Augustine might be less than two months old, but it already operates like a well oiled machine. The familiar Keith McNally touches are present and accounted for — weathered tiles, crisp white table clothes, that warm incandescent glow, and a hamburger on the menu. I suppose you could make the claim that McNally keeps opening the same restaurant over and over again, but that is to suppose that they each exist in isolation. They actually form a larger narrative. McNally restaurants may suspend place — they unquestionably all share a strikingly similar and (eminently pleasing to my eyes) aesthetic — but not time. They are each deeply reflective of the spirit of the age in which they arose. In many cases, they defined that age. Balthazar will always be associated with the rise of modern Soho, Pastis with that of the Meatpacking District, and Minetta Tavern with the popularization of rib steaks for two and dry aged hamburgers.
At Augustine, we find ourselves further south than we might have imagined a decade ago, and in a higher price point than we would have five years ago. But if history informs the future, McNally’s gambles have largely paid off in anticipating where the real estate market is going. Bet on Civic Center, McNally certainly has. This is his biggest, most ambitious opening since Minetta Tavern in 2009, or maybe even since Balthazar back in 1995. He has pulled out all the stops. Besides building the platonic McNally dining room, Keith drafted his prime players from across his fiefdom. Arnold Rossman, who has worked at every McNally restaurant, and seems perpetually tuxedo clad (even when he isn’t), mans the floor. The dashing Francois from Cherche Midi is on the bar. And most importantly, the chefs Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla are running the kitchen. The menu is their best work to date. Although the Whisky Burger ($26) is a departure from the dry aged affairs of Cherche Midi and Minetta Tavern, it is equally compelling.
The patty is a seven ounce brisket blend from Pat LaFrieda that is first seared on the flattop and then finished on the grill to give it some added smokiness. The beef has a clean, vibrant flavor — an upfront sweetness followed by a char-inflected finish. Coupled with the oak and vanilla accents from the whiskey-deglazed caramelized onions, it evokes the West and campfire cooking. Onions laced with whiskey add both sweetness and acidy. The blanket of creamy Comte cheese lends a gentle tang and creamy texture. This is a deeply engaging burger.
But perhaps what is most notable about the burger is not its succulent patty, oodles of cheese, or even the whiskey onions, which give it its name, but rather the Balthazar bakery potato and onion bun which holds it all together. To my mind, it is the best bun of any McNally restaurant burger. It has a slightly rough, dense crust, betraying its decidedly non-mass market status. This rigidity helps contain the wanton excess of the burger within — it forms a protective shell where other buns would rupture, crumble and fall apart. But it is imbued with an airy crumb that helps soak up the copious juices. Its flavor might stray form the neutrality of my treasured generic white bun, but the slight sourness and hint of onion play well with the burger as a whole. And the burger as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which at $26 it had better be. The beef might not have the musky complexity of dry aged burgers, but its has a purer "hamburger" flavor — in retrospect the Black Label really does taste so steak-like that it a different thing altogether. I appreciate the more diminutive size of the Whisky Burger too — it is an ounce smaller than the Black Label making it easier to hold and get everything into the bite.
All McNally hamburgers, like the restaurants themselves, share a common aesthetic — they come served open faced on a large oval plate with a pile of perfect French fries, garnishes neatly stacked off to the side, and toppings applied with seeming excess, salaciously cascading down the burger face. But just as I have argued that the restaurants themselves are unique touchstones to their era, so too are the burgers. The Whisky Burger at Augustine is today’s front page news.