There are no longer any local Dale Talde restaurants, the famed Top Chef contestant who ran a small collection of pan-Asian spots (and one Italian restaurant) throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Jersey City. His ex-associates, however, are still at it. Here they are, in the old Shoolbred’s space on Second Avenue, serving up frosty “Deer Hunter” cocktails, yuzu guacamole, jalapeño-laced rice cakes, and tater tots doused in honey.
The joint is called Black Emperor Bar. The style of food is bar food. And much of that bar food is quite good.
John Bush, one of the principals from the old Three Kings group, runs the show, alongside Ben Rojo (Angel’s Share). Jae Lee, who used to cook at Talde’s Bowery Hotel restaurant, is the temporary chef. His “residency,” which will last six months, is called “Him,” the Korean word for strength. Him, appropriately, makes a very strong burger, if you can bring yourself to emotionally care about yet another burger.
During the height of the Minetta craze, when every other casual brasserie and trattoria was serving a $130 cote de boeuf, I generally avoided the wallet-busting dish as a critic. The uniformity of the beef meant it didn’t taste a whole lot different from place to place; potentially making for very uninteresting journalism. More recently, I’ve applied this logic to burgers, which, despite their infinite potential for variation, seem to express themselves with a soporific uniformity — and dissuade patrons from ordering more interesting items on the menu.
The prevailing styles, in 2019, are the double stack, wherein two slabs of beef sit atop one another, and the thicker dry-aged version, which is often distinguished less by its flavor than its price, often at $25 or more.
Lee serves both styles. The double, made from American wagyu, is good, but skippable; it lacks the crusty, beefy bliss of a proper Shack Shack specimen. The dry-aged patty, however, manages to distance itself from the larger pack. It’s not as compelling as the majestic DB Burger, whose foie gras and truffle stuffing hints at the stunning charcuterie of Lyon, but it manages to brush at luxury burger greatness with its own fine personality.
Simplicity is key; there are no piles of bacon, lettuce, tomato or onion turning this into 1980s-style vertical cuisine. There are no smears of caramelized onion or blue cheese to detract from the meat. The burger is simply a Pat LaFrieda blend of chuck and short rib on a sesame bun with American cheese and kimchi mayo.
The first bite or two conveys a mid-level musk, which gives way to a soft crumble of juicy, mid-rare flesh. Some of the overcooked bites are distinctly bland, but the level of umami is sublime. And while it might not pack the bovine drop kick of a burger forged from more distinct beef, the spiced mayo (Lee uses Kewpie and adds sesame oil) picks up the slack in this regard, adding a gentle dose of sweetness, spice, and funk midway through any given chew. The densely packed sesame seeds add a surprising complexity as well; they impart both a snappy texture and a nutty aftertaste.
For those who argue that fries should always come “free” with a burger — just as one wouldn’t levy a supplement for the marshmallows in Lucky Charms — I have bad news. There are no fries at Black Emperor. Instead, Lee slathers tater tots in honey butter and places them atop labneh ($8), a riff on Korea’s famed honey-butter chips. How do they taste? Like a run-of-the-mill refrigerator snack, without the piercing sugar or salt this dish needs to work.
The better starchy pairing is the rice cakes, showered in parmesan, meat sauce, hot sauce, and jalapeños. Depending on your point of view it either evokes a plate of nachos or ziti bolognese. In either case, it fills up a hungry stomach brilliantly with too much of everything. A similar argument could be made, incidentally, about that Deer Hunter slushie, a blend of tequila, ginger, and a lot of other sweet things that make you forget you’re drinking tequila.
For a lighter tater tot substitute, consider the smashed cucumbers; they contain enough throat-numbing Sichuan peppercorn that you could perform a tonsillectomy on yourself in the bathroom and be none the worse off.
So guess what? I’m rating the honeyed tots a SELL, and the cukes, rice cakes, and gourmet burger a BUY. Even in a city overrun with burgers, this one stands out.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).