Vatan: An All-You-Can-Eat Cultural Vacation

2014-03-22 17.36.49

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — one of the things I love most about food is the way it brings people together. I often get asked about my favorite restaurants, or the best thing I ever ate, and I struggle to come up with answers, because most of my favorite meals are memorable because of the company I had while eating them. I’ll never forget my birthday dinner at Barbuto, because my family was there to pass around plates and encourage me to take a picture with Jonathan Waxman. I’ll always recommend Pike Place to visitors in Seattle because Dan showed me his favorite stalls and forced endless quantities of fresh fruit on me. And amazing as the steak at Peter Luger was, what made it special was the anticipation by the bar with my friends, and the collective moans as we dove headfirst into meaty glory (and that schlag, oh boy).

My recent dinner at Vatan is another perfect example of the joy of sharing a new experience. It reunited most of the Peter Luger crew for another group gorging, this time on vegetarian Indian food, and once again the most memorable thing for me was the happy joking that devolved into studious silence as we got busy stuffing our faces. Is Vatan the best Indian food I’ve ever had? No, it was pretty good but not life-altering. But is it a restaurant I’d recommend? Absolutely, because from the decor to the service, Vatan is about the experience of the meal itself more than the food on your plate. Come in with an empty stomach and some buddies, and you’ll definitely have a great time.

 

First Impressions:

I heard about Vatan from a couple of coworkers in my carpool, who raved about the stomach-stretching piles of Indian food available to you as a prix-fixe, all you can eat dinner for a mere $30. They warned that it would be kitschy, and not to be dissuaded by the “Epcot India” decor. That particular description proved immediately apparent as we approached Vatan. The restaurant sits right on the divide between Curry Hill and the brotown epicentre of Kips Bay/Murray Hill. It’s located on 3rd Avenue, off the main Lexington stretch of Indian restaurants, and just next door is a bar/restaurant featuring an open air rooftop overflowing with drunk twenty-somethings on the warm night we visited. Next to that, it’s hard not to view Vatan’s exterior as over-the-top, featuring a large sign, tiled panels, terracotta awnings, and a large sculpture of an elephant. And that’s got nothing on what it’s like inside.

 

The view from just inside the entrance to Vatan - note the painted clouds in the sky.

The view from just inside the entrance to Vatan – note the painted clouds in the sky.

Entering the restaurant you’re greeted with two floors of Indian fantasy, from the ceiling painted powder blue and dotted with clouds, to the fake Banyan trees “growing” out of the walls, to thatched-roof enclosures where the dining tables sit. Oh, and don’t forget the giant statue of the Hindu god Ganesh in the recessed area of the back wall. We were seated upstairs, under a row of thatched roofs at a Western-style table, but across from us (and downstairs as well), there were a few low tables that required removing your shoes and sitting cross-legged (I was actually a little bummed we didn’t get to sit there).

 

The view from the second floor, where we were seated, with an intrusive Banyan tree to the left.

The view from the second floor, where we were seated, with an intrusive Banyan tree to the left.

Our table underneath a series of thatched roofs.

Our table underneath a series of thatched roofs, where everyone mugs for the camera.

The staff is dressed in what the back of the menu describes as “ethnic garb and jewelery  … traditionally worn during the festivals and fairs in India,” regardless of ethnic background (most, but not all of the servers appeared to be of Indian descent), and everything (except the surprisingly cheap wine) is served in beaten metal containers. With the exception of dealing with our check (and we were all using credit cards, so it’s not surprising), the service was speedy and responsive, our server taking the time to explain all the dishes and replenish any items we wanted more of. Speaking of which, let’s take a look at Vatan’s menu.

 

The Food:

Meals at Vatan are split into three courses — an appetizer thali, entree thali, and dessert and chai. You have the option to order “refills” of any item you encounter, from a second bowl of rice to another full course of appetizers, at any point in the meal (feel like more samosas while drinking your chai, no problem). Thali, which means “plate” in Hindi, refers to the Indian version of a smorgasbord, where a variety of dishes are served all together in small bowls (katori) on a metal tray (the “thali” itself). I had my first thali at the Curry Hill South Indian restaurant Anjappar, which is only a block from Vatan, and highly recommended (although you order a la carte there). This style of service is perfect for someone like me, who loves sampling lots of different dishes. Given the wide variety of foods I encountered at Vatan, it would take far too long to cover each and every item, so I’ll just highlight a few stand-outs.

