25 May 2010

NYC April 2010: Burgers, Buns, and Bagels

At this point after checking out Economy Candy we decided to head back to A's pad to chill out and sober up. We played such games as Heavy Rain, God of War 3, and Whip Your Mother With A Wet Hose 2. I especially loved the latter, although it takes a long time to beat. After A's significant other returned from a short trip upstate we finally headed out for dinner. Our destination? We'd caught wind that Shake Shack on the UWS was serving their Bacon Peanut Butter Burger, which they call their PB Shake'N Bacon Burger, for one day only and we just had to check it, along with the Shack Stack and the pancakes and bacon custard, out.

We arrived and got in line. A and his woman H modeled the weekly custard calendar for my quick photo.

I also got a shot of the poster advertising the much talked about PB Shake'N Bacon Burger:

I got to the cashier and immediately asked for a sample of the custard. She handed me a spoon and I dove into a lovely mouthful of creamy smoky custard dotted with crunchy salty bacon bits. Since G had already ordered our Shack Stack (I found out later that he ordered it with pickles and onions. The latter severely throwing off the balance of the burger. Damn you G!! You must run all topping requests by me first!), I requested two orders of custard and the PBS&B Burger. It was then that the cashier dropped the bomb. She informed me that they had sold out after only two hours of service this morning. Wah!? Sheer disappointment surged over me in a horrible wave. I had no idea what to order now. The last time I was there I had a double cheeseburger and wasn't impressed. So I took a dive and ordered the ShackBurger.

They called my number, I grabbed my tray, loaded up on essential condiments and a big ol glass of agua, and headed over to our table. The first thing I sampled, probably because it took the least amount of work to get to was the custard.

You can tell by the picture just how smooth this culinary creation was. As I said before this custard was supremely smoky and probably the smoothest dairy item I've had to date. It had a nice sweet maple flavor that shone through when I rolled it around my mouth.

My only complaint being that while I had an entire mouthful of crunchy bacon bits in the sample I was given, in my cup I only found one or two sitting at the bottom. G proclaimed he had none at all. I wonder if the samples and servings come from different batches?

Next up was my ShackBurger. Unfortunately, this was just as underwhelming as the double cheese.

It tasted like a glorified Big Mac. I get that they butter their patties... And? I need a little more than a slathering of butter to cause me to sit up and take note. I removed the out-of-season tomato and added ketchup and mustard and, while it wasn't bad by any stretch of the word, I just wasn't impressed.

I've made better burgers at home. I didn't even bother finishing it, I felt my stomach space was much needed elsewhere. Although I will say this: In my experimentation I had the idea to take a bite of my ShackBurger and then shovel in a bite of custard and it turned out to be a momentary revelation. It was like bacon cheeseburger custard. The saltiness from the custard really brought out the shack sauce. If only the pancakes and bacon custard were on the menu year round, I might say this was a saving grace. But alas, 'tis not.

Moving on to the main event of the evening: The Shack Stack. For those of you who don't know a Shack Stack is simply the ShackBurger with a 'Shroom Burger patty (a crispy-fried portobello stuffed with muenster and cheddar!) wedged in. I was envious of G as he wolfed down his half while I was taste testing my underwhelming ShackBurger. Finally it was my turn.

As soon as I turned my attention to it I immediately noticed the insane amount of raw onion they added. Not only that but I could smell them when he sat down. But I took a bite anyway. Kaboom. As soon as my teeth pierced that 'Shroom burger my salivatory glands fired full force. The crispy outside gave way to a literal fountain of melted cheese. The cheese, man, the c.h.e.e.s.e!

I'd never really tried anything like this. I can't really describe it, my closest comparison would be something similar to chicken cordon bleu. If the portobello was present, hell if I could taste it. But I didn't care. This was infinitely better than any other burger I've tried here. F everything else on the menu. Shroom burger for life. Why am I not celebrating the Shack Stack you ask? Because you could slap that 'Shroom patty on a pile of dog excrement and hand me a bib. I'd pound it proper.

