Snackshots Providence: Off the Beaten Path

That’s right, we’re on the road again! This past weekend I hightailed it up to Providence, RI, to visit my college roommate Megan, who is currently attending Brown for grad school. Jacob split the cost of gas with me in order to visit his friend Sophie, a student at the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program and see her in a show.

Shockingly, most of the trip was spent making home-cooked food, but I thought I’d share some roadtrip highlights and the culinary efforts of Megan’s cohort. I suppose the lesson to be learned from all of this is that regardless of the amount of restaurants or shops I go to, I still measure my life in terms of the edible punctuation that pepper my days.

I usually take the bus when traveling, but my parents were generous enough to let me borrow the car for this trip north. Halfway up our portion of 95, hunger pangs called, and seeking to avoid Denny’s or McDonalds, we stumbled upon a local gem in Westbrook, CT — Cristy’s Family Restaurant.

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Living in Manhattan, it’s easy to forget that these kinds of places exist — the simple, American diner-style fare, kept alive by a steady stream of regulars. The restaurant was unassuming, with a small cafe area out front (featuring a new espresso/coffee counter), and the bar and dining room  to the right, adorned with dark wood and red pleather booths.

Old-fashioned aesthetic with a classic menu to boot.

Old-fashioned aesthetic with a classic menu to boot.

The menu featured your usual diner fare, from all-day breakfast to deli sandwiches and entrees of the hearty American meatloaf genre. But it was clear that Cristy’s is proud of their pancake-skills, with a fully separate menu touting 40 different varieties. We half-heartedly made an attempt at a healthy dinner by splitting a mushroom, avocado and cheddar omelet, but Jacob and I quickly decided that we needed to check these legendary pancakes out. On the recommendation of our waitress we ordered the seasonal Pumpkin-Apple pancake and the Banana Crunch pancake.

Our hefty omelet, literally smothered in a slice of cheese.

Our hefty omelet, literally smothered in a slice of cheese.

Our omelet was fairly standard, if nothing revelatory. The truth is that I’ll eat mushrooms and avocado under most circumstances, so I was perfectly satisfied. The only thing that was strange was the extra slice of American cheese the cook placed on top of the omelet. The cheese wasn’t of good enough quality (yes, I’m a cheese snob) to add anything to the dish except textural density. There was already cheese inside of the omelet, so the extraneous slice ended up just weighing the fluffy eggs down.

The Pumpkin-Apple Pancake -- pumpkin batter with a molten apple core.

The Pumpkin-Apple Pancake — pumpkin batter with a molten apple core.

The Banana Crunch pancake dwarfed Jacob's fist.

The Banana Crunch pancake dwarfed Jacob’s fist.

But enough chit-chat — let’s talk pancakes. When our plates arrived it was clear that these were not your average short stack. These bad boys were massive, nearly the size of a dinner plate and generously coated with powdered sugar. I was surprised by the construction of the Pumpkin-Apple, which was composed of a pumpkin batter and sliced apple filling. When ordering I had pictured a traditional pancake speckled with apple chunks and pockets of pumpkin puree, but this pancake was surprisingly apple-forward. I found that the pumpkin was very mild, almost lost among the sweetness of the apple interior. Perhaps if pumpkin puree had been incorporated into the filling as well as in the batter, it would have been more noticeable. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the dish — both pancakes were expertly cooked, without any burnt or overly dry spots. Between the two, I preferred the Banana Crunch, which was filled with sliced bananas and a (shockingly) crunchy granola. I really liked the interaction between the brown sugar of the granola and the banana, even if I had to admit I was basically having bananas foster masquerading as a breakfast food.

All told, our bill came to less than $15, another eye-opening shocker for NYC natives, and another strong reason for my recommendation. If you’re traveling through Connecticut on I-95, I’d definitely suggest foregoing the endless Dunkin Donuts and instead taking a walk in some Westbrookian shoes at Cristy’s. The staff was friendly, the prices were stellar, and the pancakes were out of this world.

