The Food Maven Diary
On Burgers and Restaurant Critics
New Yorkers seem to have gone mad for hamburgers lately, not that we weren't always mad for hamburgers, not that all of America isn't mad for hamburgers
Here are just a few indicators of our current frenzy: An Italian-born friend, a cultured and sophisticated man who has lived in New York his entire adult life but continues to have Italian taste in most things, especially food, now cannot eat enough hamburgers. He is "tasting' hamburgers uptown, downtown, even in Brooklyn. Time Out has done "best hamburger" roundups. In New York magazine, Gael Greene just did a hamburger roundup.
And, as I said, it is not just New Yorkers. AOL is my internet service and best hamburger lists of one kind or another keep popping up as its most frequent food feature. Today, in fact, and for several days now, the feature called "the 10 best burgers you've never had," which includes an "inside-out" burger with cheese encased in the meat . Actually, I have eaten that one. It's as old as the hills. Well, at least as old as my college days in the 1960s.
I love a good hamburger as much as the next guy, but when I am asked what is my favorite, or what is the best hamburger in town, I draw a blank. I just don't think in those terms. It's like pizza, when I'm not near the hamburger I love, I love the hamburger I'm near. Well, not quite. I am more discriminatory than that.
And frankly, who needs to leave the house for a great hamburger? Everyone is capable of making a superb hamburger at home. Nothing is easier, except perhaps making a bowl of spaghetti, another thing for which I wouldn't consider leaving the comforts of home to eat.
Burgers are, however, my favorite food to grab at a pub or other type of burger joint after a movie, and I do go to the movies frequently. So I have favorite burgers near the various theaters I go to. After a movie at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), I like a new place simply called 67 Burger, It's at 67 Lafayette St., down the block from BAM. It's a good-enough burger given its convenience, and though I don't care for the fries, I like the fried onion rings. The place is fairly new with a sleek, hip, functional design and it has an efficient service system. You order and pay for your burger and whatever else as you walk in. You're handed a number to put on your table. They bring the food to your table. Some of my neighbors have complained about the price, $6.25, but it seems pretty reasonable to me.
I also have a burger I like near the Court St. multiplex in Brooklyn Heights and the Cobble Hill Cinema that is nice little walk down Court St. It's the burger at the Waterfront Ale House on Atlantic Ave. near Clinton s St. I love the Ale House's pub atmosphere, great beer offerings, and its onion rings, which I sub out for the fried potatoes. The Ale House is one of the few places that usually gets my doneness order right, too. And the waitresses are always a delight.
I could say the same things about the Park Slope Ale House Sixth Ave. and Fifth St, although the Waterfront Ale House definitely has the edge on the burger itself.
Near the Pavilion Theater on Prospect Park West and 15th St., I dive into Circles next door for a burger on an English muffin. The fries are terrible, even when I have ordered them extra-well done in an attempt to make them worth the calories, but the burger, if you order it rare, which means it will come out medium, is juicy and satisfying.
If I am in the car and can go a little farther, I like Bonnie's Grill on Fifth Ave. near First St. I often sit at the counter at Bonnie's, although there are a few tables. It's a tiny place with a menu of mostly mediocre items, except for the burger and astonishingly good Buffalo chicken wings. The burger, a large and perfectly formed patty, is dredged in so-called Cajun spices, but you can ask them to leave off the spice. The fries are good, too, but if you are cutting back, you can substitute a good tossed salad. There's chipotle mayonnaise in a squeegee to season your fries, but the best thing of all is that Bonnie's always seem to get my requested doneness right on the mark.
The issue of doneness is, well, an issue. Hardly any place gets it right. Because I like mine medium-rare (on the rare side if I can get it, which I know I can't 99 percent of the time), I have taken to ordering my burgers rare.
So here's a story: A couple of weeks ago, with the Italian friend who is currently burger-happy, I went to the Stone Park Café, at Fifth Ave. and 3rd St. here in Park Slope. He just had to have the burger that Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic of the New York Times, said was one of the best in town. Stone Park Café is actually listed in the Michelin guide and Frank Bruni gave it two stars.
Although I don't think Stone Park Café deserves those accolades, I like it well enough. The food is stylish and good. The atmosphere is informal and lively. The prices are fair. The service is usually great.
So … When the waiter took our burger order and we said we wanted them rare – to insure that they came out no more cooked than medium – he asked "Do you really want them rare?" Of course, to be honest, we said, "No, we just want to be sure they are medium-rare." The conversation became a whole song and dance about cooking burgers, ending with the waiter assuring us on his life and the lives of his nearest and dearest that he was going to tell the kitchen how particular we are, and how careful it must be.
