America, F*ck Ja!: Celebrating Independence Day at Reichenbach Hall

I spent this Fourth of July as our founding fathers did — drinking hefeweizens and eating sausage at a German Beer Hall. I mean, George Washington probably ate some bratwurst with some Hessian POWs during the Revolutionary War, right? And you know Ben Franklin would have been all about alcohol served by the liter. So in the spirit of honoring the great beginnings of these United States, I fled the scorching streets of Manhattan to the cooler climes of Reichenbach Hall, to stuff my face with meat, carbs, and some fermented hops. I can’t think of a better definition of pure patriotism.

I’ve only been to a couple of beer halls in my time — the first during a Spring Break roadtrip in Covington, KY, and more recently to the popular Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg. I found out about Reichenbach Hall from the NY food & culture mailing list Thrillist, and I’ll admit I was partially drawn to it because of the literary allusion (the even more shameful admission is that the bigger motivation was thought of Benedict Cumberbatch, rather than Basil Rathbone). Factor in the relative ease of access since Reichenbach is a scant 4 blocks from Grand Central, and it seemed like a near duty to dip in Deutsch waters.

 

First Impressions:

 

A brightly colored sign helps to point out Reichenbach's entrance amongst the bland office buildings.

A brightly colored sign helps to point out Reichenbach’s entrance amongst the bland office buildings.

Reichenbach Hall is found in the strange no-man’s land of Midtown South, below the Beaux-Arts grandeur of Grand Central but not quite into the wilds of Brotopia Murray Hill. Just off 5th Ave on 37th St, Reichenbach is surrounded by nondescript office buildings, a few delis, and the occasional noncommittally-Irish pub. On the one hand, this makes for a bit of an incongruous setting for an establishment of Reichenbach’s ethnic enthusiasm. On the other hand, the area gives you access to a huge amount of real estate. Coming in from the urban monotony, I was delighted to find a cavernous hall with lofty ceilings that immediately transported me from the dim and dusty dive bars of Manhattan to the open and airy space that I’d experienced at Radegast.

 

Reichenbach Hall, decked out in red white and blue.

Reichenbach Hall, all decked out for the holiday.

As with my Brooklyn and Covington experiences, Reichenbach’s interior design is dominated by dark paneled wooden, long communal tables, and wrought iron lighting fixtures. German paraphrenalia line the walls, and along the right side of the hall runs a massive bar filled with beer steins of both expected and prodigious size.

The interior of Reichenbach -- you'd half expect Quasimodo to be hanging around up in those rafters.

The interior of Reichenbach — you’d half expect Quasimodo to be hanging around up in those rafters.

Can't have a beer hall without a bar, or without TVs for showing ESPN, apparently.

Can’t have a beer hall without a bar, or without TVs for showing ESPN, apparently.

I was a little surprised to find Reichenbach nearly empty on July 4th — a family with small children was finishing up their meal as I arrived, and once they left my friends and I were the only patrons in the whole restaurant. Perhaps because of this (but hopefully not), the service was truly great. Not one, but two waitresses served us over the course of the meal. (Fortunately, my initial disappointment over their respective Irish and Australian accents was soon assuaged when another server announced the arrival of our food in an honest-to-goodness thick German accent.) A couple of my friends beat me to the bar, and when I got there our waitresses were explaining that the gas line for the beer taps was broken. As compensation they brought over 3 half-litres of beer, on the house — literally the last bit of beer they could squeeze out of the taps. They continued to update us on the situation during our stay, and luckily, being collective lightweights (and with this as our first meal of the day), we found ourselves with beer to spare when the taps were finally fixed. From start to finish, the staff apologized for any confusion and delay, happily gave further details on any of the beer or food on the menu, and offered their recommendations when they could. I can only hope they’re this eager and attentive during dinner rush.