Eventually we made it up to Providence, and Saturday morning Megan took me over to one of her new favorite brunch spots, Olga’s Cup and Saucer.

Inside Olga's, which has a bakery/coffee bar area as well as indoor and outdoor dining.

Inside Olga’s, which has a bakery/coffee bar area as well as indoor and outdoor dining.

Olga’s was absolutely adorable, the kind of brightly painted and happily staffed coffee bar and restaurant that you know is going to make for a good brunch experience. It actually reminded me a lot of Macrina Bakery in Seattle, with slightly more emphasis on a full restaurant menu. The weather was surprisingly mild and dry for Providence in the fall, so we scored a seat on the outdoor patio. Following Megan’s lead, I opted for the Tostada (which was a layered take on Huevos Rancheros, as far I could tell).

The Tostada at Olga's Cup and Saucer, a layered breakfast lasagna of tortilla, salsa and beans.

The Tostada at Olga’s Cup and Saucer, a layered breakfast lasagna of tortilla, eggs, salsa and beans.

The Tostada was composed of eggs, stewed black beans, and fresh pico de gallo layered between toasted tortillas, and came with breakfast sweet and normal potatoes. I asked for my eggs to be cooked over easy, and they arrived with yolks still soft and loose, spilling out and intermingling with the beans and juices from the salsa. The Tostada had all of the Latin flavors I love in Huevos Rancheros, with crispness from the shredded lettuce and a sprinkling of cilantro. I was also impressed by the dish Megan’s friend David ordered — Poached Eggs on Homemade Scallion-Cheddar Scones. The “scones” were basically biscuits, and the small taste I had made me regret not snagging some of the baked goods on display near the front door of Olga’s.

Finally got to have my Baingan Bhartha, after trying a new eggplant curry at Tamarind.

Finally got to have my Baingan Bhartha, after trying a new eggplant curry at Tamarind.

Garlic-onion Naan -- deadly for your breath, delightful for your stomach.

Garlic-onion Naan — deadly for your breath, delightful for your stomach.

We spent most of the weekend shuttling from Megan’s apartment to her friends’ around the corner, who happen to live above an Indian restaurant called Taste of India. It didn’t take much effort to convince me to have Indian for dinner on Saturday night, and I finally got to have the Baingan Bhartha that I was craving during my dinner at Tamarind. The food was pretty tasty, although I’ll admit that I’ve been slightly ruined by the experience I had at Tamarind. I think it’ll be a few more regular Indian meals before I forget how wonderful the curries and lamb chops were. However, the proprietors of Taste of India score points for taking care of their tenants — we got free vegetable pakoras for being part of the in-crowd (aka, for Megan’s friends paying rent on time).

The reason we were so centrally located for the weekend (aside from the ease of geography), was because Megan’s friend Justin was celebrating his birthday. His girlfriend Lauren had organized a game night on Saturday and breakfast brunch the next day, so the remaining food adventures of my trip are based around Justin’s apartment. First off, Megan and I baked a red velvet cake for the game night. Back in our halcyon college days, Megan and I had attempted to make a red velvet cake, which ended up measuring only about an inch in height (though it did taste quite good). Thankfully, our baking skills have come a ways since then, and Justin’s cake was significantly more respectable in dimension.

The naked red velvet cake.

The naked red velvet cake.

Festively frosted for Justin.

Festively frosted for Justin.

Along with organizing and cooking most of brunch, Lauren had also bought a number of craft beers to accompany our vigorous board-gaming (ain’t no birthday like a board game birthday). First up was the Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary Lager, celebrating the brewery’s 25 years in business. I’m usually somewhat lukewarm on Brooklyn Brewery, but I actually really enjoyed this lager. My beer palate is fairly inexperienced, but I tasted some citrus notes, some woodsy hoppiness, and a little toasted quality.

Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary lager.

Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary lager.

Brunch on Sunday was pretty impressive, incorporating lots of bacon, eggs, french toast (with a berry compote and creme fraiche), fruit salad and the obligatory mimosas.