Sunday left me flying solo due to G choosing a bus ticket that left in the AM and A had plans to spend the day with his woman. Combine this with the fact that I usually wake up about 3 hours earlier than the average New Yorker, and that it was a very gloomy rainy day, I pretty much had the entire island to myself. A perfect setting for a solo culinary tour of the city. Or so I thought. I showered and packed and was out the door by 9. I had a hankering for pancakes and was determined to see what all the fuss was about at Clinton Street Baking Co., as their the Blueberry Pancakes are hailed by many as being the best in the city.

I arrived to find a very frustrating scene. Apparently CSBC changed their hours at some point and neglected to tell anyone on the internet. Everywhere I read online said they opened at 10 but when I arrived the sign said 9. Even with the rain the place was packed. I put my name in for a party of one and was told there would be about a 30 minute wait. Luckily, I was able to gobble up the last little bit of standing room inside forcing the following parties to stand outside. I put my bag on the floor and whipped out my iphone, playing Peggle to pass the time. Surprisingly my name was called after 20 minutes and I got a great table right by the front window. Natural light makes for the best food photos. The waitress offered the menu but I told her I was ready to order. Water w/lemon, cup of decaf, and the blueberry pancakes please. Done and done. The coffee was great and reminded me of my brother's brand. I sipped my brew and tried to plan out the rest of my itinerary while awaiting my pancakes, which arrived about 15 minutes after I placed my order.

The pancakes were nice and fluffy and had a great bitter sweetness to them and I loved the fact that there was a huge heap of blueberries on top as well as in the pancakes themselves. The thing about this dish that really blew me away was the accompanying maple butter. Frickin' genius. Why the hell didn't I ever think of that? You melt butter and mix in some maple syrup. Cut off a hunk of pancakes and dunk it in the butter. So simple yet so GD delicous.

The pancakes themselves were fine, but I don't think they matched Locanda Verde in that they weren't as light and fluffy, although these were much more bold in flavor. The closer I got to the middle, the better they were with blueberries studded throughout. Not the best pancakes in the city, but a great classic rendition and completely satisfying. After exhausting my first serving of maple butter my waitress gladly brought me a second. As I neared the end of my meal, I overheard the table of girls next to me who also happened to be food bloggers. I noticed the girl immediately to my right had the banana walnut pancakes. She said she read a lot of comments online that the blueberry pancakes were too sweet. I found this to be quite absurd and chalked it up to people finding fault with something merely to find faults. The dish was balanced. Get off your high horse. They're probably the same people who rave about the ShackBurger. Tee hee. I paid my check, downed the rest of my coffee and headed back out into the rain.

After a short walk I arrived at my next destination: Momofuku Milk Bar in the East Village.

Upon entering I found only one or two people inside so I pretty much had all the time in the world to peruse the menu. I knew I wanted an order of their famed pork buns but I needed some time to decide which sweet to sample. The guy behind the counter couldnt've been nicer and said I could take as much time as I needed. I finally decided on to further indulge my sweet tooth with their signature Compost Cookie.

I've never had pork buns before (Asian Court's don't count) so I really have no basis of comparison but this flavor profile really blew me away.

I'd had pork belly only once before on my first, and only, outing with the Charm City Hounds at Hunan Taste and I didn't really care for it. It was simply too fatty and greasy for me. This was not the case with Momofuku's pork buns. It was quite the opposite actually.

The pork belly was a huge savory hunk of pork with a nice gooey sheet of rendered fat on top which only added a nice richness to the dish, restrained enough to maintain a lightness to the bun. The heavy-handed use of hoisin threw the balance of slightly but after a few drops from the huge bottle of Sriracha on the table the perfect harmony of flavors was achieved.

If you don't like it hot, then you might feel these buns are too sweet and I would agree. But the liberal dousing of hot sauce enabled supreme balance. The scallions added a nice texture and the bun itself was uber soft and slightly sweet. I could eat ten of these buns without flinching.