 

The Food: 

Of course, the real reason I wanted to visit Reichenbach Hall is food-related. My email from Thrillist not only touted the beers offered at Reichenbach, but highlighted a certain off-menu item, the “Wow Pretzel.” As the picture shows (http://www.thrillist.com/drink/new-york/midtown/reichenbach-hall), this is no ordinary soft pretzel. This is the ubermensch of pretzels, my friends. Don’t be fooled by the misleadingly titled “Giant Bavarian Pretzel” on the menu — this is a misnomer in the face of its reclusive older brother. Naturally, we ordered one for the table. Misjudging the amount of food we were about to receive (or perhaps unknowingly creating a challenge of Joey Chestnut proportions for the holiday), we also put in entree orders. Diana chose the Bratwurst plate, Laura the Kase-Wurst, and I tried the Curry-wurst.

 

Idealistic optimism in the face of a pretzel of mythological proportions.

Idealistic optimism in the face of a pretzel of mythological proportions.

The Wow Pretzel arrived first. Normally accompanied solely by the in-house mustard, our waitress had suggested we also add a side of the O’Batzda cheese sauce (especially once Laura made it clear that the inclusion of cheese is a high dining priority). O’Batzda is a traditional Bavarian cheese spread made from cheese, beer, and spices and topped with sliced onion. Digging underneath the onion, the spread seemed reminiscent of queso dip, thick and viscous in texture. It had a strong yeasty quality, but the sharpness of the raw onion helped to cut the richness, and with the dense dough of the pretzel, I almost preferred the cheese a little less gooey. It paired fantastically with the bite of the mustard, and of course the Wow Pretzel was a great vehicle.

 

The Wow Pretzel up close and personal, with mustard on the right, and O'Batzda on the left.

The Wow Pretzel up close and personal, with mustard on the right, and O’Batzda on the left.

The Pretzel itself was as large as advertised — easily the circumference of an inner tube. As we first tore into it, the pretzel was still fresh and warm, and the shiny veneer of the smooth crust gave way to a perfectly dense, chewy inside. Unfortunately, because of its size and geometrically-induced large surface area of a soft pretzel, it cooled down fairly quickly. I would also have liked it to have had more salt covering it, to compensate for the sheer quantity of bread. I’d gladly order it again to share with a large group, and I think the addition of the cheese really shakes up the flavor profile of the appetizer beyond the same old Auntie Annie’s order.

 

The generously portioned sausage plates -- Kase-wurst in back, bratwurst in front.

How about a whole mess of sausage to go with your pretzel? Cheesy Kase-wurst in the back, classic bratwurst in the front.

Shortly after we dug into our intimidating appetizer, the rest of our food arrived. The sausage plates came with sizable portions of Rotkohl (red cabbage salad), Kartoffelsalat (potato salad), and sauerkraut. I didn’t try Diana’s bratwurst, but it seemed like it was well-cooked, with distinct grill marks but not charred. I had a bite of Laura’s Kase-wurst, since I was curious about what a cheese-filled sausage would be like. I’ve had the hamburger iteration in the form of a Juicy Lucy (check out Whitman’s down in the East Village if you’re interested), but this was a different beast. The Kase-wurst seemed to be filled with the same type of soft cheese that we had with the pretzel — more oozing liquid in consistency than the gooey mozzarella-stick-style I expected. I found it a bit rich for my tastes, but I’ve never been one to opt for the cheese-whiz-topped dog at the ballpark, either.

 

My close encounter with Curry-wurst, plus the typical side of fries with mayo.

My close encounter with Currywurst, plus the traditional side of fries with mayo.

I was a little nervous about ordering the Currywurst, since Diana had told me she didn’t particularly enjoy it when she visited Germany. Luckily, I had nothing to be anxious about. Currywurst is one of the most popular fast food dishes in Germany, and consists of “steamed, then fried pork sausage cut into slices and seasoned with curry ketchup, regularly consisting of ketchup or tomato paste blended with generous amounts of curry powder, or a ready-made ketchup-based sauce seasoned with curry and other spices.” The doubly-cooked bits of sausage had that great snap of the casing as you bit into them, the insides tender and salty. It was only in retrospect that I realized that I’d eaten pork sausage — I’m more of a beef/turkey sausage kind of gal, so I think if given the option I’d like a noveau beef currywurst even more. But to be honest, my favorite part of the dish was the curry sauce itself, so the particulars of the vehicle are somewhat moot. The sauce brought me back to the few times I’ve had curry fries — and because of this I largely ignored the mayo-topped fries on my plate, hunting and digging underneath for the untouched potatoes I could dip into the pool of curry ketchup. I’m generally a purist when it comes to french fries – as Patrick Henry said, “give me ketchup, or give me death.” But for curry fries I make the exception — they have just the right amount of spice to make you perk up and pay attention to what you’re eating, and the contrast of the slight curry heat and tomato tang against the soft, oily undercooked center of a french fry is almost too good to be true. (If it wasn’t obvious by now, my relationship with french fries borders on the inappropriate).