Damn, Lauren, way to bring the brunch.

Damn, Lauren, way to bring the brunch.

I manned the french toast station and succeeded in not burning the challah to pieces, but Lauren’s egg-bake was pretty much the highlight the meal, featuring eggs, bacon, peppers, onions, and a whole mess of cheese. To top it all off, she even got all the brunchees to wear plaid shirts in Justin’s honor (aka to make fun of him for his mono-patterned wardrobe of plaid and jeans).  By the end of the weekend, I had come to the conclusion that Lauren needs to plan everyone’s birthdays. Or at least just mine. Clearly Megan’s friends know how to do birthdays right.

It was a great roadtrip, slightly more homestyle than I initially anticipated, but I actually appreciated the break from the NY food scene. It was nice to cook a meal with friends, to try some out of the way spots, and visit Megan’s favorite local restaurants. I spend so much time running around New York trying to check off items on my endless lists, I found it really refreshing to have the sort of wake up call that there is some stellar food happening outside the Five Boroughs, from roadside diners to personal kitchens. It makes me want to bust out a map and take this show on the road on a national eating tour, but until I have the time and the money for that, I guess I’ll concentrate on the northern third of the I-95 corridor. After all, Jacob hasn’t been to Friendly’s yet, and what kind of sad excuse of a life is one without the beauty of Fribbles?

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Vox Populi: Spuds 2.0 Unveiled at Shake Shack

Although the title implies I’m going to be talking about Shake Shack, I promise that no hamburgers were consumed in the making of this post. After my killer dinner at Peter Luger, I’m letting the dust settle a bit before breaking into beef again. If you’re really curious, I do like the Shackburger, but this time around we’re going to focus on some of the lesser known elements of the menu.

If you haven’t heard, Danny Meyer recently admitted a gap in the Shake Shack menu, a crack in the metaphorical frozen custard concrete of the brand. Granted, he only admitted that flaw by immediately offering a new solution, but who would expect any less from the Sultan of Shack?

The issue: the Shack’s french fries, a quintessential part of any fast food meal, and a topic of some controversy in the food blogosphere. Prominent food writers like Ed Levine of Serious Eats had bemoaned the Shack’s cooked-from-frozen crinkle cuts, limp and generic in the face of Meyer’s ethos of heightening fast food with fresh ingredients and quality service. Personally, I’d never given much thought to the fries at Shake Shack. I’m actually pretty ambivalent about the restaurant on the whole — I know both people who actively dislike it, and some diehard fans who rack up multiple visits in a week. I can vouch that I’ve never had a bad meal there, but I’ve probably only been a handful of times since they opened their first shop in 2004. Casting a more contemplative eye towards the fries, however, I do tend to agree with the critics. As a potato enthusiast, I liked the old Shack fries because of a certain level of nostalgia (they reminded me of the Ore-Ida frozen fries my parents would occasionally serve as a dinner treat), but the truth is that they were substandard given the care put into the rest of the dishes Shake Shack offers. Yes, the crinkle cut fries had merit, since frying from frozen guarantees a consistent level of quality. But it also means that the flavor potential is capped — you’re never going to achieve the freshness you’d get from newly cut potatoes straight out of the fryer.

And so, 9 years after opening, Shake Shack admitted that they really had been listening. As they proudly announced on their website (http://www.shakeshack.com/2013/08/06/fresh-cut-fries-debut-at-ues-shake-shack/), they are, as of last week, serving fresh cut, never frozen, skin-on fries. It was revealed that the Upper East Side location served as the test kitchen, the staff spending countless hours training before opening each day. Right now you can only get the new fries at the UES branch, leaving a strange potato-paradox of past and present iterations coexisting in Manhattan, the crinkle and the fresh-cut fries simultaneously available with only a cross-town bus ride between them.