You can guess the ending: Three burgers. Three degrees of doneness. One was perfectly medium-rare, another was medium-well, the third had the barest trace of pink in the center. The waiter was duly embarrassed and ended up not charging for one of the burgers. But I did not enjoy my medium-well burger – of course, I got the one most distant from rare -- and in no way was Frank Bruni correct: This didn't even come close to a great burger.
I know most of you couldn't care less about Brooklyn burgers, but I realize as I am writing this that when I am in Manhattan, or some other away-from-home territory, I am not usually there with a hamburger on my mind.
That was, in fact, the case the day I recently stopped into BLT Steak at 106 W. 57th St., near Park Ave. Out and about on 57th St. doing errands, having a meeting, I just needed lunch, quick and at that location. I actually sat at a coffee shop counter for 10 minutes, figuring an egg salad sandwich would do, but no server even acknowledged my existence, although there were two behind the counter. I finally called to one, but he motioned that he was too busy making a fresh pot of coffee to hand me a menu and give me the time of day. So I left. Then I walked passed BLT, looked in the window and saw that they had service at the bar. I love sitting at a bar to eat when I am alone.
This BLT, by the way, is not BLT Burger, the other restaurant owned by chef Laurent Tourondel that everyone says has one of the best, if not the single best, hamburger in town. The specialty here is expensive dry-aged beef steaks, not burgers.
I needed a treat so I ordered a Manhattan made the classic way with rye whiskey. Even though the New York Times says rye is trendy (I've been a rye drinker all my life), hardly any restaurant has rye at their bar, so I never expect to get it. This bartender, however, an attractive and particularly charming young woman, complimented me on my taste (I suppose that's why I thought she was particularly charming) for drinking a true Manhattan with rye, and she had several ryes from which I could choose my poison. Right away I'm thinking, this is a classy place.
Even before the burger came, she brought me one of the chef's famous giant popovers crusted with cheese. They even give you a tag with the recipe, which, by the way, is a totally standard popover recipe except that the tops are sprinkled with grated gruyere. The burger came out exactly as I ordered it -- medium rare on the rare side --and the fries were sensational.
As good as those potatoes were, the best fries I have eaten in an age were at The Old Homestead on 14th St. and Ninth Ave., which Gael Greene recently said in New York magazine has the best burger in town. She swooned, as only Gael can swoon. I actually called my dear friend Gael to confirm that she really, really, really meant this. I wanted to be sure I'd like this burger because I was shooting a Bickering Foodie web cast with Josh Ozersky, the editor of New York magazine's blog, Grub Street and Josh had chosen The Old Homestead as a place where I would like the burger. You can now view it on Devour TV. (Devour TV is not a fully developed website yet, but it will be soon.)
Josh has the worst taste in hamburgers. He loves White Castle, which to me is dog food. So the two of us decided we'd do a Bickering Foodie web cast arguing about burgers. We were to go to White Castle, but then, most unfortunately, Josh would not let me choose a burger I truly love. He is too political. Every time I mentioned a great burger to counter his dog food White Castle, he said he couldn't "rag on it" because he likes the owner of the restaurant, or some such inexcusable excuse.
My feeling is that if you want people to respect you as a restaurant critic, which I take it Josh does, you can't have friends in the business or worry about what restaurant professional people's opinions are of your opinions. With only a couple of exceptions, I am very proud to say that I did not become friends with any chefs or restaurateurs during the nearly 35 years I was a restaurant critic.(I am now.) I always made reservations in another name. I always paid my bill, even when I did not have the expense money of the Daily News behind me. Yes, yes, yes – while I was reviewing restaurants on WOR, I paid out of my own pocket. By the way, for the most part I still do.
Of course, I was often recognized when I entered a restaurant, especially a high-end restaurant that would be more aware of critics than, say, a mom and pop place. This was especially so during the last 13 years, after I started broadcasting. But the element of surprise was there when I used another name. And, you know, you can say whatever you want if you've paid the bill.
Today, there are too many so-called restaurant critics – bloggers, but also people who work for supposedly respectable publications – who announce themselves and their intentions, and eat for free. If you'd like to read more on this – another old-school critic's take on the ethics of today's critics – take a look at Gael Greene's new blog: Insatiable Critic and read her June 24 entry, Critic's Dilemma
Be all that as it may, I was not actually wild about The Old Homestead burger and I resented having to make it my burger in the Bickering Foodies video. The meat tastes great, but it was too much like a meatball, not flat enough – one of the things that Josh rightfully abhors – and it did not come out medium-rare on the rare side, as ordered. It was more medium-medium. In addition, they put the lettuce and tomato on the burger, instead of on the side. I hate lettuce and tomato on my burger and remember the day when this was a novelty and called a "California burger" here in NYC. In any case, I ordered mine with sautéed onions and there was no way to disentangle them from the wilted lettuce and dreadful slice of tomato. Still, as I said, those fried potatoes were sensational – hand cut from fresh potatoes.