 

Complimentary puffed lentil snacks, which seem somewhat unnecessary given all that's to come.

Complimentary puffed lentil snacks, which seem somewhat unnecessary given all that’s to come.

Meal accompaniments -- red and green chutneys, pickled vegetables, raita, and fried garlic.

Meal accompaniments — red and green chutneys, pickled vegetables, raita, and fried garlic.

Our dinner began with a small bowl of puffed lentil snacks in different shapes and sizes. I suppose you could reorder these as well, but I’d caution against it, given the deluge of vegetarian options coming your way. Upon seeing our appetizer thali, I honestly believed I’d be able to take down several helpings, but all credit to Vatan, these were deceptively filling portions. Along with our thali came the accompaniments for the entire meal, with red and green sauces of different spice levels, raita yogurt sauce, pickled vegetables, and tiny slivers of fried garlic (which I tucked into in full vampire-defense mode).

 

The appetizer thali, so much more than Swanson:

The appetizer thali, so much more than Swanson. Clockwise, from top left: Chana Masala, Samosas, Muthia (steamed flour with spinach), Ragda Patis (potato cutlet in white bean sauce), Khaman (puffed cream of wheat flour cakes), Batatavada, Mirchi Bhajia, and Sev Puri.

The appetizer thali was a rectangular steel tray, almost like a fancy TV dinner tray. Our server noted which of the items included would be spicy, to give us a sense of what level of heat to order for our entree. For example, in the middle of the tray were Mirchi Bhajia, “fried hot peppers with Garam Masala,” that certainly lived up to their description. Since I’m determined to improve my resistance to spicy foods, I gamely took a bite of the pepper, at first pleasantly surprised by the snap of the vegetable against the soft fried exterior. Maybe I was actually getting better at this, I briefly contemplated, before the heat exploded in my mouth on the backend. Thankfully, the Sev Puri (potatoes, garbanzo beans, yogurt, and chutney filled in a crispy bread) was located just next to the hot pepper, so I could douse my tongue in the cool yogurt. I did end up ordering a second round of one spicy item, the Batatavada (fried potato balls in chickpea flour batter), which I loved dipping into the Chana Masala (garbanzo beans with onions and coriander) and the red chutney. And of course our table opted to get more Samosas (triangular savory pastries filled with spicy potatoes and green peas), since it’s hard to resist the allure of crunchy puff pastry with a lightly spiced and creamy interior.

The "entree complements" of Khichdi, Kadhi, and Pulao.

The “entree complements” of Khichdi, Kadhi, and Pulao.

Already feeling slightly overstuffed, we were soon faced with the entree thali, this time a circular steel tray like the one I had at Anjappar. Emboldened by my love of the Batatavada, I had opted to go for medium spice over mild, and I am happy to report that I actually enjoyed the small kicks of spice I stumbled upon throughout the course. I may not be downing sriracha left and right like some people I know (coughDianacough), but hopefully I’m making progress towards not trembling in fear of the occasional jalapeno in my food. The entree course also comes with a set of “entree complements” for the table, featuring Pulao (boiled white rice with peas), Kadhi (soup with yogurt and chickpea flour in authentic spices), and one of my favorite items of the whole night, Khichdi (lentils mixed with rice and assorted vegetables). The Khichdi had a texture close to mashed potatoes, softly melting in your  mouth, except for the random bite of a piece of vegetable. Our server suggested pouring a bit of the Kadhi on top of the Khichdi, which upped the richness another several levels, although I think I prefer the lentil-rice on its own. I’m actually tempted to look up a recipe and see if I can make it at home — although Vatan is vegetarian, I could see this going great with a roast chicken or steak.

 

Oh, it only continues with the entree thali.

Oh, it only continues with the entree thali. Clockwise, from top left: Chole (chickpeas cooked with tamarind and garam masala), Ful-Cobi, Bhaji, Batakanu Sak (potatoes cooked in a mild red gravy), Puri, Papadam, Toor Dal, and Kheer.

