Let's start with the good news. Chefs across New York are fostering a vegetarian burger renaissance, and the version April Bloomfield serves at Salvation Burger, her newest restaurant, ranks near the top of the citywide hierarchy. Her kitchen mashes together golden beets, carrots, carrot juice, French lentils, mushrooms, sticky rice, and sweet potato vermicelli. This is all laced with enough warming garam masala to power a geothermal turbine, grilled over wood, and then anointed with cooling yogurt, shredded lettuce, and sweet tomato confit.
Now take a bite. The burger maintains its form, without squishing down like most other meat-free patties, the interior crumbing apart with the ease of coffee cake. It's a stellar creation, and at $16 without fries — a full ten dollars more than its counterpart at Superiority Burger in the East Village, viewed by many as the city's finest vegetarian burger — it better be.
Salvation Burger, a sibling of sorts to Bloomfield's Salvation Taco a few blocks away (opened with partner Ken Friedman, they're both in Pod hotels — one on 39th St., one on 51st), is yet another venue that challenges our notions of how much we should pay (and what comforts we should forgo) for semi-elevated lowbrow fare. The 104-seat room is all wooden plank floors, worn wood counters, and short, backless stools. There are plush booths, hung with flatscreens playing low-fi videos of crackling fireplaces on loop. (If only they showed the Yankees game!) The interior is shellacky in a studied, Midtown way — until you get to the spotless white kitchen. Lucky diners sitting at one of the seats at the chef's counter overlook a crew of cooks as silent and organized as those at a high-end sushi bar. The kitchen workers place golden sesame seed buns over wire racks with more care than I've seen some cooks handle caviar.
It's all quite impressive, until you to swivel around on your stool and try to flag down a waiter to bring you another drink. And you see at least one other patron searching for a staffer to take his credit card. You might acquiesce to such inconveniences if Salvation were a cheap burger joint. But Bloomfield taxes the wallet: She sells her namesake burger for $25 — and that's without fries, which at $7 a la carte bring you up to $32. That's as much as you'd pay for Minetta Tavern's dry-aged, butter-drizzled Black Label burger, or two dollars less than the famous foie gras-stuffed sirloin patty at DB Bistro Moderne. What that kind of price is saying to the diner is that the burger here is just as good as those other iconic patties. Unfortunately, it is not.
This disappointment is not enough to discount April Bloomfield's ability. In a three-star review two years ago, I called her midtown restaurant, the Breslin, the single best place to eat meat in New York. And here I'll make another big claim: No modern chef in New York has done more for restaurant burgers than Bloomfield. Sure, Minetta and DB Bistro deserve credit for convincing diners to cross that $30 burger rubicon, but those extravagances are one-hit wonders. Bloomfield, by contrast, draws crowds at her restaurants throughout the city with a deeper bench of more idiosyncratic burgers.
At the Spotted Pig, she tops char-grilled beef patties with so much stinky Roquefort that, at most French restaurants, it would qualify as a cheese course. At the Breslin, she hawks lamb burgers topped with salty feta and cumin mayo that rank with dry-aged steaks for intoxicating headiness. And at the Ace Hotel lobby (where I'm a regular), she serves what might be her most underrated dish, a greasy blend of massively flavorful beef topped with intensely salty bacon and cheddar so aged that the taste is almost sour. While DB Bistro and Minetta convince New York to spend more by hawking unsubtle (albeit excellent) indulgences, but Bloomfield takes a more challenging route to luxury.
Bloomfield has been a key player in the process of turning the burger from something infinitely mutable to something more dictatorial: a product of the will of the chef, not the consumer. Accordingly, she doesn't relegate the burger to lunchtime or coyly serve limited quantities at dinner, policies other chefs espouse because they fear guests will ignore the composed entree in favor of something more familiar. To Bloomfield, the burgers are composed entrees. At the Breslin and the Pig, they're among her most accomplished yet most affordable mains — just $25, and that's with fries. And they're all outliers in the burger canon: None are topped raw tomatoes, thin-cut pickles, special sauce, American cheese, or mayo. At least, none were in the pre-Salvation era.
The namesake burger at Salvation, by contrast, functions like a ribeye at a brasserie. It is the most expensive item on the menu, and Bloomfield's overall priciest burger by 32 percent. That's a tough pill to swallow, because it's not her best. Not by a long shot.