 

Das on-the-house biers.

Das on-the-house biers. From left to right: the Schofferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweizen, the Veltins Pilsner, and the Spaten Oktoberfest.

I can’t very much write a review of a beer hall without mentioning the beer, now can I? Our on-the-house pints were the Schofferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweizen (Bavarian Hefeweizen mixed with grapefruit juice), Spaten Oktoberfest (AKA Marzen-Oktoberfestbier, or March Beer), and the Veltins Pilsner. I then also ended up getting a half-liter of Weihenstephaner Heferweizen, which ended up being my favorite. I love the light and fruity tones of hefeweizens as a category, and this one was delightfully cold and refreshing in the face of the intense July heat outside. The Grapefruit Hefeweizen had a very sweet and intriguing taste on first sip, but I’m not sure I could handle an entire half-liter of it. My other favorite of the day was the Spaten Oktoberfest, which came at a bit of a surprise. Although I’m working on expanding my palate, at this point I’m still not very interested in darker beers — I usually find them too heavy or bitter. However, the Spaten is described as being a sweeter than a traditional German lager, which may be behind my interest in it. I thought it had real bitter coffee-like tones to it, which paired well with the rich sausage and cheese fest we were enjoying for lunch.

My second beer -- the

My second beer — the Weihenstephaner Heferweizen, in all its lofty glory.

Final Thoughts:

I’ll admit, there was something a little odd about sitting in a German beer hall, chowing down on sausages as the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest played on the TV behind the bar. But if you really think about it, all those foods we consider quintessentially American — the very tubes of indiscernible meat mash ol’ Nathan’s turns a profit on — well, it’s not like they were on the menu for the first Thanksgiving, right? The more you dig into it, the more our hamburgers and hot dogs and pancakes and pizza and french fries turn out to be not so native at heart. Maybe the true celebration of our nation’s independence comes from acknowledging the fruits of the freedoms we’ve fought and died for over the decades, even if that means reveling in the sheer melting pot ridiculousness of taking a traditional Oktoberfest pretzel and making it goddamned American-Supersized. I mean, if we’re going to turn the Fourth into another American holiday of eating-as-celebration, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to enjoy the diversity of our nation’s culinary past, present and future. Plus, what red-blooded American is going to turn down the chance to drink a liter of beer?

All in all, Reichenbach Hall is a great addition to corporate landscape of Midtown Manhattan. With plenty of seating, a fairly authentic menu, a friendly and informed waitstaff, and over a dozen new and old style German beers on tap, it seems like a great after-work spot, and a worthwhile trip for my fellow uptowners who aren’t up for the longer trek to Brooklyn or the LES. I still need to try out some of the other beer halls and biergartens in the city to see how Reichenbach measures up, but for now I’m more than happy to stop by again and introduce more of my friends to the wonders of the Wow Pretzel.

 

Reichenbach Hall

5 W. 37th St (between 5th and 6th)

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Reichenbach-Hall/133720086731508

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Review: Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien — Secretly Unsatisfying

I don’t really understand the appeal of “secret” restaurants and bars in New York. For the most part, if a not-so-trendy nobody like me has heard of them, they can’t be much of a secret at all. The speakeasy fad with places like PDT (aka “Please Don’t Tell”) and Proletariat, or the “restaurant within a restaurant” motif of the basement brasserie of La Esquina (beneath the taco stand), seem to me to be just cheap ploys to up the buzz about your establishment without killing your advertising budget.