As it happens, despite living on the UES for 3 years, I’d actually never been to the Shake Shack up by me (I’ve visited their Upper West, Times Square, and Madison Square Park locations), so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out my local shop and be overly judgmental about some side dishes.

 

First Impressions:

The familiar logo at the entrance to the UES Shake Shack.

The familiar logo at the entrance to the Upper East Side Shake Shack.

The UES Shake Shack is on 86th Street between 3rd and Lex, so it’s nearly impossible to avoid walking by unless you’re a hermit who never leaves the neighborhood. The entrance features the familiar prominent plate glass windows, metallic lettering, and green neon fixtures of the rest of the chain’s locations. The restaurant itself is below street level, along with the outdoor plaza next door, which is technically open to the public but seems pretty much exclusively used by Shake Shack customers. Inside you’re greeted with the same pseudo-industrial aesthetic I noticed at BurgerFi — plain planks of wood siding and tables, green plastic chairs, and cool metal surfaces.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining  area.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining area.

The restaurant was in full-on fry propaganda mode. Outside, the windows had signs announcing “fresh cuts,” and the normal burger-shaped neon sign had been swapped for a new icon displaying a cup of fries. Inside, all of the employees were decked out in brand new green shirts with the same fry-cup design, topped with the caption “We Heard.” The Specials chalkboard near the menu featured the following message (note the hashtag), and there were announcement flyers detailing the new fries prominently displayed near the registers.

Did we mention we have new french fries?

I’m not sure if you knew, but Shake Shack has new fries.

No seriously, they're brand new.

No seriously, they’re brand new. But they’re keeping it kind of on the DL, hush-hush, you know?

I figured that as long as I was being adventurous, I might as well take a chance on Shake Shack’s vegetarian option, the ‘Shroom Burger, to make sure I ingest as many fried foods in one sitting as possible. Luckily, Jacob was there to split my order of fries, and he also opted for a non-hamburger item, choosing the Chicken Dog with Shack-Cago style fixings. Post meal, because somehow we weren’t totally stuffed, we also split a Single Concrete of Vanilla/Chocolate swirl with Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough.

 

The Food:

Our overflowing tray of the new fries -- golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

Our overflowing tray of the new fries — golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

First things, first — the fries. In my review of BurgerFi, the french fries ended up being the standout dish of the meal — my preferred medium-cut with good crisp and a bit of skin still on. Shake Shack’s new fries are very much of the same spirit, except thinner-cut. They completely lived up to the advertising copy — thin, starchy, salty, with obvious skin on at least one side of each fry, and a discernibly fresh potato flavor. None of the fries were limp or soggy, nor did I find any blackened burnt sticks, an impressive feat given the relative inexperience of the kitchen. Our generous portion seemed to be the norm as I watched other orders being filled, and because the fries are now thinner, I think it’s better bang for your buck than the chunkier old crinkle-cuts. Overall, I was impressed by the consistency of the fries, and the streamlined service the staff at Shake Shack had already conformed to — they had upwards of 5 people working the fry line during my visit (only a few days after initiating Operation: New Fries). It’s definitely a positive change for Shake Shack, especially because it’s more in line with their ethos of conscious fast food.

The fry line in action -- there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The fry line in action — there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The 'Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly "lighter" option at Shake Shack.

The ‘Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly “lighter” option at Shake Shack.

Unfortunately, I think there is still room for improvement in the vegetarian section of their menu. The ‘Shroom Burger (Crisp-fried portobello mushroom filled with melted muenster and cheddar cheese, topped with lettuce, tomato and ShackSauce) came out looking like a thick hockey-puck of crispy fried breading, like someone had tried to surreptitiously replace a beef patty with a monstrous mozzarella stick (on second thought, that doesn’t sound half bad). Although it plainly states on the menu that it’s a fried mushroom, in my head I had just skipped over that fact, imaging a vegetarian take on a Midwestern Juicy Lucy (a burger stuffed with cheese) with the portobello meat as the main attraction. The ‘Shroom comes with the same fixins’ as a regular Shackburger, and I while found the trademark Shacksauce paired well with the salty layer of fried crust,  I felt the sauce’s tanginess clashed with the mushroom flesh once I made it deeper into the patty.

