they opened at 5pm. At ten minutes to five, I was the first one there, and by the time they unlocked the door, two older gentlemen who didn’t look as nearly out of place had queued up behind me.

The bartender knew what I was there for, which I figured when he asked if I wanted to see the beer list, and confirmed when the kitchen opened at 5:30 and he flat-out asked me if I wanted to order the burger. Raoul’s is a French bistro dating back to the 1970’s, specializing in classic dishes, but when they added a burger to the menu they made a conscious effort to not become a burger spot. And when they got national attention in 2014 for not only the rarity of their burger but the incredible quality, they still didn’t make it more widely available (when they started brunch service in September 2015 they made the burger available in unlimited quantity, but only during brunch). Otherwise, they make twelve a night and you can only get them at the bar–not the bar area, the bar. Three dudes scruffier-looking than me were sitting at the bar waiting for another friend who couldn’t get a bar stool when he finally showed up and he hovered behind his buddies. When they tried ordering four burgers, the bartender informed them they could only get three for the guys at the bar.

Raoul's cross sectionThe burger is a reinterpretation of a steak au poivre, with its patty crusted in cracked black pepper and salt, seared in butter, topped with triple cream St. Andre cheese–imagine a somehow creamier brie, but sharper–and a pinch of watercress tossed with red onion and crisp cornichons. On the side is a generous portion of au poivre sauce made from reduced cognac, heavy cream, and plenty of black pepper (guess what au poivre means!). The sear is wonderful, and as indicated it’s heavily seasoned but not overseasoned. The bun is challah, which is wonderfully squishy the way I like, but holds up to the boldness of the other ingredients. The sauce is a wonderful pairing, a perfect complement to the acid in the cornichons, the bite of the raw onion.

It’s a burger unlike any I’ve had before. In my world of griddled patties with American cheese, it’s refreshing to see a burger do something so different that’s extremely well thought-out but not outrageous, classic in preparation and delicious.

No. 10: The All-American at Black Tap

It was a quick two-block walk to Black Tap, a rather hot-right-now burger bar who won the burger bash at the 2015 NYC Wine & Food Fest. I’d been following them for a while on Instagram, and was really hyped to try their stuff.

Black Tap assembledAnd I don’t know what it was, but it missed the mark. Maybe because I’d come straight from Raoul’s flavor bomb and should have gone for a bolder creation than the American-cheese-secret-sauce standard, but that’s what I wanted. The patty could have used some seasoning, for sure. The sear was good, I liked how the bun picked up some beef juice on the griddle, but on the whole it was just bland. I popped some ketchup for dipping purposes, but was ultimately just disappointed. This was a burger that I’d heard some good stuff about, and I don’t know. It needed some salt. It needed some flavor.

No. 11: The Chargrilled Burger at the Spotted Pig

Spotted Pig

Leaving Black Tap, I had an hour until I was supposed to meet Anna for dinner in Brooklyn, so I figured I’d try to squeeze in one more burger before then. Y’know: one more burger before dinner, right? Who am I?

Fucking Matty, that’s who.

High on my list was the Spotted Pig, mostly because I liked what I’d seen from chef/owner April Bloomfield on Mind of a Chef. Plus the Spotted Pig burger was one of the more iconic recent NYC food items, and it was not a short walk, but not far either, and I figured I could be a little late for dinner with Anna.

But when I got there it was packed.

“One second,” the host said to me before answering the phone. “No, we don’t take reservations. It’s around two hours at this point. MmmHmm. Bye.”

“Did I just hear you say two hours?” I asked.

“For a table. You can sit at the bar, but be aggressive. All these other people are waiting for bar seats, too.”

After losing out to two other people more on point with their barstool-swarm game, I decided not to be late to dinner and walked to the nearest subway station.

“Oh my god, I would have been so mad if you’d been late for dinner,” Anna said at Setagaya, an excellent ramen shop in Williamsburg.

“Tomorrow, I want to go to the Spotted Pig and Roberta’s before mom & dad get here,” I told her. Our parents got to town the next afternoon and we’d be on a schedule where we couldn’t just run around eating burgers willy-nilly. I was at a point where I had to start deciding what burgers I really wanted and go for those rather than going to an area of town and eating literally all of the burgers there.

So the next morning, we hiked back over to the West Village and much more easily got a table at the Spotted Pig. And I’m glad we did.

Spotted Pig cross sectionThis burger is fantastic. The patty was cooked medium-rare, to order, and had a characteristic sweetness and a supreme tenderness to it that I absolutely loved. There’s almost no chew to it, which I’d normally protest, but it that wasn’t the point here. I’d read that the Roquefort cheese was overwhelming, but I thought it a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the beef. It’s definitely apparent, but mostly in texture, and the funkiness was not at all persistent, but just gave strong inflections throughout the experience while keeping the beef front-and-center; it was the Flavor Flav to the patty’s Chuck D. It’s chargrilled, of course, so there’s no noticeable sear, but paired with the grilled-all-over bun and creamy smokiness in the Roquefort, there’s a definite undercurrent of char flavor throughout the burger. And that’s it! Fantastic patty, funky cheese, and a bun. I dipped it in ketchup for a bite and decided that it didn’t need any. It was absolutely delicious without it.

No. 12: the Cheeseburger at Roberta’s

Roberta's

“When this place first opened, it was full of punks. Now it’s all tourists,” Anna told me. Ah, New York. Roberta’s is a pizzeria that opened in 2008, baking pies in a wood fire oven topped with ingredients culled from a garden on their rooftop. It’s very “cool,” and got a lot of hype, so tourists came a-flocking.

Roberta's cross sectionAnna got a margherita pizza and I got the lunch-only burger. It’s a hefty dry-aged beef patty, griddled and topped with American cheese on top of a full slice of raw onion with pickles and romaine lettuce on yet another Martin’s potato roll with a side of smashed fingerling potatoes. The sear is good, it’s well-seasoned, the cheese is gooey and yummy and blah-blah-blah-I-love-American-cheese, pickles for balance, the romaine was forgettable but fine. But beyond just making an extremely excellent well-balanced burger, the innovation here is putting raw onion on the bottom. I like onion, but your options are basically to put it on raw which gives it that bite, in which case you can only do a couple of rings lest you want all bite, or a pile of caramelized, which have fantastic flavor–it draws out that sweetness–but no bite. Roberta’s found that middle ground, where they put an entire slice of raw onion under the beef, where incidental heat from the patty cooks it just slightly, mellowing out the bite without killing it entirely. That’s the trick. For an onion-lover like me who feels torn when asked if he wants grilled or raw onion, who adores the onion flavor smashed into a slider, this is that middle ground I’ve been dreaming of.

Sure, it’s a pizza place, but the burger is simple and wonderful and not to be overlooked.

So after second lunch, Anna and I went to meet up with our parents and take a little break from the burger game for…oh, about a day.

To be concluded, kiddos! In tomorrow’s entry I eat one of New York’s most talked-about burgers of all time!

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