The entree thali had a number of dishes that seemed to be regional iterations of my usual Indian food orders, like the Bhaji (sauteed spinach and corn), which reminded me of Palak, or the Ful-Cobi (cauliflower and green peas sauteed in a savory sauce), which didn’t seem super far off from Aloo-Gobi. Considering how most of the dishes were new to me, it was nice to see the familiar shapes of Puri (puffed whole wheat bread) and Papadam (thin lentil wafers) — no one is surprised that Maggie is well-versed in regional bread types. Although I stand by naan as my number one Indian carb of choice, Vatan’s mini-puris were probably the best I’ve come across, small puffed domes of dough, slightly sweet and though very airy, considerable enough to scoop up the curries. It is also worth mentioning here that aside from the singular spoon give to handle the Toor Dal (boiled lentils cooked with Indian spices), you’re largely expected to tackle the dishes at Vatan with your hands. It makes me curious about the prevalence of eating utensils worldwide — is it largely a western phenomenon? Where did the fork come from? (Clearly this is a case for Edible Inquiries!)

While I enjoyed the items in my entree thali possibly even more than those in the appetizer round, I only ended up reordering one dish (partially due to my stomach nearly exploding, but mostly because of taste) — the Kheer (rice pudding with saffron and dry fruits). Kheer is hands-down one of my favorite desserts in the world, because it combines my love of rice pudding (old lady, remember?) with the slightly unexpected savory flavors of saffron and cardamom. Vatan’s version was stellar, with a heavy dusting of cinnamon on top, the cardamom and saffron present but only lightly applied, and the texture dotted with rice grains but not too clumpy. My favorite variety of Kheer also has pistachios in it, but I couldn’t fault Vatan for leaving it out of their recipe, since generosity was certainly in abundance across the board.

 

Our petite dessert course, compared to the rest of dinner -- Mango ice cream and Masala Chai.

Our petite dessert course, compared to the rest of dinner — Mango ice cream and Masala Chai.

We finished our meal with a round of dessert, miniscule when compared to the previous courses. A small dish of mango ice cream and a petite ceramic mug of Masala Chai (Indian tea cooked with cardamom, ginger and milk) were placed in front of each person. A digestive aid and breath freshening mixture, called Mukhwas, was served for the table. Mukhwas is a mixture of seeds and nuts, and I tried a spoonful, but found it overwhelmingly flavored with anise, which I just can’t stand. Looks like I’ll have to go to my good ol’ American Tums for digestive relief. Ever my father’s daughter, I dutifully ate up my mango ice cream, although I opted to end my meal with my Kheer refill and cup of Chai. I love drinking the straight-up black tea versions of chai, so having it with milk was a real treat, and takes me back to senior year of college, where I harbored a semi-worrisome addiction to Starbucks Chai lattes. We all got two cups of Vatan’s Masala Chai, and I added sugar to the first cup, but found after gulping down my Kheer, I actually prefered the unsweetened Chai for my second cup, which allowed me to pay more attention to the nuances of the spice mix in the tea.

 

Final Thoughts:

 

I feel as though I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg on my meal at Vatan. There are just too many elements to explore, from the various levels of heat in the dishes, to the worth of reordering specific items, to how to properly strategize your meal as a whole. Regardless of the minutiae, however, I would recommend Vatan for both native New Yorkers and visitors. Sure, you’re getting a little bit of schtick, but no more than the surly song-and-dance you’d find at Katz’s (and maybe just a teensy bit more than the Brooklyn brusqueness of Peter Luger). And for all the over-the-top decorations and costumes, you get more than your money’s worth of well-cooked food. Having never been to India, I can’t speak to Vatan’s authenticity in its recipes, but for a casual lover of Indian food, I was pleased with the familiar flavors and delighted by the items I was trying for the first time. Vatan is definitely a great spot for large groups (it seemed like there were several families celebrating special occasions), but it never got too raucous on the Saturday night we were there. So limber up your jaw, loosen your belt, and buy a ticket on the Ganesh Express to Vatan — there’s an endless train of thalis calling your name.