Biting into the 'Shroom Burger, you're met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

Biting into the ‘Shroom Burger, you’re met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

As Jacob had warned, biting into the fried ball yielded a cascade of gooey molten cheese, so proceed with caution lest you burn your tongue. The muenster and cheddar were a great combination — once I was past the middle of the patty, and had mostly leftover cheese and naked mushroom flesh, that’s when I thought the dish really succeeded, with a strong flavor from the portobello shining through. Ultimately, I found the breading merely a distraction from the merits of the burger, unnecessary especially considering the lovely potato bun that Shake Shack uses for its sandwiches. The breading was salty and overwhelming, distracting from the inherent umami combination of the mushroom, tomato, and cheeses. I’d rather Shake Shack take their Shackburger and just sub the beef for a couple portobello caps, or even make a ground up mushroom burger and stuff that with cheese, rather than hiding the pleasure of flavorful fungi behind a mask of crowd-pleasing battered breading.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

Jacob seemed to enjoy his Chicken Sausage Dog (Shake Shack chicken, apple and sage sausage), which was topped with the Shack-cago Dog fixings (Rick’s Picks Shack relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt and mustard). I thought the sausage itself was great — don’t expect it to taste like a hot dog, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the interplay of the sweet apple and the earthy, herbal sage. I found the toppings to be a bit overwhelming, however. Maybe I’m just a fuddy-duddy when it comes to hot dogs — gimme some ketchup, maybe some mustard, and I’m all set. Here I was disappointed by how the pickles and celery salt overpowered the subtle sausage flavors with their intense vinegar bent.

Our swirled Vanilla/Chocolate Concrete with Chocolate Truffle Dough. Take that, Dixie Cup!

Chocolate custard with dark chocolate truffle pieces — proof positive you can never have too much chocolate.

I feel like I barely have to give a review of the Concrete, because most of the time I find Maggie + ice cream = immense satisfaction, and this is just another proof of the validity of that equation. But I do think I should mention that while BurgerFi wins the french fry race in my heart (because of their slightly thicker-cut fries), Shake Shack has a lock on the frozen custard competition. Both the vanilla and the chocolate flavors were smoothy, creamy, and tasted exactly like what they claimed to be (some might think this would be obvious, but some frozen dessert shops, like Tasti D-Lite, offer vanilla and chocolate flavors that are somewhat different, but definitely don’t taste like a chocolate bar or a vanilla bean. It’s more of a “flavor A” or “flavor B” scenario). The texture of Shake Shack’s custard is somewhere between Mr. Softee’s soft-serve and Rita’s frozen custard. The Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough was misleading, because it seemed just like small chunks of chocolate truffles (I’m pretty sure truffles aren’t baked anyway, so using the term dough seems unnecessary), but regardless of nomenclature, they were delicious —  rich, dense, dark chocolate, just chewy enough to linger on your tongue as the custard melted away. My only complaint is that the truffle pieces were few and far between — I could have doubled down on those truffles, easy-as-pie (or custard, I suppose).

 

Final Thoughts:

Shake Shack’s empire is expanding exponentially these days, with new locations popping up both around the country (Washington DC and Boston this summer, Las Vegas in 2014), and around the world (London and Istanbul in just the past few months). With all of this growth, it’s gratifying to see that the company is still looking for new ways to improve their offerings. It still makes a difference what people are saying about their food, beyond focus groups and market tests. Will these french fries ever win a worldwide competition? Hardly — you’re better off checking our Pommes Frites down in the East Village if you want some hardcore fry action. But if you’re in Shake Shack, contemplating your options, pick up a side order — they’ll put Mickey D’s fries to shame.

