Welcome to Burger Time, the new burger-centric column by Eater's resident carnivore Nick Solares. This week he reviews the burger at Emily in Brooklyn.
Emily is one of those irritating places that does everything well. It serves great pizza, great chicken wings, and – our focus today – a great burger ($19). Why is this a problem, you might rightly ask? Because it means you have to make a choice, or resort to gluttony. How many restaurants do you know that sell a top notch hamburger, pizza and chicken wings? If your answer is the Cheesecake Factory, you should probably just stop reading right now and head to Emily immediately.
Emily, by its own account, is principally a pizzeria. But as Matt Hyland, chef, and co-owner with his wife, Emily, notes "we are not an Italian restaurant, we are a Brooklyn neighborhood pizzeria." This gives him a little leeway in menu selection. His is a contemporary vision of a neighborhood pizzeria, more in the spirit of Roberta’s and Paulie Gee’s than an old school joint selling slices, Italian ices, and heroes. Even the style of pizza is decidedly non-traditional, blending various forms, most obviously Neapolitan and New Haven styles.
But let’s talk about the burger in question. Like the chicken wings, it's on the menu because Hyland wanted something different to eat for lunch one day and began experimenting with recipes. The burger went on the menu about a year ago, and has steadily evolved over time. It started off as a popular house blend from a butcher that you've probably heard of, but when reaching minimum order quantities became an issue Hyland looked around to other vendors. He settled on a dry aged blend from DeBragga, one of NYC’s top meat suppliers. "Once I tasted it there was no doubt," says Hyland. "It was like eating steak." That's because DeBragga has a cavernous dry aging room, which helps develops some profound earthiness in its product.
The seven ounce patties are formed in-house, seasoned simply with salt, and seared on the flattop in clarified butter. The result is a deeply bronzed crust yielding to a succulent interior, redolent with flavor of a prime steak. After searing, Hyland applies black pepper to the still sizzling patty. He refrains from seasoning before the initial searing to keep the pepper from burning and becoming acrid. The residual heat of the burger fresh off the flattop is enough to release the oil in the pepper and further season the beef, according to the chef.
Next the patty is blanketed in one year-old Grafton Cheddar from Vermont and a tangle of caramelized onions, then finished in the oven below the flattop to melt the cheese. I can’t help but feel that there is a missed opportunity here. The pizza oven sits just feet from the flattop, and I wonder how cheese melted in there might taste, imbued with the same smokiness found in the pizza's pleasant char. That being said, there's nothing wrong with the burger in its current form.
The burger is served on a pretzel roll, which should completely suck but doesn’t. I say this because my platonic ideal of bread for burgers is an enriched white squishy bun, refined to the point of being only a vehicle for the beef and cheese. The pretzel roll from Tom Cat Bakery, on the other hand, is sturdy, both structurally and in terms of flavor. It's quite dense, and has a far more assertive taste than a generic white bun, with a yeasty sourness and a salty punch. But the patty is so flavorful that the bun works well in this situation, whereas it might overpower a more muted blend.
The burger is served with a dollop of "special sauce," a house made aioli spiked with red pepper, and comes with a side of hand cut fries and a few gherkins for color. It is, like all great burgers, a study in synergy and balance. Yes, it diverges from my simple cheeseburger ideal, but there's an undeniable appeal to this burger precisely because of the complexity of its flavors and textures — the voluptuous mouthfeel of the beef, the gaminess and funk tempered by the sweetness of the onions, the gentle tang of the cheese playing off of the pretzel.
Criticisms? They are minor. The patty is not as loosely packed and flakey as some, and the relative denseness of the pretzel roll tends to further compact it. But that's a minor quibble, and this should still be considered a destination burger. Just don’t blame me if you end up eating the pizza and chicken wings as well. Blame Matt Hyland for being an over-achiever.
Emily, 919 Fulton Street, Clinton Hill, 347-844-9588