 

Vatan

409 3rd Ave (near 29th St.)

http://www.vatanny.com/

A Rustic Refresh: Back to Basics at Hu Kitchen

2013-10-20 13.39.34

I’m going to be straight with you guys — despite the decadent meals I detail on this blog, I am not the spry food-partier I once was. I can’t knock back a sleeve of Oreos like in my glory days, or pile on the greasy fried Japanese food without grimly acknowledging that I’ll all too likely to feel it in the morning. More than my inability to stay up late, my reluctance to ever set foot in Murray Hill for anything other than Indian food, or my growing acceptance of Snuggies as appropriate outerwear, the presence of “food hangovers” have signaled my arrival into adulthood. I may continue to stuff my face with funsize Halloween candy bars, but my body will no longer fully support me in that endeavor. It will make its displeasure known, from tummyaches to headaches and more.

I bring this all up because after a recent Saturday grease-fest, I found myself staggering about on Sunday begging for some reasonable grub to rebalance and refuel. I was meeting Jacob for lunch, and though he benefits from an iron-clad constitution, he was more than happy to try out a spot in Union Square I’d had my eye on for a while — the crunchy-granola, hippy-dippy, but still intriguing Hu Kitchen. And lucky for me, it proved to be just the kind of place a recovering foodie needs. File that away for future food comas.

 

First Impressions:

Just to be clear, they do not sell pet food here.

Just to be clear, they do not sell pet food here.

Hu Kitchen’s slogan is “Food for Humans”, which is prominently displayed on the outside of the cafe. The website explains that their focus is on unprocessed food, rather than espousing one particular “-ism” or diet, and this line-straddling approach is evident in the decor. Hu Kitchen struck me as part Chipotle, part Fern Gully, featuring black and steel countertops and flooring mixed with roughly hewn wooden tables and seating made out of tree trunks. At once industrial and natural, the restaurant emphasizes that it doesn’t want to ignore modern society or eating habits, but hopes to reintroduce the notion of natural as normal.

 

Looking back from the smoothie/juice/espresso bar to the other stations at Hu Kitchen.

Looking back from the smoothie/juice/espresso bar to the other stations at Hu Kitchen.

 

Hu Kitchen follows the market/cafe model, similar to Whole Foods, with a number of stations spread throughout the space. A smoothie/juice/espresso bar is positioned as you enter, for quick grab and go, or leisurely sipping at the handful of tables up front. Walking to the back you pass a fridge with prepackaged snacks and drinks (we tried some samples of grain-free chips), before hitting the hot bar, bowl, and prepared food stations. Most of the seating is on the second floor, where you can recline on any of the available stumps (or plastic chairs, if that’s more your thing).

Rustic hewn seating mixed with sleek glass and metal.

Rustic hewn seating mixed with sleek glass and metal. I guess sometimes you just want to sit on a stump.

 

The Food:

The ground rules going in.

The ground rules going in.

While Hu Kitchen doesn’t prescribe to one particular food system, they do have some specific guidelines for their dishes — they only serve natural, unprocessed food, with recognizable ingredients and as much certified organic as they can. The focus is mainly on vegetables, and there are vegan/vegetarian meat substitutes, but you can also get grass-fed beef or free-range chicken. Hu Kitchen’s menu is also largely gluten-free, since they mostly avoid grains, and their food is free of cane sugar — sweetened only with honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar. I’m telling you all of this to underscore how even with all these seemingly restricting rules, the food I had at Hu Kitchen was flat-out delicious.

 

A sample of Hu Kitchen's prepared foods, from vegetarian to gluten-free and the Venn Diagram space in between.

A sample of Hu Kitchen’s prepared foods, from vegetarian to gluten-free and the Venn Diagram space in between.

When I had initially scoped out the menu (my mama always said a good food nerd is a well-informed one), I had been drawn to the “Bowls” category, which allows you to choose a permutation from 3 different bases and 3 different toppings. But once I actually got there, the wide variety of prepared salads and sides on display in the prepared foods case drew my eyes. Jacob and I tried the Primal Kale Salad (org kale, org goji berry, sesame seed, org apple cider vinegar, unfiltered honey, shallot, garlic mustard powder) and the Curried Sweet Potato (org dried apricot, almond, org egg, scallion, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, garam masala), both of which I would gladly hit up again on my next visit. But we decided to trust our instincts and investigate the possibilities of the bowls. I ordered the Root Veg Mash base with Thai Chicken on top, while Jacob went with the Organic Quinoa base with Roasted Wild Mushroom. The helpful staff was eager to point out favorites and explain the extras not mentioned on the menu, like the selection of “toppers” for the bowls, ranging from herbs like parsley and cilantro, to sauces like lime juice and sriracha, and a variety of nuts and seeds.