I don’t doubt that once Shake Shack rolls out these new fries to all their locations, there will hardly be the same level of quality assurance. But the initial impulse comes from the right place. Yes, this is a fast food chain, yes, it’s a corporate monolith (although not faceless like McDonalds, thanks to Danny Meyer), and yes, there may even be a bit of disappointing discarding of principles in the face of business decisions (such as Chipotle’s new investigation into using antibiotic-treated meat). But for now, as Shake Shack is so proudly shouting out to the world, what the people want, the people will get. Maybe if we use our mouths as more than hamburger-receptacles,  it could lead to more changes, like a few more vegetarian options on the  menu. Danny Meyer’s aiming to empower, so  speak up, the Shack‘s all ears.

Shake Shack

(Multiple locations, new fries only at 154 E. 86th St)

http://www.shakeshack.com/

Munching Via Multiple Choice: BurgerFi Review

Let’s switch things up a bit by talking about fast food, or rather, the concept of “fast casual.” The rise of the “fast casual chain” is a recent trend that is having a major impact on the food industry. The term refers to restaurants that straddle the line between fast food and  sit-down dining, such as Chipotle, Panera, or Cosi. There’s no table service, but the meals are supposedly made with a little more TLC (and attempted nutritional value), and with a slightly higher price tag, so the customers are meant to feel a bit classier than when they order a Double Down at KFC (if you don’t know what that is, the internet is calling your name).

Business at these chains has skyrocketed in recent years, leapfrogging over formerly popular sit-down restaurants like Applebee’s and Olive Garden as well as cheaper spots like McDonalds and Wendy’s. In fact, the trend has led to an embrace across the board of the “Chipotle Effect” — where fast food chains are remodeling their menus and their venues in order to reach up into the fast casual market. For example, Wendy’s latest revamp designs have ditched the carpet and hokey red roof for sleek industrial design that seems a bit like our favorite burrito store (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/wendys-redesign-fast-food-restaurant_n_1159108.html#s557410&title=New_Seating_Arrangements). And if you poke your head in a few McDonalds chains in Manhattan, I think you’d be surprised by the dark wood and lounge seating. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a Ronald McDonald statue — clearly bright yellow and red proved too garish for the new Mickey D’s.

Not all of the “Chipotle Effect” is superficial, however. By focusing on the caliber of its own ingredients, Chipotle has led the charge on more ethical sourcing in general. There is a growing shift towards transparency of what goes into our processed fast food, so while that carnitas burrito might not do wonders for your waistline, at least you know the pig you’re eating was grass-fed.

I couldn’t help but think about all of this when I visited BurgerFi this weekend, the newest burger chain to hit Manhattan (and only a block away from my friends’ apartment!). I would wager that BurgerFi considers itself in the fast casual category, and although the company is based in South Florida, a quick glimpse around the first NY location may strike a customer as remarkably familiar. BurgerFi also focuses on locally-sourced, natural ingredients and eco-friendly policies, touting their recycled napkins and “chairs that are made from recycled Coke bottles.” Check off the modern design, check off the trendy organic-focused attitude, but how does BurgerFi fare in the most important measurement — satisfying four hungry customers for lunch?

 

First Impressions:

The view from the sidewalk: gray metal and bright colors.

The view from the sidewalk: gray metal and bright colors.

From the sidewalk outside, BurgerFi is most reminiscent of a retro-fitted garage, featuring a wide-open dining space with a counter against the back wall. Not to disparage the creativity of the architect, but there were some pretty striking similarities to the Shake Shack aesthetic, a branch of which lies only a few blocks away on 86th St. The decor was very industrial, featuring lots of corrugated steel and neon on the outside with wood tables inside and chic lightning fixtures. There is coke-bottle manufactured  outdoor seating under a metal awning, and a couple larger communal tables to go with the small two-tops and four-tops inside. Between the restaurant design and the categories of the menu (burgers, dogs, fries, and frozen custard), the similarities to Shake Shack seemed to be adding up fast.

The service counter way at the back of the restaurant.

The service counter way at the back of the restaurant.

