Welcome to Burger Time, the burger-centric column by Eater's resident carnivore Nick Solares. This week he checks out the burger at seminal NYC restaurant Gotham Bar and Grill.
It may seem that Alfred Portale was a little late to the game when he launched a lunch-only burger at Gotham Bar and Grill in 2011. Burger mania was at a sustained fever pitch by then. The economic downturn of 2008 that minced the economy was a boon for chopped beef sales as everyone scrambled to put burgers on their menus. But rewind back to 1985 when a young Portale was enlisted to helm the year-old Gotham Bar and Grill and you will also find a lunch-only burger; though the chef now admits its inclusion was a compromise. This was before Portale garnered three stars from the New York Times (reconfirmed four times). It was before receiving three James Beard Awards. It was before the book deals, and the Michelin star.
Back at the beginning of the Gotham Bar and Grill story Portale’s partners worried that there needed to be some continuity between the old and new menus, while the Portale wanted a clean slate. The young chef gave in and put a burger on the menu to appease them. He dubbed it the Jerry Burger, after partner Jerry Kretchmer who was the one most vocal opponent of the menu overhaul. To be clear, the burger was not made from Jerry, it was just named after him, although Portale does admit that the thought crossed his mind. The burger in question, version 1.0, sticks out most in Portale’s mind because it was served on a custom bun from Tomcat — perhaps one of the first bespoke buns from the now fabled bakery — and because he served it with fried vegetable chips rather than French fries. It barely lasted a year on the menu.
In the ensuing 26 years leading up to 2011 Portale set about blazing a trail for New American cuisine, embracing the nearby farmers market and crafting one of the city’s seminal and consistently top rated restaurants. And yet, over a quarter Century later an older and wiser Portale decided to reintroduce a burger. While the original one was based on compromise, version 2.0 was based on whimsy. "There was a lot of hubbub about burgers at the time and I thought it would be fun," says Portale. Like many fancypants burgers, it featured dry aged beef, using the trimming from Gotham’s prized steaks. But Portale moved away from dry aged when he came out with version 3.0, finding that there was too much variance in the intensity of the flavor and that many guests found it "too funky." Instead he started using a short rib and chuck blend from meat maestro Pat LaFrieda. If things started off whimsically, the chef was soon caught up in the burger craze. Version 3.0 remains a bit of a thorn in Portale’s side: "It should have won the Burger Bash," he states unequivocally of his entry into the annual competition. Topped with bacon jam and a "really good" truffled cheese, the burger was on the menu until about five months ago. Perhaps smarting from the loss, the chef changed the burger once more.