 

My bowl of Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken. Great flavors, lousy consistency combo.

My bowl of Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken. Great flavors, lousy consistency combo.

I ended up topping my Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken (org coconut milk, turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, basil) with more cilantro and lime juice. While I found both of the components of my bowl satisfying, I wouldn’t recommend this particular combination. The problem stems from the liquid content of the chicken, which is served in a coconut milk sauce. The root vegetable mash (sweet potatoes, parnsips, carrots, etc) has the consistency of smooth mashed potatoes, so the hot liquid from the chicken turned my bowl into more of a soup/stew concoction than I had hoped for. However, both the mash and the chicken were incredibly flavorful. I loved the tenderness of the meat, shredded and soft from the coconut milk, with the familiar interplay of woodsy sweetness from lemongrass and the bite of the turmeric and ginger. I would definitely get the mash again with a more solid topping (maybe even the roasted mushrooms Jacob got), since it tasted fresh and sweet, reminding me of the sweet potato casserole my mother serves at Thanksgiving. Adding the acidity from the lime juice topper definitely helped to cut through the richness of the dish, and I could see how adding some seeds or nuts would help to vary the texture.

 

Jacob's Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms bowl -- a slightly more successful combination.

Jacob’s Organic Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms bowl — just slightly on the dry side, but a bit more successful combo.

Jacob had a similar problem with his chosen combination, finding the Organic Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms (shiitake, portobello, button mushroom, carrot, garlic, shallot, thyme) in need of just a touch more moisture. I thought the quinoa was nicely cooked, soft without being too dry, and could see it as a better base for the Thai Chicken (we basically should have swapped combos). The mixture of mushrooms types lent the dish a solid variety of textures, the roasted mushrooms slightly caramelized, with aromatics from the garlic and shallots. The mushrooms are served out of a slowcooker that keeps them stewing in their own liquid, which gave them a nice soft feel and deep flavor.

Both of our bowls came with a small button of Hu grain-free bread, not much larger than an ice cube and resembling pumpernickel in color. I would guess it was made out of some sort of nutmeal or seeds, but I thought it was pretty tasty, if a bit dense. It had the nuttiness of hearty, rustic dark ryes like those from Scandinavia  I dipped it into my slushy bowl, and liked it even better when it had soaked up some liquid.

The portion size was perfect for a nice lunch, although I might opt for a side salad if looking for a more substantial dinner. After the previous day’s foray into grease and sugar, I really appreciated how my meal at Hu Kitchen filled me up without weighing me down. I fully plan on coming back to try out some of the prepared foods, and (of course) I’m interested in looking into some of their grain-free muffins and desserts.

Final Thoughts:

I’ve spoken before about the upsides and downsides of writing of a food blog — the expectation of having opinions on food means that you both get to enjoy being used as a resource, but also have to deal with the assumption that you will know and write about most everything you encounter. Thankfully, after over a year of writing Experimental Gastronomy, I’m still just as passionate about exploring and educating myself about dining and cooking. One unexpected side effect of blogging is how it has made me a literally conscious eater — I try to think critically about what I’m tasting (although I’ll readily admit to mindlessly stuffing my face plenty). Recently, this has pushed me towards being more mindful of what I’m eating day-to-day, as in what is the makeup of the foods I put into my body. I find myself curious about nutrition, food science, and food policy, and while I’m not going off the grid, so to speak (I wish I knew how to quit you, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups), I love finding places like Hu Kitchen that give me the tools to make better choices about my diet, even if it’s just one meal at a time. It’s nice to go to a place that reminds you that pure, natural ingredients can taste just as good as KFC, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of unfamiliar items like chia, hemp, or nutritional yeast. At Hu Kitchen, you can ease yourself along the spectrum from vegan to paleo to simply gastro-curious, from cashew creamed broccoli to plain ol’ chicken tenders. When you get right down to it, Hu Kitchen truly sticks to their slogan — it’s not fancy, it’s just food for humans.

