Snack Food: Mini-Burger Cooked to Order? You Got It. (aka the “$3.25 Value” Post)

“Damn, this kicks the shit out of Pop Burger.”

That was my first impression of the delicious mini Chicago burger ($3.25) I snacked on recently at New York Burger Co. in the Flatiron, and I’m sticking to it.

I have major beef with Pop Burger, whose over-priced minis are premade, packaged in two-packs and sit there, cooling off and drying out.

Here, a cheat sheet on what New York Burger Co. does so right:

— All burgers here are made to order, meaning the meat doesn’t hit the grilltop until the order goes through.
— All burgers are cooked to the doneness of your preference, even the minis. It’s hard enough to monitor the doneness of a regular, 6 oz. or 8 oz. burger, which makes cooking the minis even more of an exact science.
— The mini Chicago burger had plenty of goodness on top — cherrywood smoked bacon, melted cheddar cheese and 1,000 island sauce, in addition to lettuce and tomato — but more basic burgers, and fries, benefit from your choice of playful toppings including  chili pepper ketchup, curry mango mustard and horseradish sauce.

Next time …

New York Burger Co., 303 Park Ave. S., btwn. 23rd and 24th streets, 212-254-2727

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Thursday: Zen Palate Fail (aka the “Vanessa’s Dumpling House Comes Through … Again” Post)

photoI am easily excited about the prospect of a great food deal, like the e-mail I received from SeamlessWeb advertising “Delivery Week” (which actually runs through October 31st). Um, 3-course lunch specials of $12.09, in my shit Midtown West neighborhood? Yeah, what’cha got?

Well, the best offer (at least the day after the Bill’s burger gorging) was: Mmm… Zen Palate. So veggie, and so good-ish for you.

Well, it was the best offer …

until I discovered that my sweet photo-1potato fries didn’t even have a hint of warmth (they were hard), and that was after I found a bug in my already disappointing, stalk-filled watercress salad, which was all before I bit into one of the worst veggie patties I’ve ever had — a sad, flavorless, tan-colored thing smashed between a stale bun and a slice of tomato that had been pushed on so long that it’d made a damp imprint on patty.

photo-2I don’t waste food. I did on Thursday. … Good thing I had to run to LES and I had the chance to pop into one of my Eldridge Street favorites, Vanessa’s Dumpling House, for a sesame pancake sandwich and a side of soup. Fixes everything.

Wednesday: It’s Unanimous, Bill’s Bar and Burger Deserves Its Praise (aka the “This Is How You Make an Entrance” Post)

I can only image how long the management at B.R. Guest Restaurants, the New York-based restaurant group behind Blue Water Grill, Dos Caminos, Wildwood Barbecue and others, has been quietly organizing, meticulously planning, for just this moment. It has got to be years in the making.

Well, I hope someone is popping the bubbly because the debut of Bill’s Bar and Burger just couldn’t have gone any better. The surprisingly unpretentious new spot opened on a quiet corner in the Meatpacking District last week to virtually instant and unanimous praise from (what I refer to as) Tier One food blogs, including The Feedbag, A Hamburger Today and others. These accolades sparked a fierce debate elsewhere in the blogsphere, on Twitter and even among the friends I was dining with on Wednesday: Is it possible that Bill’s is better than Shake Shack?

photo(3)And there’s the rub: The pressure is on and the scrutiny is intense because this latest B.R. Guest Restaurants project is more than just a passive challenge to Shake Shake’s burger fiefdom, the casual burger concept restaurant of (friendly) rival Union Square Hospitality Group that, by a majority of New Yorkers, can do no wrong. It’s an outright slap of a glove, albeit in a cheeky, Monty Python style.

Both restaurants cook the burgers in the same griddle/smash method that results in a wide, uniformly flat patty, crusted and seared. Both use a beef blend from Brooklyn purveyors Pat LaFrieda. Both offer a basic burger with classic burger garnishes —  iceberg lettuce, red tomato slice(s), white onion and crinkled pickle chips — as well as an “In-N-Out“-style burger* with a creamy, Thousand Island-esque secret sauce. The burgers at both restaurants are priced sensibly in the $6-$8 range.

photoAnd, that’s about where the similarities end.

Shake Shack is a counter-service restaurant with a fairly basic menu of tried-and-true burgers, hot dogs, sides and shakes.

Bill’s is half-bar, half-dining room, and the menu reflects the easy access to a full bar and full kitchen, with expanded offerings including a delicious fish sandwich, with a kick (maybe Old Bay seasoning?) and topped with a sweet coleslaw and pickles, souped-up sides like disco fries and tempura-battered “veggie fries” and the option to add on a “paired” shot ($4) to your milkshake — the Oreo shake our table shared was paired with a shot of amaretto (above).