The first thing I noticed about the compost cookie was the grease that somehow soaked through the wrapper and stained the label, and the laundry list of ingredients.

That's a lot of freakin' ingredients for just a cookie. It wasn't as innovative as it could've been, but that's not say it wasn't damn good, it was. Just nothing mind-blowing.

I was surprised to find that I could taste almost every component: pretzels, oats, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips. The only thing I didn't detect was the potato chips, but the longer I chewed the more flavors hit my taste buds.

I love treats that play on the combination of sweet and salty and it shined here. This cookie was a mad scientist experiment. It basically tasted like a chocolate chip cookie and an oatmeal cookie Eiffel Towered a bag of chex mix while a butterscotch cookie videotaped it and a bag of potato chips stood in the corner burning itself with lit cigarettes. Yeah, that about sums it up.

The cookie itself was thin, not dried out at all, hit the perfect balance of slightly crispy on the outside and chewy in the center, and surprisingly light. I finished off my Momofuku treats and checked the mirror to ensure my charmingly handsome smile was free of chocolate and cookie crumbs and headed out the door. My final destination was the Spotted Pig over at Greenwich and 11th.

Upon arriving at The Spotted Pig it looked nothing like what I expected it to. It was a tiny corner space that was packed to the brim. Luckily my arrival was timed perfectly as I was able to snag a front and center seat at the bar. This allowed me excellent perusal of the SP's beers on tap. I asked the bartender if I could sample the Old Speckled Hen and the Captain Lawrence Pale Ale. I went with the pale ale to accompany my burger because it was nice and light with a bright hoppy finish.

The authority with which I placed my order for a burger, mid-rare, caused the bartender to mistake me for a regular, as he was surprised when I started chatting with him and revealed I'd never had it. He claimed it was the best burger in town, but I would reserve my judgment until after I tasted it.

After a short wait the plate was placed in front of me and I got my firsthand look at what would turn out to be burger perfection.

I snapped a few photos and, as I always do, went for the absurdly huge mountain of fries first. Even though I'm generally not a fan of shoestring fries, I found these fries to be quite enjoyable, the rosemary was great and they weren't overly salty.

They were especially good when dipped in the spicy dijon mustard, which the bartender informed me that wasn't made in-house as I had assumed, but was in-fact the famous French brand Maille. Whatever it was, it paired perfectly with the fries. But enough talk of sides, onto the burger.

I feel like I need to limber up first before trying to describe the experience of eating this burger. This was definitely the most rave-worthy thing I ate all weekend. In one word: perfection. It was obviously apparent after taking the first bite that the chef had really put a lot of hard work into perfecting the balance of this burger. I really enjoyed the fries, but with a burger this good it just doesn't matter what's served alongside it.

The meat-to-bun ratio was perfect. I'd never had a burger served on brioche before, but I really loved the spongy inside and the nice layer of crust on the outside. These were manufacted with the idea that the innards would soak up the initial onslaught of juices and the crust would contain whatever driblets managed to seep through. And it worked flawlessly. I had all the time in the world to eat this burger because the bun retained it's structural integrity and didn't completely disintegrate, the downfall of many potentially great burgers. I hate burgers that once you start eating them you can't put them down because you would be forced to eat them with a knife and fork as they explode on the plate. I took the time to savor every bite, even after cutting it in half, it was a pure joy to eat throughout.

The patty was super-juicy, although when I cut into it hardly any leaked out, a surefire sign that it rested after being removed from the heat, giving the juices the necessary time to redistribute throughout the meat. The beef just melted and the gorgonzola served to simultaneously enhance the buttery richness of the beef and cut the subtle sweetness of the brioche bun.