 

Hu Kitchen

78 Fifth Ave (between 13th and 14th)

hukitchen.com

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/

The Blue Duck Tavern: Exceptional Food, Exceptional Service

This is the part where I give you all the excuses for the lateness of this post, such as the fact I was down in DC for the weekend (hence the Chesapeakean restaurant review), or that the movie I worked on, EPIC, is coming out this week (go see it — it’s a fun family movie, it’s beautiful, and it’s even got Beyonce in it. Seriously, what are you waiting for?). But enough of that. You’re here to read about food, so let’s cut the chit chat.

I spent this past weekend in DC with my immediate family — a lovely, if brief family reunion that largely revolved around the meals we were eating. I’m starting to discover the unexpected downside of amateur food blogging — a lot of my friends and family expect that I’ll write about whatever restaurant we happen to be in. Obviously this isn’t a real burden (children starving in Africa, etc), and a fair amount of the time they’re right, since I don’t eat out all that often (pretty much just the once a week that feeds this blog). So when my oldest brother Charles, the DC resident, suggested the Blue Duck Tavern for dinner on Friday night, the rest of my family turned to me and said “so you’re writing about this for your blog, right?” With all eyes on me, I had no choice but to oblige. Hopefully this review lives up to their expectations.

 

First Impressions:

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

 

The Blue Duck Tavern is located in the Park Hyatt in the Foggy Bottom Neighborhood of DC. The hotel’s architecture seemed focused on clean lines, big windows, high ceilings, and metal, but the interior of the restaurant featured more rustic touches like plain wooden tables and chairs, and a lovely bricklaid outdoor patio with a fountain. The restaurant serves American cuisine with a focus on farm-to-table ingredients cooked in classic styles, like braising and roasting.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

 

One of the most interesting elements was the open staff pantry and kitchen which connects the bar area of the restaurant to the dining room. During our meal I saw various staff plucking herbs and vegetables out of the pantry, and got to briefly watch my dessert being assembled. My 3 year old niece loved being able to watch the chefs at work (especially when they were scooping ice cream).

Dessert in progress -- can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

Dessert in progress — can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

 

BDT gets extremely high marks for service. I wasn’t planning on eating at any place fancier than a Chipotle, so I found myself woefully underdressed for our dinner, rocking jeans and a Penn Class of 2010 sweatshirt (go Quakers!). However, our wonderful server Mike and the rest of the staff treated us just as politely and attentively as any of the more finely coiffed diners. It might have helped that we were dining pretty early, around 5:30pm, but I’d like to think that BDT just prizes itself on exceptional customer service. Certainly they bent over backwards to accomodate us, from giving my niece “plain twisty noodles on a plate” (her direct quote) to switching my drink order from a glass of Riesling to Viognier (a great, underappreciated white wine variety if you ask me). Throughout the entire meal Mike was happy to explain any piece of the menu and offer his recommendations on serving size and side dishes. It was a level of service I’ve only encountered at the highest level of fine dining, but here was paired with a more low key approach that fosters a sense of high caliber family dining.

 

The Food:

Just like the service, the food at Blue Duck Tavern is straightforward and well-executed. This is not the realm of modernist gastronomy — you won’t find any foams or maltodextrin, just farm fresh ingredients cooked in classic fashion. Since there were 8 of us ordering, I was almost overwhelmed by the variety and multitude of dishes we tried, so my commentary might be somewhat limited. There’s also the problem unique to my family that we all eat unhealthily quickly, so snagging a taste of everyone’s dish requires catlike reflexes.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

 

Our meal started with a we’ll-show-Olive-Garden endless bread basket of white and multigrain sourdough, served with fresh butter. I preferred the multigrain, which was chock full of various seeds and had a great toasted, rye flavor.

Mike informed us that the best strategy at BDT is to plan on a family style meal, since many of the entree portions fall on the generous side. With that in mind, we each ordered appetizers — ending up with groupings of the Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, the Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad, and the House Smoked Trout.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a delicate presentation that belies the richness of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a rustic presentation that belies the delicate balance of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart came with goat cheese and bitter greens, and was pretty much a decadent quiche with a buttery, flaky crust. The chard and the greens helped to temper the richness of the goat cheese, and I appreciated the contrasting bite of the onion. Although I had assumed this would be my favorite appetizer (plying me with cheese and pastry is like offering Buster Bluth several flavors of juicebox), I actually ended up liking my salad more.