Cows, whose methane emissions make them the SUVs of the livestock world, aren't exactly the most environmentally friendly animals to consume. Bloomfield is aware of this, and accordingly, she uses the animal in a more sustainable fashion than your typical steakhouse. Every beef dish at Salvation Burger comes from one of four whole steers that the restaurant imports weekly from a farm upstate.
This results in some surprises — like the beef heart on the menu, not something you'll encounter at Shake Shack. The muscle is sliced thin, marinated in balsamic vinegar, and torched over the kitchen's wood grill until it packs a soft, nourishing chew. "86 heart," a cook shouts out one night, using the restaurant industry jargon for "sold out," something you don't hear too often for off-cuts. The poutine can sell out early too; I only managed to snag a plate on my third visit, when I was presented with crispy fries, milky cheese curds, and heady oxtail in a gravy made from a Worcestershire-spiked Madiera reduction with a vinegary tang.
Salvation never ran out of chili during my visits, which is a blessing, because the $12 bowl is better than anything Hale & Hearty hawks for just a few dollars less. A waiter brings over a crock filled with guajillo-rubbed beef shank that's been cooked down with enough dried and roasted chiles to make your insides glow. This isn't diner-style ground beef stew; it's classic Texas-style chili, a tender Southwestern braise topped with a perfectly precise amount of milky sour cream, fragrant cilantro, and heady corn nuts.
But those are all sideshows. The point of a restaurant called Salvation Burger ought to be the burgers, four varieties all served on soft sesame buns. But aside from the vegetarian version, you can pretty much skip them all.
Briefly: The cod burger is essentially fried fish getting soggy under the weight of tartar sauce. The classic burger ($17) is two griddled, grayish patties (with a touch of brilliant char) overwhelmed by so much special sauce and housemade American cheese it's like eating a soggy French dip. It's an expensively inferior analogue to Shake Shack's Double Shackburger.
And that namesake Salvation burger, with its hefty price tag, is merely respectable. It's meant to be a seasonal endeavor, so depending on when you visit it might come anointed with taleggio and onions, maitake mushrooms and blue cheese butter, or taleggio sauce and ramp butter. The toppings all express themselves with gorgeous clarity, but they're milder and more subdued than her fireworks at Breslin or the Spotted Pig. And the meat itself is just okay — tender and medium-rare, but with only a modicum of beefiness. You don't feel as weighed down after taking down a whole burger here as at Bloomfield's other venues, but the tradeoff is you don't feel terribly inspired while actually eating it. Whatever Leonardo DiCaprio-approved, environmentally-friendly Tesla cow they're using isn't good enough. It's the chicken breast of beef, better as a conduit for flavor than being a compelling flavor itself.
The fries don't help. They're just average bistro frites: skinny, crispy, a touch underseasoned. They lack the "this must be Bloomfield" trademarks of her rosemary garlic shoestring fries at the Pig, or the thrice cooked monsters at Breslin. They do not merit their a la carte price tag. Save that cash and spend it on dessert instead.
As casual restaurants around the city overlook their pastry programs to save money and increase turnover, Salvation offers a list of pies and shakes that would rival the length of savory menus at certain tiny East Village venues. Right on. Grapefruit sesame or coconut cream are all about clarity of flavor. Fried hand pies, in turn, are an improvement on the classic; the flaky pastries are packed with tangy lemon or concentrated blueberries. Do not order the icy whiskey oat shake, which tastes like what would happen if a good restaurant put protein powder in one of its cocktails, or the grasshopper version, which uses its undetectable amount of creme de menthe as an excuse to get you to pay $14 for a mint milkshake.
Imagine all the tourists staying in this hotel. Maybe they've heard of April Bloomfield from her excellent cookbooks or television appearances. And then they plunk down all this money for burgers that are just okay. It's really too bad: A meal at Salvation Burger doesn't give the culinarily uninitiated enough of an indication that elsewhere, Bloomfield is doing intensely interesting things. It's an undelicious irony: At the first burger-centric restaurant by the city's most important burger chef, you'll be served some very unremarkable burgers.
Cost: $3-$15 for snacks, salads, and starters; $14 for the hot dog; $16 for the veggie burger, $17 for the classic burger, $25 for the Salvation burger. Fries are $7 extra. Regular shakes are $7; boozy shakes are $14.
Sample dishes: Chili, beef hearts, bone marrow, wood-roasted oysters, poutine, burgers, fried blueberry pie, grapefruit sesame pie, banana cream pie.
Bonus tip: Bloomfield's best burgers are available elsewhere, at the Spotted Pig, the Breslin, and the lobby of the Ace Hotel.