Welcome to Burger Time, the burger-centric column by Eater's resident carnivore Nick Solares. This week he reviews the off menu burger at Gramercy Tavern.
I should state right off the bat that I am inherently prejudiced against the so-called "chef burger." It’s not that chefs can’t make delicious hamburgers with all sorts of interesting and novel ingredients — of course they can. But does an even competently prepared cheeseburger — beef, white bun, American cheese — that can be purchased almost anywhere for $6 really need improvement? I think not. Of course there are other factors that a chef-driven burger brings to the table. The provenance of the ingredients for one, mired as that is in the tropes of sustainability and locavorism. And, of course, there is skill, technique, and imagination. Or at least one would hope.
I have always looked at the off menu burgers at restaurants with cynicism, mostly because they generally seem to involve slapping a preformed beef patty on a Martin’s Potato Roll, adding a special sauce, and calling it a day. This seems lazy and the antithesis of what a chef should be doing. Frankly, it is no measure of skill to make a decent hamburger from prefab components. I can do it in my meager apartment kitchen, any neighborhood diner worth its weight in salt can do it, and most kids with summer jobs can do it (at least if they work at Shake Shack). Because of this, I have a great deal of respect for the process behind chef Michael Anthony’s Gramercy Tavern burger ($20); even more so for the way it tastes.
Everything you can imagine is made in house: from the superfluous smoked onion aioli, ketchup, and mustard served in dainty ramekins; to the potato chips; to the buns, which are baked every morning; and most importantly the beef, which is chopped daily. The patty is a blend of 50 percent chuck, 25 percent brisket, and 25 percent short rib and exhibits all the hallmarks of top flight butchery — a purity of flavor, a loose pack, and meat that is fabricated in to long "noodles," rather than ground in it small pebbles. You would be forgiven for mistaking it as the work of Pat LaFrieda, who after all supplies the beef for Danny Meyer’s many noted burgers including Shake Shack and Blue Smoke. But the beef is actually chopped daily in the Gramercy Tavern kitchen and is sourced from Adirondack Grazers, a collective of farms in upstate New York and Vermont that specialize in pasture raised cattle.
The patty is cooked over hardwood giving it a profoundly smoky flavor and an impressive char. While the chuck in the blend carries the day in terms of texture, it is the interaction between the brisket and short rib that gives the patty both its sweetness and a profoundly beefy punch. The latter cuts exhibit those hearty, complex flavors found in stews and roasts. The viscous blanket of molten Cabot Cheddar adds a nuttiness to the sandwich and deftly avoids the plight of so many high quality cheeses when melted. Here again the skill of the chef is apparent. My argument in favor of American cheese for hamburgers has a lot to do with it's superb melting properties. More expensive, or what you might call "real" cheese, tends to leach oil and separate when melted. At GT the Cheddar is skillfully emulsified in a skillet before being salaciously poured atop the burger. The result is an almost completely homogeneous layer in which the three strips of bacon are gently nestled.
The bun, an obvious homage to Shake Shack, is a potato roll that contains actual Yukon gold potatoes. The yellow hue it exhibits is natural, unlike that found in commercially produced buns. Don’t believe me? The Martin’s Potato Roll imported into the UK contains no yellow dye (it is outlawed there) but tastes the same as its American counterpart. It is bun, not beef production that limits the number of burgers sold, which is typically 30 to 45 a day. It tends to sell out by lunchtime. Personally I don’t think that this burger needs bacon, but I think that of pretty much every burger I would care to eat. That said the house cured planks of salty belly are of the perfect thickness and cooked ideally, reaching that delicate nexus of crispness and flavor. They are also the perfect length, spanning the patty without spilling out of the burger inelegantly.
Consumed with or without the bacon, and with or without the rabbit food that litters the plate, the burger displays the synergy that all great hamburgers have. Both structurally — the patty and bun perfectly align, unlike some crazy new age chicken sandwich — but most importantly on the palate. The collusion of smoke and salt and fat is intoxicating. The patty is supremely succulent but manages to hold it all in, giving you the maximum flavor where it counts. The burger comes with potato chips which are fried in duck fat and peanut oil. They are utterly superb but are unworthy of this hamburger. A burger in a restaurant deserves French fries, potato chips are a second (or possibly third) rate option. Putting that minor quibble aside this is the sort of burger that you lose yourself in. Suddenly you aren’t in a fancy restaurant, surrounded by wealth and opulence, it's just you and the supremely delicious and truly unique object. If this burger was as old as Gramercy Tavern itself, which just reached the 20 year mark, it would surely be considered one of the iconic burgers of NYC. But since it has only been around for three or so years it will have to settle for being considered merely excellent.
Gramercy Tavern, 42 E 20th St, New York, NY 10003