2013-05-17 18.17.01

The Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad — crunchy, creamy, and making me rethink my position on brussels sprouts.

The Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad was served with walnuts, parmesan cheese, and a creamy dressing. It was salty, with a strong parmesan taste, but nicely balanced with by the inclusion of  apple pieces for sweetness. Garlic croutons, radicchio, walnuts and the parsley added texture to the dish, so it was alternately crunchy and soft, depending on your bite. I don’t usually like brussel sprouts, but the combination of flavors and textures, plus the delicious dressing made me scarf it down.

The Smoked Trout -- not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

The Smoked Trout — not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

It will come as no surprise that my least favorite appetizer was the Smoked Trout, served with potato salad, ramps, and spiced pecan. As I’ve mentioned previously, I am an embarrassment to my family and my heritage with my distaste for smoked fish (luckily I have the Jewish guilt gene in spades). However, I found BDT’s smoked trout more mild — the dominant taste coming off less briny and smoky and more fresh fish.  The dish came with a creamy sauce and new potatoes that were soft without being mushy.

 

We supplemented our main course orders with several sides to share. The Blue Duck Tavern is one of Charles’s favorite restaurants in DC, so he had plenty of suggestions for slam-dunk side dishes. Based on his recommendation, we ordered the Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, the Hand Cut Triple Fries, and the Creamy Stone Ground Grits with Red-Eye Gravy. For entrees we got the Braised Beef Rib, the Wood-Fired Wagyu Culotte of Beef, the Buttermilk Poached Chicken, the Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops, and the Wood Oven-Roasted Baby Vegetables. Oh, and our plain twisty noodles of course.

The Braised Beef Rib -- a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

The Braised Beef Rib — a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

Consensus was that the Braised Beef Rib was the prize dish, although iconoclastic rebel that I am (not), I actually like the Wagyu more. The Rib came with housemade steak sauce, and was cooked to the point of falling-apart tenderness. It had a strong beef flavor, slightly smoky. I’m going to play the Momma’s girl card and say that in terms of brisket, I either like my mother’s sliced brisket (a Seder requirement, natch), or the more intense smoky and flaky BBQ brisket (in NY, Dinosaur BBQ serves my favorite, although there are some new competitors I need to try).

The Wagyu Culotte -- better than a lot of cuts of meat I've had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte — better than a lot of cuts of meat I’ve had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte was served with a charred onion vinaigrette, and it was a wonderfully flavorful piece of meat, cooked perfectly to medium rare and slice thinly. My own personal entree was the scallops, but if I had the chance to go back to BDT, I would probably opt for the Culotte as my next choice.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops -- fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops — fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

As a sucker for scallops (they’re hands down my favorite seafood), I was absolutely delighted by my order. The menu lists them as coming with spring vegetables, sea beans, and bacon, but I’m fairly certain the bacon was only used to cook the scallops in. Overall it was a very light, but satisfying dish — the scallops were cooked to the perfect texture, soft but not rubbery, and the bacon added a rich, salty flavor. The most prominent of the vegetables were peas, which I’m pretty ambivalent about in general, but here were elevated again by the dish’s sauce, a thin, bright liquid that made the veggies shine.

Speaking of veggies, the Wood Oven-roasted Baby Vegetables was a solid, if not particularly exciting dish. It was served with fresh herbs, Meyer lemon and crispy garlic, and I was excited to see a fiddlehead fern or two throughout the farro. I found the farro a bit too crunchy — I like my farro to have a little bit of firmness to it, but I almost thought the grain was actually wheatberries instead (I am an obscure grains nerd — let’s talk about millet!).

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken -- beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken — beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Poached Chicken was the most disappointing dish. Poached in buttermilk and served with preserved lemon and pistachio spring fricasse (according to the menu — I’m actually not really sure what those three nouns mean collectively), it seemed to have the potential to have a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures. Unfortunately, while poached to the right soft consistency, the meat was relatively bland in flavor. The chicken was also the largest portion, which seemed like an attempt to make up for the lack of spark in the dish.