A “secret” restaurant that had been on my radar for a while is Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien Hotel. I’d actually been to the hotel several times for brunch at their other restaurant Norma’s (great hot chocolate and crunchy french toast), which is located just off the lobby and proudly displayed without an entryway or door to block the view of the bustling dining room. In direct contrast to that is the hidden Burger Joint, which I had heard about from several people but never actually been able to locate on my jaunts to Norma’s. So when a recent Zagat article named Burger Joint as having one of the top burgers in NYC, I thought it might finally be time to check it out. With a motley crew (aka my past culinary cohorts Jacob, Laura, and my boyfriend Shaun) of tasting support in tow, we met up in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien, and set about trying to tease apart the legend of the not-so-secret Burger Joint.

First Impressions:

Across from Norma's is a roped off area outside a velvet curtain -- could Burger Joint be inside?

Across from Norma’s is a roped off area outside a velvet curtain — could Burger Joint be inside?

My friend Diana, who had previously been to Burger Joint, had mentioned the restaurant being behind a velvet curtain, and sure enough, directly across from Norma’s there was a wall bedecked in red velvet. While this certainly fits the upscale tone of the hotel, the curtain would ultimately prove pretty incongruous (and probably intentionally so) with the style of Burger Joint. A helpful member of the hotel staff guided the way to a long line that was sectioned off by ropes next to the curtain’s edge. This would lead to the only entrance/exit for Burger Joint. As we made our way closer to the restaurant, the classical veneer of Le Parker Meridien gave way to a pseudo down-home, almost aggressively casual style. A burger neon sign indicates the shift as you turn into the actual restaurant, a tiny hole in the wall type shop decked out in wood paneling, hand drawn signs, and very limited seating.

The line snaked back all the way from the counter inside.

The line snaked back all the way from the counter inside.

Burgers, this way -->

Burgers, this way –>

The walls were covered in prefabricated writing, and everything felt like it had been purposefully aged to affect a weathered, rustic quality. I couldn’t help but be reminded of pre-torn designer jeans, carefully shredded for the ultimate haphazard casual style. The not-so-subtle aim seemed to be to shake us fancypants urbanites out of our skyscraper stupor for some old-fashioned roadside diner cookin’. Between that and the gruff service (although I’ll give them some leeway considering we were there at a peak time), I was left with the impression of overly calculated cuteness.

Wood paneling, pre-fab writing on the walls, and slapdash handwritten menus taped up, Burger Joint artfully aims for nonchalance.

Wood paneling, pre-fab writing on the walls, and slapdash handwritten menus taped up, Burger Joint artfully aims for nonchalance.

The Food:

I’m not sure if the restrictive menu and no-nonsense attitude of the staff was a nod to the simplicity of the semi-rustic aesthetic, or to the no-BS New Yorker stereotype. Either way, you don’t have a lot of choice at Burger Joint. You can get a hamburger or a cheeseburger, with any, all, or none of the handful of toppings (lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo, etc), a side of fries, and soda or a vanilla milkshake. No, they don’t have chocolate ice cream, nor any type of flavored syrup, and no, there is not more than one type of cheese to top your burger with. Better than McDonalds, though, they will cook your burger to order (from rare to well done).

My group decided that, considering the hassle of waiting on line and scrambling for seats that we’d already gone through, it was worth it to go whole-hog on our orders. Ever the model of restraint, I ordered a cheeseburger with tomato and ketchup (I like tomatoes, deal with it), french fries, and a milkshake. Astonishingly, my check came out to close to $18. The similarities with ready-shredded designer clothes continued to mount.

Burger Joint does get points for efficiency, however. The entire food production operation takes place inside a tiny counter space, with one cashier and four or five other employees to prep and cook the orders and bus the restaurant. It probably took less than 10 minutes for all four of us to get our food, which isn’t half bad considering they cook the burgers to order on a small flat top.

A peek inside the small kitchen.

A peek inside the small kitchen.

