The Sutton Take
So David Chang, the chef who used to treat vegetarians as second-class citizens, now sells some of the city’s most in-demand veggie burgers. Remember, this was the swine-slinging chef/restaurateur who wouldn’t let anyone order Brussels sprouts without bacon in the mid-aughts. But now, at Momofuku Nishi, servers ferry over $12 veggie burgers (with some of New York’s best fries) to every other guest at lunch. How do I know they’re all veggie burgers? Because veggie burgers are the only burgers Nishi sells. They are, of course, bloody vegetarian burgers, which I suppose is on-brand for Chang, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
It’s tempting to brand Nishi’s move to serve a meatless burger as a provocative one, but Chang isn’t exactly swimming against the riptide here. Over the past half decade, the vegetarian burger has gone from a derided mock-meat to a fashionable foodstuff that’s almost as revered as a côte de bœuf (especially in this era of sky high beef prices). Partly driving this sea change is the "vegetables are the new meat" ethos pervading the culinary world. But the true catalyst is ex-Del Posto pastry chef Brooks Headley, who created what many believe to be the greatest vegetable patty on the market, a mash of beans and grains served with a gorgeous char on both sides. It tastes like a burger at first, and then it tastes like vegetables when you chew. It hints at McDonald’s, but it ultimately speaks of a chef’s altered vision on what this American classic should taste like.
The Impossible Burger is made with familiar enough ingredients as well — wheat, coconut oil, potato protein — but unlike Superiority, it’s meant to look, feel, and taste like real hamburger in every way. It sports a golden hue on the outside and, thanks to a protein called leghemoglobin, a pink and bloody interior.
Impossible Foods is the company to thank for this creation. The Redwood, California-based firm spent five years and millions of dollars in the noble quest for bovine verisimilitude (one of the current job openings is for "sensory scientist"). When I asked the company if there's anything I should know about the burger that’s not on the website, they responded by saying: "It’s the first meatless burger to satisfy even the biggest meat lovers," which is a statement from the company website.
In other words: Impossible Foods isn’t so much trying to win over vegetarians, who traditionally abstain from blood. Impossible Foods thinks this burger will win over the most passionate consumers of beef. It won’t.
Aroma is the first issue. Walk past a Shake Shack or Wolfgang’s and the intoxicating fragrance of sizzling beef wafts through the air — this phenomenon is known as beef haze and it’s crucial in priming the mind and palate for indulgence that ensues. But walk into Nishi at lunch and you won't find anything like that. The burger itself doesn’t have much of a bouquet, and that’s fine — neither do most other veggie patties — but if you’re going to say that it’s a meat lover’s burger, you’ve got to come through with the scent.
Now pick up the burger. It weighs about as much as a comparable specimen from Shake Shack. The Maillard char is intense. If you pick off a piece with your fingers and try the "meat" by itself, you’ll notice the patty crumbs off with about the same resistance as a good fast food burger. The inside is gorgeously pink. You take a bite, and the meat is objectively delicious, in the scientific sense that it has salt, fat, and umami. A rich sense of savoriness continues through the chew, buffeted by a touch of subdued sweetness and nuttiness. But here’s the thing: The specific flavor is overwhelmingly middle of the road.
It doesn’t really taste like anything.
That brings us to the chief paradox of the Impossible Burger: It uses vegetables to imitate meat and manages to taste like neither good meat nor good vegetables. It doesn’t really taste like anything.
So what does it say about our collective culinary mindset if this is the vegetarian burger that achieves ubiquity — not an unreasonable prophecy given the money behind it? At first glance it’s tempting to hope that were the case, that every McDonald’s or Wendy’s burger were an Impossible Burger, partly for a variety of environmental and moral reasons, but mostly because it’s not as spongy or oily as its fast food analogues. Perhaps the lesson is this: Let the best and most humanely-raised beef remain the luxury that it truly is, and let the commodity crap we all eat be replaced with the Impossible Burger. The company says that as it scales production, the price will eventually lower to that of conventional meat.
Then again, there’s something alarmingly classist about that hypothetical – reserving aromatic and humanely raised meats for high end restaurants while soylent beef becomes the more viable option for cheaper chains. That’s not so much a commentary on the inherent worth of real versus fake meat as it is a meditation on flavor. The Impossible Burger mimics, more than anything, the neutral overtones of a fast food burger. Think about that: untold time, money, and energy were put into biologically engineering a plant-based product that evokes not heirloom potatoes or lentils but rather textured saltwater. It is as if a Hollywood set designer was given an unlimited budget to create a magical forest world but instead gave the director a suburban shopping mall. Impossible beef is the vodka of imitation meat, and the admittedly delicious burger Nishi serves is a Grey Goose and soda.
