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Sietsema and Sutton Revisit the DB Burger, the $35 Novelty That Became an Icon

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The two Eater critics contemplate the flavors and the history of Daniel Boulud's famous luxury burger.

On a recent weekday, Eater's two New York restaurant critics, Robert Sietsema and Ryan Sutton, dropped by Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne to sample the restaurant's famed burger, a sirloin patty stuffed with foie gras, short rib, and black truffles. It costs $35. Fries come with. After they had ample time to digest all the animal protein, Robert and Ryan took some time to hash out their feelings about one of New York's priciest burgers. Here's what they had to say.

Ryan Sutton: Well the DB Burger has been around for over 12 years. Do I have that right? Some say it helped open our city's collective mindset to more creative burger craft at the high-end. Others would call it an unnecessary upscale-ification of a working class staple. All subjects we can debate. But why don't you tell me about the first time you had one?

Robert Sietsema: It was actually first birthed in 2001. I had it soon after the bistro opened – and it seemed almost like bottom feeding that our premier French chef was dabbling in bistros. But I tried the burger and it blew my mind, figuratively speaking. It had several amazing aspects that distinguished it from the burgers at other bistros in town. Shall we enumerate the distinctions?

Ryan: Enumerate!

Robert: First off, it was stuffed! Since then, stuffing burgers hasn't really caught on, so it's still one of the few stuffed burgers. It was also juicy as hell, a miracle of meat construction. Did you also find it odd in its structure?

Ryan: I'd call it inventive in its structure! But of course the inventiveness has roots. An American might call the DB burger a fancy French Juicy Lucy, except the patty is stuffed with luxury ingredients instead of melty cheese.

Robert: And don't forget that the crazy thing arrives already perfectly cut open, on display as it were. It's really most amazing that it holds together. Though you really can't fit it in your mouth without turning it sideways, which is a rather unnatural way to eat a burger. It almost isn't a burger anymore. It looks like a parody of a burger.

Ryan: Doesn't it? The 8-year-old inside of me wants to wear a golden Burger King crown while I dig into it. Such extravagance evokes celebration, non? If one thinks of a Shake Shack burger as a one-handed burger, and the Minetta Tavern Black Label burger as a two-handed burger, this is more of a knife-and-fork burger. And now that I'm thinking back on that Juicy Lucy comparison, perhaps a more refined gourmand would choose a better metaphor, something along the lines of how it evokes the elaborate charcuterie of Daniel Boulud's native Lyon. Isn't the DB Burger just a multi-tiered pate posing as a hamburger patty?

burger Nick Solares

Robert: So it's an intellectual construct rather than entirely a piece of food?

Ryan: Or perhaps both! You know, I first tried it back in 2006. I was waiting to meet a young lady for a screening of "Pan's Labyrinth" at the AMC on 42nd. Back then it tasted so...luxurious! (I also had my first ever baba au rhum afterward for dessert!). But this time with you, Robert, the burger was...well, perhaps we're all a bit more jaded by luxuries these days. That's not a bad thing. It just tasted a bit more restrained. What about you? How did you enjoy the flavors?

Robert: This time around? I was amazed at how good it was in a pure sense. I thought that I might think it too fussy. Back in 2001 it seemed more like a freak show than a culinary indulgence. When have you ever seen a burger before that arrives already cut open? It's too sure of itself. Besides, the fries almost upstage it. Craggy, browned, perfectly crisp and yielding at the same time. If they'd have fit I would have put them in the burger.

Ryan: Isn't it funny how the DB Burger has turned itself from an extravagant innovation and into a classic? I guess that's the onward march of cuisine. We look upon it now with a hat tip, instead of a raised eyebrow.

Robert: It set a historic precedent, if only price-wise.

Ryan: Exactly!

Robert: Now there are several burgers that are more expensive. Like the Kobe burger at Old Homestead.

Ryan: Thing is, not sure whether anyone really respects that $43 Kobe burger at Old Homestead the way they do the DB Burger. We'll have to find the original price...I believe it was in the high-$20s. Now the burger is $35, still spendier than the Minetta Burger, which runs $28.

Robert: The DB Burger was $27 in 2001 when it debuted.

Ryan: Right on; that's roughly a 30 percent hike from the original price. But if you adjust for inflation, you get $35.78 in today's dollars, which means we're about even.

Robert: Nice piece of math! It seems to have kept pace.

Ryan: Yeah, and $35 isn't bad because I calculated that on the basis of overall inflation. If we just isolated the price of beef over the past fourteen years, the sandwich itself would be tons more expensive, I'd gather.

Robert: I'd be really curious about how much that thing costs to make. The foie gras itself is a formidable expense.

Ryan: Of course you can add on black truffle shavings come wintertime, in which case it ends up costing somewhere in the ballpark of $120 I believe.

Robert: And how does he get the thing so juicy? For two critics, it was fun sitting side by side at the bar and both eating exactly the same thing.

Ryan: I found the flavors crystal clear this time...almost lean and laser sharp for something so rich.

Robert: Yes, I detected horseradish in there somewhere.

Ryan: The red wine flavor of the short ribs comes through powerfully. And the beef blend has a hint of livery funk, perhaps a hat tip to some of the off-cuts that terrines can be made with. And the foie gras, despite its sweet, rich, regal upbringing, does a good job staying in the background and acting all cool like it ain't the star of this party, which it isn't.

Robert: There was a funky edge to the whole thing, and not from sitting in the fridge too long. It was missing its usual sweet jam component. And no sauternes either, for the foie.

Sutton: This foie gras isn't here to steal your sirloin date, the foie just wants everyone to have a better time at the prom.

Robert: It was in hiding, but revealed by the compulsory cut-open presentation Would you rather have had the burger uncut?

Ryan: I like it cut, daddy-o, just like my pate grand-mere. I mean, part of the joy is seeing what's under the hood of a Rolls Royce before you take it out for a spin; know what I mean? But the fries, oh the fries! I'm sometimes inclined to say the best fries you've ever had are always the last fries you've had. So perhaps we have to take this with a grain of salt.

Robert: Definitely better than McDonald's, though oddly in the same school, gestalt-wise.

Ryan: Correct. And I've never tasted a fry so thin with such a soft, pillowy interior

Robert: Not twice-cooked either. Screw the Belgians, says Boulud.

Ryan: They're all foldy and bendy, rather than being all "at attention" like soldiers.

Robert: Craggly, squiggly.

Ryan: Let me ask you this. Our lunch – two burgers and a few non-alcoholic drinks, plus tax and tip – came to just over $100. That's a heck of a price tag for a pair of burgers and no booze. Should we have shared? I know it's in vogue to share main courses these days, but a burger is often an entree that you own. It's not entirely uncommon to see more than one burger at a single table.

Robert: I would've been happy to share. Go with a friend, sit at the bar, get a couple of beers, and share one. It was a bit of a gut bomb. I couldn't help but notice you didn't finish your fries.

Ryan: And that speaks more poorly of me than the fries! But it's also because it was so much gosh darn food. You definitely don't need an appetizer before either, as is the case with many burgers, which mentioned earlier. So I believe sharing is the way to go here. Oh, one more question. Was it all "worth it," my friend?

Robert: Definitely, even just for bragging rights. It's a New York dining rite of passage.

Ryan: Correct. We all need this one under our belts. The DB burger is simultaneously a nod to the past, and a look to the future. It really set the stage for some of NYC's better and more expensive burgers. It's not an everyday burger, but rather a special occasion burger by a badass French chef who I like to think still has a few tricks up his sleeve. I dig it.

Robert: It's the anti-burger.

db Bistro Moderne

55 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036 212 391 2400

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