The best original item on Bill’s menu is the Fat Cat burger: Two patties, oozing cheese and a heap of caramelized onions stacked between a toasted English muffin (great photos here).

This burger rendered our otherwise raucous table speechless, literally. We all went dead silent for a good 10 seconds at the first bite — and promptly ordered two more. The second time around, we added bacon at the waiter’s prompting, but — a true testament to the Fat Cat’s perfection — bacon does not improve it.

Shake Shack may be the proverbial burger Goliath, but in my humble opinion, this city’s got an appetite that’s big enough for both. Welcome.

Bill’s Bar and Burger, 22 9th Avenue, at 13th Street, 212.414.3003

*In-N-Out is often cited as a point of reference for discussing the Shake Shack burger.  The comparison works in the broadest sense, but up close it falls apart.

Saturday: A Quietly Raucous Night at Fanelli Cafe (aka the “Balloons, Beers and Bison Burger” Post)

photo-2Anytime balloons are affixed to a street sign outside a restaurant (or bar, as it may be) when I’m sitting nearly in the picture window of said restaurant — I take that as a good sign. Who doesn’t love balloons, bobbing and bouncing softly off each other, as the background to their evening?

It makes a festive place like Fanelli Cafe in Soho — with its tin ceilings, worn, wooden bar and bear of a bald-headed bartender, who single-handedly (and quite adeptly) nurtures to his bar into the steady, cacophonous riot that is part of Fanelli’s charm.

Quiet, everyone, quiet,” he bellows, and then, when the din has settled a murmur, he turns to my friend and I and asks, “are you here for dinner or for drinks?

photo-3Both,” I said, “But we want to sit at the bar.”

His whole face lights up — that’s his turf. (For the couple behind us that wants to sit down for dinner, he sends them to the hostess stand deep inside the restaurant with an dismissive wave.) He scans the bar, and gestures for us to come to where there’s a single open seat.

Just wait a few minutes and you’ll have two,” he says. No doubt if only one other single seat opened up on the opposite side of the bar, he’d readily convince everyone scoot down so we could fit the two chairs in together. Fortunately, two adjacent seats opened up at the same time, and, at his signal, we made the move.

It’s called a cafe, and certainly, there are more tables than seats at the bar, but I know Fanelli’s for its drinking culture, so when I think of how to categorize the food, immediately in my mind it falls under pub fare, better than average.

photo-1It’s a little classier — the burgers, for example, come on a nice onion roll, with your option of fries or salad, and you can choose between a beef, turkey, veggie or bison burger ($10.95). Really, rather than being upscale pub food, this is the effect of a great bar operating within a full-service restaurant kitchen.

We split a bison burger, plus pepper jack cheese, plus bacon, cooked to a medium doneness — and it was a beautiful thing. During my first encounter with Fanelli’s, on a trip to visit the city before I moved here, my knowledgeable guide told me to “get the burger. They have great burgers,” and I’ve hardly strayed since because they are good.

photoWe shared an order of jalapeno poppers ($5.50), the cheddar inside kind, which were good, but not great, and a little skimpy — the order only came with four. Sure, it saved us the decision of who got the last one, or the awkwardness of splitting a popper with a knife, but really, an order of poppers should come with no less than five, ideally six, or seven, little gems. All the better to order another pint, you might say.

Thursday: Finally, Free Meal at Brasserie Comes True (aka the “$19.59 Three-Course Good Value” Post)

It’s true. I wound up at Brasserie in Midtown East on Thursday night, photo-6enjoying a free, three-course meal, plus a couple of not-free cocktails from their $9 Vintage Cocktail menu, because of Twitter.

More precisely, because of a tweet from my friends at Wined & Dined (who I’ve leveraged previously for some food deal hookups) announcing that Brasserie, in celebration of its 50th Anniversary, was offering a free lunch on Sept. 17 until reservations were full.

Lunch was booked up by the time I called, but the restaurant gave me an even sweeter deal: A complimentary three-course dinner, on the night of my choosing (before November 1), so long as the reservation was booked for 9 p.m. or later.

And, surprisingly, there was no other catch. We were comped the restaurant’s “$19.59 after 9” menu, which is on through the end of October. Since there was two of us, we decided to just order the whole thing and do a mini tasting.

photo-7Here’s the breakdown:

Appetizers

French onion soup: This molten, cheese-crusted bowl of soup didn’t skimp on portions, and we ended up using pieces of the fresh baguette (one comes with every table) to sop up the broth and polish off all that cheese. Great for two people to split; a really large portion for one.