The Wild Mushrooms -- no Beecher's Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

The Wild Mushrooms — no Beecher’s Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

Luckily the side dishes more than made up for the lesser entrees. The wild mushrooms were sauteed with garlic and parsley and served with olive oil croutons, leaving them delicate and well-balanced in flavor, with the earthy mushroom taste balanced by the sharper garlic. It’s hard to top the mushroom tart I had at Beecher’s, but Blue Duck Tavern’s rendition had significantly more depth of flavor than the average side of mushrooms at a steakhouse.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries -- at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries — at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT fries were possibly the thickest cut steak fries I’ve ever since, cooked three ways before arriving at our table. The triple baked technique yielded a crisp outside with a thick, starchy center. Although I’m a big fan of thick cut fries, I actually found the crisp to starch ratio too heavily weighted towards the less-cooked innards. BDT serves their fries with a garlic aioli (this seems to be a common pairing these days), but I’m more of a plain jane ketchup gal when it comes to my taters.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits -- the stealth side that stole my heart.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits — the stealth side that stole my heart.

The dark horse side dish Creamy Stone Ground Grits ended up being one of my favorite components of the whole meal. Incorporating smoked gouda, full kernels of corn, and the espresso-infused Red-Eye gravy, the grits had a smoky, earthy flavor punctuated by the richness of the cheese and sweet corn. The use of espresso in the gravy helped to deepen the flavors, much like the addition of hot coffee can elevate a chocolate cake. I tend to lean to oatmeal when I think of porridges, but maybe it’s just because I hadn’t had grits like these before.

 

Let’s be frank with each other — everyone was expecting this meal to end in dessert. With my family, turning down a proffered dessert menu is a suspicion-inducing faux paus (What do you mean you don’t want some dessert? Are you all right? Let me feel your forehead.). Fortunately, the Blue Duck Tavern, in true reverence of American eating, happily indulges our national (and familial) sweet tooth. It was actually hard to pick between the assortment of cakes, tarts, pies, cookies, and homemade ice cream and sorbets, but we ultimately decided on Milk Chocolate Banana S’mores, Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream, and Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel. It was especially hard to turn down the La Colombe Espresso Creme Brulee, which magically manages to combine both my favorite coffee (La Colombe is a Philly-based company) and my favorite non-chocolate dessert. Guess I’ll just have to add that to my return trip order.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat's Milk Caramel -- a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel — a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

 

The ice creams were delicious — the Chocolate Brownie had a strong dark chocolate flavor, and the Honey Vanilla was mildly sweet and mostly tasted of fresh vanilla bean. I’m not sure what the goat’s milk base added to the caramel, but it was still a lovely accompaniment to the vanilla ice cream.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S'Mores -- an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S’Mores — an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

 

My personal order was the S’Mores, which I shared with my mother. The dish arrived as a giant homemade marshmallow atop a milk chocolate and banana mousse mold, with graham cracker crumbs and bruleed banana pieces on the bottom, topped with a cruncy banana chip. The mousse actually had a very mild milk chocolate flavor, with the freshness of the banana really shining in the dish. The marshmallow was just melted enough to keep it’s shape as my fork sliced through it, but remained sticky and gooey as it mingled with the different pieces of the dish. Upscale, but homey, BDT hit a homerun with this dish in both flavor and execution, serving as a perfect indication of the overall vibe of the restaurant.

 

Final Thoughts:

My meal at the Blue Duck Tavern was a fantastic experience, from start to finish. The quality of service, the unpretentious yet meticulous decor and cooking, and the diversity and freshness of the foods offered left everyone at my table satisfied, from grandchild to grandparent. It’s pretty impressive that a restaurant my brother Charles, who avoids most vegetables, considers a favorite, also offers a multitude of vegetarian options that are just as thoughtful and impressive as their carnivorous fare. BDT was strong from the complimentary bread basket to the final bite of dessert, but perhaps more impressive was the deep knowledge of the staff and their willingness to accommodate any and all requests. Here we were, a party of 7 and a toddler, a few of us verging on shlubby in appearance, and to Mike and the rest of the staff we could have been the Rockefellers. Each person we interacted with was professional, courteous, and never aloof. If you visit the Blue Duck Tavern, count on a lovely dining experience, well-curated for the palate and with a personal touch. I know I’ll stopping by next time I get the chance. I’ll just make sure I leave my sweatshirt at home.

The Blue Duck Tavern

24 & M STREETS, NORTHWEST, WASHINGTON, D.C.

http://www.blueducktavern.com/gallery/blueduck/home.html

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