BurgerFi does win points for its service. The location only opened up last month, so the employees were still very enthusiastic, even at noon on a Sunday. Laura and I got free samples of the frozen custard while we were waiting for the rest of our lunch crew, and when we approached the counter the employees had a call and response cheer at the ready “Welcome to BurgerFi!” “Where everything’s natural!”

The two large communal tables, and smaller, more private options behind them.

The two large communal tables, and smaller, more private options behind them.

Like a few other fast casual chains, after ordering at the counter, you’re given a numbered buzzer that goes off when your order is ready. You then have to go up and claim your order. It went pretty smoothly for the four of us, although Laura was stuck waiting for slightly longer because she had ordered the “bucket of fries” (actual name) for us to all share.

The Food:

Besides being natural (and eco-friendly), BurgerFi’s game seems to be the multiplicity of choice. You can build your own burger (or hot dog), or choose from their menu of preset combinations, but you get 2 free toppings with those and can then add more, at additional cost. BurgerFi also offers fries and onion rings, cupcakes, beer and wine, and at least at this location, they have those ridiculous Coke machines were you can combine as many different soft drinks as you desire. We didn’t get them, but I spotted an order of onion rings on a nearby table and they looked absurd — not the thin, namby-pamby onion rings at Burger King, but thickly breaded, full-on half a layer of onion width rings, like someone had made a miniaturized Bloomin’ Onion.

Oh, the endless possibilities of soda combinations.

Oh, the endless possibilities of soda majesty.

I wanted to have the authentic experience for my first foray in BurgerFication, so I opted for the straight up BurgerFi Burger, but I was also intrigued by their VegeFi Burger, which is a quinoa-based patty, and the Brisket Burger (as we all know, I do love me some brisket).

Again, like Shake Shack, the standard BurgerFi Burger is a double patty, but I went for the single burger since I was planning on ordering a shake and sharing fries with the table (I aim for the barest minimum of restraint). My burger arrived in a wax paper sleeve, the BurgerFi name branded into the potato bun. It was about the same size as a regular fast food burger (and my Burger Joint burger), and cooked to about the same medium temperature. The bun was slightly firmer than the one at Burger Joint, which I appreciated, since I’m not a fan of accidentally Hulking-out and turning my burger bun into a Wheat Thin. The standard toppings are  lettuce, tomato and the BurgerFi sauce, which seemed to be the same basic Thousand Island dressing style sauce you see on the Big Mac or the Shackburger. It was a pretty straightforward burger, and was the least favorite part of my meal. Not that it was bad or unappetizing — it was not too overdone, cooked so the meat was still a little tender (although not particularly moist), and the ingredients were clearly fresh (including the tomato, which had actual flavor). It just wasn’t anything beyond a solid beef burger.

Talk about brand recognition.

Talk about brand recognition. 

However,  I think in terms of getting the most bang for my buck, it’d be better to build my own burger or go for some of the more intriguing add-ons, like blue cheese and Peter Luger Steak Sauce, or even go Bobby’s Burger Palace style and get potato chips on my burger. I have my own preferences and predilections when it comes to burgers. There are times that I’m looking for a real meat-forward experience (oy, the phrases I come up with for this blog), and in that case I’m going to probably throw out a little more cash for a burger I can order medium-rare, like hitting up Five Napkin Burger or even Jackson Hole. But when I go to Five Guys or Shack Shack or BurgerFi, I’m looking for what the toppings can add to my overall taste experience, since I can’t modify the burger meat itself. I think during my next visit to BurgerFi I’ll probably try out the Brisket Burger to see how the meat compares before I delve into the land of cheese and toppings.

You can just see the patty through the juicy tomato slice.

You can just see the patty through the tomato slice.