Pâté de Campagne: My favorite of the two. Better portion size, a savory pâté, plus, I always love the “some assembly required” appetizer: layering spicy French mustard, pâté, a slice of cornichon, a touch of frisée.

photo-9Entrees

The Brasserie burger: A towering burger, stuffed with cheese, more cheese melted on top and garnished with frizzled onions. Served between sliced, toasted halves of a French bread loaf and served with a heaping side of hot, fresh French fries. I tried my best to finish my half — but no go. This burger is a serious meat rock.

photo-8Poulet, frites and salad verte: Again, the portion of this plate is so, so generous. It comes with an entire half of a roasted chicken, bones trimmed up in the French style, plus a heaping portion of fries and a dab of salad.

The chicken was well-executed and moist enough,  if a bit bland — I was wishing for more evidence of herbs and seasoning. But that was sort of the modus operandi for everything that came out of the kitchen — well-executed, if a little ordinary. Maybe “playing it safe” is a better phrase?

But generous meal for free? In no way am I complaining.

photo-10Dessert

The desserts, on the other hand, I could have skipped. (Trade out for a cocktail?) The beignets unsure of their beignet-ness — a little bit doughnut, a little bit churro and a little bit beignet, and not so fresh.

And the creme carmel, too, didn’t impress. Then again, this might have been my stomach having reaching its capacity, vetoing any more intake.

Verdict

The $19.59 special is a great value if you’re hungry, and a little overwhelming if you’re not.

…On the other hand, the $9 Vintage Cocktail menu, which includes a specialty cocktail from each decade of Brasserie’s history (you can find a copy of the menu here) beats out just about any others you could possibly scour up in this part of Midtown, at least in terms of price and strength. Imbibe and enjoy, carefully.

Brasserie, 100 E. 53rd St., near Park Avenue, 212-751-4840

Wednesday: Going Halvesies (aka the “La Palette Burger Fallacy” Post)

I eat enough burgers to know that the big boys are 8 oz. and up, the average burgers 6-8 oz. and fast-food style burgers, i.e. Shake Shack (which I adore) and 5 Guys (which I hate), are a slim 3-4 oz. These are just the rules of the burger kingdom.

photo-9So when I spotted a 12 oz. burger on the menu at La Palette, both when I was browsing their online menu and also later on the menu in the restaurant, I’m pretty sure my eyes bugged out in that cartoon-y way, just a little bit. TWELVE OUNCES?! This thing has got to be just gargantuan.

And cheap, at $13 for a burger (add $1 for a fried egg) plus fries and salad. This sounds like an impossibly good deal; I had to try it. Sometimes, impossibly good deals do exist. Not sure I could do this alone, I convinced my friend to split the “Tudo” burger me: 12 oz. of top sirloin beef, melted mozzarella, mayo, boston lettuce, tomato and a fried egg.

photo-10We were half-way on our back to watching Top Chef when it dawned on me that we hadn’t even looked at it yet. Let’s see this thing. And … disappointment. My first though was, “There is no way that can be 12 ounces.”

Next, optimism. Outloud I said, “I wonder if there’s two patties? One on each side of the bun, like an open-faced burger?”

Then, realism sets in. “Nah, that’s just the egg,” my friend says, referring to the lumpy shape on the top half of the bun that, in the darkness, I’d been *hoping* was melted cheese obscuring a second patty — not because a burger needs that much beef, but on principle. But she was right. It was just the egg.

photo-11A block later we came upon a mostly empty Magnolia Bakery.

“Eff it, let’s get a cupcake to split, too,” I said.

Spontaneity is the key to my Magnolia Bakery strategy: If you happen to walk by and it happens to not have a hoard of tourists queuing up down the street, go.

Because they do make really great cupcakes: Light and cakey with a tall head of frosting, neither top nor bottom too sweet, Magnolia’s cupcakes are all about classicism: cake flavors are typically vanilla, chocolate or red velvet; the frosting either white or brown or lightly tinted in pretty pastel shades, with plenty of peaks and curves in which to catch traditional toppings, like sprinkles or chopped walnuts.

Half a cupcake (two big bites) was the perfect pairing to half a burger (about five bites); I’d even choose to do it again, on purpose. The burger was well-seasoned, well-executed, and generally a success — aside from the false advertising. It would behoove La Palette to fix their menu; it’s not like they’d have to lower the price.