There wasn't much of a crust to the patty, but I didn't even notice as all of the other stellar qualities completely overshadowed any shortcomings it may have had in the crust department. I'd read a lot about people asking for no cheese or adding ketchup and mustard, or even going as far as to smuggle in their own cheese as a substitute. Pathetic. If you're one of those people, do me a favor and press Alt-F4 on your keyboard. Good, that takes care of them. They don't get it, and probably never will. I understand that everyone has their own tastes, and in that regard to each his/her own. But some of these Shake Shack fanboys need to get their ass down to the Spotted Pig to see what a real burger tastes like. If I could choose one dish I've reviewed so far for this site that I would consider the epitome of the food I strive to find and consume, it would be this burger. Consider it K-tested, Micro-approved.

If you're anticipating that this is when I tell you that from there I walked straight to my bus stop and headed home, you haven't been reading this blog for very long, have you? I still had about an hour and a half to kill and I'll be damned if I were leaving this city with an inch of stomach space left. As I walked north along 8th Ave. I whipped out my iphone and fired up Yelp. I thought I remembered Grom being somewhere nearby and I could definitely go for some gelato. But to my dismay it was a multiple blocks away in the opposite direction. So I did a search for gelato and once again the food gods shined down on me. I'd already been to two out of the three gelato heavy-weights in the city, Grom and Il Laboratorio del Gelato, and come to find out to my utter delight the third, L'arte del Gelato, was one block west on 9th ave. in the Chelsea Market.

I turned up the pace and, after passing it by once, finally located the entrance to the Chelsea Market. I trucked right on through scanning each storefront passing by familiar names like Fat Witch Bakery, Amy's Bread, and The Lobster Place. I walked, and I walked... then I walked some more and finally I started to get a little nervous and frustrated. How big was this damned place? I was on a time constraint and I didn't want to leave empty-handed. Luckily when I turned the corner and gazed at the end of the hall a shining beacon of light greeted my road-weary eyes: L'arte del Gelato.

Apparently they were having some sort of chocolate flavor event (as if the huge sign didn't clue you in) so there was a wide variety of chocolate flavors, most of which I had no idea what they were.

This combined with a fairly strong language barrier made it very hard to sample flavors and eventually order. While the flavors I did manage to sample, butterscotch, mascarpone, and chocolate rum, were all excellent, I decided to go with my good old standby, pistachio.

I'm not sure if it's me, but it seems that every time I try a new gelato place it completely trumps the one's before it and this trend proved true yet again. Grom was better than Laboratorio, and L'arte was better than Grom. This was definitely not only the creamiest, but also the most in your face bursting with pistachio flavor gelato I've had. I really have nothing more to say about it. I think describing that burger really wore my ass out. I polished off my cup 'o green and after a quick stop in to Murray's bagels for a half-dozen assorted to take home, I finally arrived at the bus stop, and, as if luck hadn't shone upon me enough this day, the bus arrived right on time to the minute.

To wrap this up I had a fantastic time in NYC on this trip and I'm really glad I got to sample some of NYC's go-to dishes. Since returning from this trip there are a few things I've been yearning to eat again: the Popeye from Co., the Momofuku pork buns, and, of course, the transcendent burger at the Spotted Pig. I'm very much looking forward to our next trip to the city in a few weeks to check out the King Tut exhibit and to attend the Big Apple BBQ Block Party. I've got my speedpass, do you have yours? Until next time, as always, thanks for reading.
Shake Shack (UWS) on Urbanspoon
Clinton St. Baking Company on Urbanspoon
Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar on Urbanspoon
Spotted Pig on Urbanspoon
L'Arte Del Gelato on Urbanspoon

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theminx said...

I tell ya - you're my kind of eater!

Mr. Micro said...

Hehe, I take pride in my ability to consume large amounts of food at any given time.

Although now that I'm eating smaller meals more frequently throughout the day, I'm finding that ability to be slowly dwindling... :(

Erin said...

Outstanding review of the burger at Spotted Pig. I've been for brunch twice but never for a real meal - burgers sound great!

Also, we tried making the Compost Cookies this weekend and they were great! Your review of the real thing will help us re: look and texture when we make them again this week for a cookie competition. Thanks buddy!

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