Say what you will about the contemporary state of Thomas Keller’s Per Se (and I’ve said a few things myself), but one of the gifts that restaurant gave to the city was advertising the vegetable tasting as an equally compelling option to the regular chef’s tasting. Keller’s argument was that the plant-based menu was just as good, not because it was a replacement for meat, but because vegetables have their own diverse spectrum of flavors that deserve to be appreciated.
It feels like a carbon copy of all the rest, which is a heck of a thing to say for a burger that doesn’t contain any meat.
The Impossible Burger at Nishi does not operate on its own spectrum of flavor. It is literally a replacement for commodity beef. And yes, the relative blandness of the product bodes well for, say, using it as a taco filling or in a bolognese – preparations where the intrinsic flavor of beef isn’t so much the main event as it is a delivery mechanism for other more powerful seasonings. But the Impossible Burger, its noble social and environmental goals notwithstanding, falls short in the same way that so many other burgers do: It feels like a carbon copy of all the rest, which is a heck of a thing to say for a burger that doesn’t contain any meat.
The Solares Take
The Impossible Burger (IB) is a hamburger substitute, not a replacement. It is not going to convince even the most casual carnivore that they are eating meat. Yet this is still the most significant thing to happen to the hamburger in quite some time. And it is certainly the most significant addition to the lunch menu at Momofuku Nishi to date. For those who have been following along, it is no surprise that Chang adopted the plant-based meat substitute from Impossible Foods, as he is renowned for playing with forms and conventions, and evoking nostalgia with unexpected ingredient combinations. The Impossible project dovetails nicely with his pursuits.
It has clearly attracted people to Momofuku Nishi, which heretofore had rather sparsely attended lunches. If the crowds during the day are any indication, there is obviously some currency in a non-meat burger. But is this the ultimate test of the IB? I would argue that it is not, and that, in a sense, you are preaching to the choir. People eating at niche restaurants like Nishi and Superiority Burger are by definition avant garde diners and are also likely to be predisposed to want to like something like the IB, which increases their chances of actually liking it. Will everyday meat eaters flock to this instead of a real beef burger?
The problem for the IB is that it not only has to replicate meat — itself no easy task — but it also needs to overcome the cultural tropes bound up in the hamburger — the nostalgia it induces, the wanton freedom it signifies, the myth of red blooded Americanism it embodies. Chang, of course, plays to these in the architecture and presentation of the Nishi-style IB. He cooks it in the time-honored smash style preparation, pressing down on the IB with the same degree of vigor as a Shake Shack burger, resulting in an impressively pronounced crust. The similarity to the vaunted fast casual chain doesn’t end there. The Nishi IB burger is also served on a Martin’s potato roll with American cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes, replete with a schmear of a special sauce of some kind.
Visually, at least, the Nishi-style IB really looks close to the genuine article. But that illusion shatters when you take the first bite. Paradoxically, the upfront taste of the IB is too savory, as if it is over-compensating for its lack of actual meat. Beef doesn’t hit you in the same way. Its flavor comes on in a more measured manner, and it has a fuller, rounder mouthfeel and a sweeter disposition overall than the IB. There is no doubt that the IB packs an umami wallop with nutty, brown roast accents, but it doesn’t hit your mouth in the same way that beef does.
While other meat impostors either crumble into predictable globules or turn to a mushy paste, this one tears irregularly, just like meat.
Texturally, the IB is fairly convincing, crumbling and flaking in a way that no non-meat burger has in my experience. And it gets the contrast of seared, crunchy exterior to moist and supple innards right. While other meat impostors either crumble into predictable globules or turn to a mushy paste, this one tears irregularly, just like meat. Structurally, this lack of uniformity is due to what meat nerds call "noodling" — as meat is pushed through the grinder it forms long strands that tangle and coil, producing burgers that are firmer and more steak-like. Commendably, the IB shares this quality.
But ultimately, the IB fails to convince me because of a purely primal reason: It doesn’t have the essential life exchange of eating meat. I consciously know I am not eating meat, but I also feel it physiologically. I am not being flip here: There is a definite difference in how I feel eating meat versus eating everything else. This is something I need to quantify as a food writer, but it also something that every enlightened omnivore should confront: We are eating animals that once lived. I don’t consider this inhumane. Quite the opposite — I consider it a profound aspect of our humanity. The problem is that the modern food system has become inhumane. Meat is too cheap. It needs to be de-commoditized, and this means that meat needs to be considered a luxury and priced accordingly.
The burger is an indelible cultural object, but it is not timeless. This probably explains my apprehension toward the IB. To accept its need is to tacitly admit that the hamburger— once the embodiment of the popular zeitgeist, and something that unified us across class, race, and creed — has waned in cultural importance, and worse has actually become harmful to the planet. This is where the IB comes in. Is it the future of the hamburger? I don't think so. It isn't going to win over the masses. But more generally, it does portend the future of food, and probably Momofuku Nishi too. I can see this restaurant becoming David Chang's first burger spot, and also his first vegetarian restaurant.