 

I also went with the traditional route for my shake, in order to more fully taste the frozen custard. BurgerFi offers just two flavors of its custard: vanilla and chocolate. I’ve been a lifelong black-and-white shake drinker, so I chose that over the tempting Red Velvet or Peanut Butter shakes. BurgerFi also sells cups and cones of the custard, with a wide array of mix-ins, and the once again similar-to-Shake-Shack-named Concretes, which features custard spun with toppings, like a higher quality McFlurry. Alas, BurgerFi does not have the rotating calendar of special flavors like Shake Shack, but the custard I tried was good enough to come back for, even with plain-jane vanilla and chocolate.

I am curious to see how BurgerFi’s custard business makes out in an area pretty saturated with frozen dessert options. On that block alone you have both 16 Handles and Pinkberry, and there are a few Tasti-D Lites and the Shack itself not too far away, not to mention Emack and Bolio’s just a few avenues down.

Why yes, I would like bonus whipped cream, sprinkles, and extra fudge, please.

My shake, with a superfluous straw.

My shake came with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkles on top, which was an unexpected bonus at a restaurant with no table service. BurgerFi also takes the time to line the sides and bottom of the cup with chocolate syrup, which allowed me to continue blending it with the custard as I drank it. Well … drink might not be the most accurate verb. Because it was frozen custard, the consistency was closer to a Frosty than a real milkshake. Don’t get me wrong, it was still delicious, and I slurped it down, but I ended up using a spoon, which almost makes me wish I had just gone for a concrete. Overall, the components of the shake were well-blended, and I could still taste the vanilla custard despite the generous application of chocolate syrup, making it a very solid entry into the black-and-white pantheon.

As a devoted french fry lover, I was bound to enjoy the fries regardless, but BurgerFi actually surpassed my expectations with its potato entry. The fries come in regular, large, or the bucket size. The cashier explained that the bucket is intended for four people, so it seemed to make the most sense for all of us to share. (A word to the allergy-prone — a large sign near the counter states that BurgerFi cooks all their food in peanut oil.) And lest you be satisfied with merely well-executed fries, you can also add toppings to your spuds, such as salt & vinegar, parmesan & herbs, or BurgerFi’s homecooked chili.

Our bucket runneth over.

Our bucket runneth over.

Although “bucket” is a bit of a misnomer (carboard tray of fries doesn’t have the same ring), the order came out piled high with medium-cut fries that were well-salted and maintained their crispness as we tore through Mt. Starchmore. Even without the superlative add-ons, BurgerFi’s fries are probably the best I’ve had in a while, beating out the chips at Jones Wood Foundry in both texture and flavor.

 

Final Thoughts:

After a few days digesting my meal at BurgerFi, I still feel pretty confident that I’ll be back soon. Although nothing in my meal was earth-shattering, each piece of my lunch was speedily delivered, well-executed, and satisfying. And BurgerFi definitely tops Burger Joint in terms of price point for a similar meal — my whole meal, including my contribution to the bucket of fries, cost around $12. Despite my initial skepticism at the seemingly overabundance of options at BurgerFi, it’s actually the precise reason I plan on returning. Now that I know the foundation of their menu is solid, but not tremendously exciting, I want to explore some of the odder flavor combinations to see if a larger menu gives a larger return. Truthfully, I usually can buy into the American value of added-options = added value. There’s a time and a place for a curated meal (including my beloved Jim’s Steaks in Philly where you can only get your cheesesteaks made a handful of ways), but sometimes you want the luxury of choice.

That luxury, plus some eco-and-wallet-friendly policies, make BurgerFi a worthwhile local lunch spot. Sure, at first glance they may not stand out from the growing fast casual crowd, but I’ve got no problem with buying a burger I know will settle a bit better in my stomach and on my conscience than a Whopper Junior. Of course, the culinary landscape in New York is always changing, and BurgerFi is just one of a number of national chains finally entering the NY market. For example, LA’s highly touted Umami Burger is only a few weeks from opening their first store on the East Coast in Manhattan’s West Village, so BurgerFi may soon find itself with some stiffer competition.

I guess I’ll just have to take a jaunt downtown and find out. You know, for our collective peace of mind.

 

BurgerFi

1571 2nd Ave, New York

burgerfi.com

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