Unfortunately, once we got our food, it became increasingly clear that Burger Joint is one of those places where there’s an unspoken surcharge for “the experience.” The only item that seemed to be equitable in the “bang-for-buck” category were the fries. The burgers and milkshakes were pretty small considering what I had paid for them. My cheeseburger was about the same size as what you’d get at a Burger King, and the milkshake was served in a 12 oz cup. Now this is probably the result of my American expectations of unreasonable portion size, but as Laura rightly pointed out, if I’m paying nearly $20 for not-so gourmet food, I would expect at least to get a fair amount of it. After all, I don’t think Mayor Bloomberg’s beverage ban applies to milkshakes.

My palm-size cheeseburger, pretty standard patty size, but small for the price.

My palm-size cheeseburger, pretty standard patty size, but small for the price.

The shake -- better for my health, but too small for my wallet. And the lone standout in price to portion ratio -- good ol' freedom fries.

The shake — better for my health, but too small for my wallet. And the lone standout in price to portion ratio — good ol’ freedom fries.

Okay, so if we not getting quantity for our money, are we getting quality? Yes and no. On the whole, everything was solid. I appreciated the fact that my burger was in fact cooked to medium rare — there was a nice pink center surrounded by a crispy cooked edge. And my toppings tasted fresh — I had a thick slice of tomato, and the cheese was a mild cheddar, so a step up from the hastily assembled toppings on the McDonald’s line. But there was nothing that really made the burger stand out. The meat had reasonable flavor, but no real depth to it, and I’m not sure I could articulate a real difference between some of the better bar burgers I’ve had in NY. Shaun, who is more of a hole-in-the-wall burger connoisseur, remarked that a really great “dive burger” carries with it the flavor of some of the seasoning from the surface it’s cooked on. And much like the prefabricated rustic-style walls, Burger Joint’s grill did not seem to have the caked-on-through-the-years grit and gristle that elevates a real down-and-dirty burger.

The same was largely true for the fries and the shake. The fries were crispy and well salted, but were just as much from a pre-cut frozen package as the ones you get at the drive-thru. And as someone with a rich history of milkshake drinking (doing well on a test in elementary school meant a trip to Baskin Robbins for a black and white shake), I found Burger Joint’s version to be about par for the course. The vanilla ice cream had good flavor, but nothing outstanding beyond what you’d get scooping out of a Breyer’s pint at home. This shake had no subtleties of vanilla bean richness, and because of its simplicity, no real contrasting tastes or textures. They do get credit for blending a thick shake, but man did I want some chocolate syrup to liven things up a bit.

Final Thoughts:

In the hierarchy of the dining scene, Burger Joint seems to sit in the “fast casual” category — offering a more unique experience than the average corporate-cut fast food franchise, but without table service or a wait staff. I accept that they’re not trying to compete with a gourmet burger like those at The Spotted Pig or The Little Owl, or even with a quality steakhouse burger like the one at the famed Peter Luger’s. Burger Joint is just trying to put out a straightforward, old-fashioned burger. Because of this, it seems fair to judge it against the other members of the fast casual burger club — places like Shake Shack or Bobby’s Burger Palace. And disappointingly, Burger Joint just doesn’t measure up to the standards of those contenders. You end up paying more for a sub-par meal, with none of the variety of topping and seasoning combinations you would get at Danny Meyer’s or Bobby Flay’s casual ventures. Burger Joint doesn’t even offer a vegetarian option.

Now you could make the argument that Burger Joint is hearkening back to a simpler era, a time before black bean burgers and sweet potato fries. But if the intention is to provide a contrast with the high-falutin environs of Le Parker Meridien surrounding it, Burger Joint needs to go all the way. Either offer a limited menu in a small space for a high price and make some mindblowing food, or admit the standard quality of your offerings and cut the prices a bit. Because I for one feel gipped when I have to pay extra for “the experience,” when said experience means a long wait, a crowded closet of a restaurant, a cash only requirement, and then the same kind of food I could make at my own backyard barbecue. I guess I just have to disagree with Zagat on this one — perhaps the real secret of Burger Joint is that it’s not actually worth all of the hype.

Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien Hotel
57th St between 6th and 7th Aves
http://www.parkermeridien.com/eat4.php