Welcome to Burger Time, the column by Eater's resident carnivore Nick Solares. This week he checks out the bar only, limited to 12 per night cheeseburger at Raoul's.
The burger at Raoul’s ($19) is indeed as difficult to secure as has been rumored. You have a slightly better chance of ordering one of the twelve on offer nightly at the classic Soho bistro during these dog days of summer, when much of the city is out of town. Because only a dozen are offered nightly, exclusively at the nine seat bar, the burger is often a mere memory by 8 p.m. It is so good that this would likely have been the case if only regulars knew about it and the Internet didn’t care about hamburgers. But of course the Internet cares about burgers only slightly less than it cares about cats and when my dear, departed friend Josh Ozersky boldly proclaimed it the best burger in America last year, it pretty much insured that eating it would only ever be a late afternoon proposition. Ozersky had a an epiphany when eating it that washed away his "rigorous hamburger puritanism" and swept aside his "rancorous animosity towards any burger that isn't topped with American cheese and doesn't come on a white squishy bun." He had "at last been won over by a gourmet specialty burger."
It has won me over as well. It is the first burger with obviously foreign — in this case specifically French — ingredients and inspiration that I still feel fulfills the fundamental contract of the hamburger as a cultural object. And it does so by being unrepentant in its influences. But maybe that is precisely why it succeeds. It isn't trying to shoe horn French ingredients on top of a standard burger. It is built from the ground up as if it was designed to be this way, as if a century of American hamburger evolution has exerted virtually no influence upon it. Chef David Honeysett doesn't reference a childhood joint or claim that the burger is an homage to a famous fast food chain. Rather it trades the puritanism of the American original with that of the French kitchen. This is burger as it might have been conceived by Escoffier.
With all due respect to Pat LaFrieda, who supplies the seven-and-a-half-ounce brisket blend patty, the beef is arguably the least significant component of the burger. When developing it, Honeysett tested several blends from their noted butcher but settled on one containing brisket for its restrained richness and mouthfeel. The patty is coated au poivre-style, in a dense layer of peppercorns and kosher salt. The meat is seared in butter in a pan, just like Raoul’s famed steak. It even comes with a side of the authentic cream and cognac au poivre sauce that graces the steaks. It also comes with the same duck fat fries, which are some of the best in the city. The patty develops an impossibly dense crust that is so flavorful that it somewhat mutes the beef within. This isn’t a knock on the burger; it is more a reflection of the culinary ethos behind it. It is not the beef-forward approach of the American vernacular cooking but the more deliberately layered Continental approach.
The bread, which might have been a brioche, is thankfully instead a challah bun from Amy's Bread. It is superb, being superior to any potato bread I have had and I might even concede the equal of a generic enriched white squishy bun, my platonic ideal of burger bread. The challah has all the structural and pliancy qualities of a white bun but also brings a pleasing chewiness to the experience. The one-and-a-half ounce wedge of triple cream Saint-André cheese that tops the patty melts almost as well as American and adds an aromatic tang to the proceedings, and of course yet more richness. But the tangle of watercress, slivered red onions and cornichons that sit atop the patty bring layers of acidity and brightness, as well as plenty of snap and crunch.
There is a synergy here found in the elemental American cheeseburgers that Ozersky and I champion. It is most assuredly not the first au poivre style burger, but is the first one that I would want to eat again. Is it the best burger in America? I haven’t the faintest idea. I will say that it is certainly the tastiest I have have in recent memory and one that is well worth eating as an early dinner or late lunch. And starting in the fall you can add brunch to that list. The only thing I think it is really missing is having Ozersky around to share it with, but that is sadly true of all burgers.
Nick Solares' favorite Burger: