A Black Label Experience

Minetta Tavern | 113 McDougal Street (off Minetta Lane) | 212.475.3850 | minettatavernny.com | | |


JUSTIN AND I WERE PONDERING the possibility—nay, the inevitability—of a food culture “tipping point”, where all of us, as educated and experienced epicures and gourmands, will have cooked and eaten everything possible there would ever be to cook or eat. I likened the trend to that of music in general, where, beginning in the 20s, the world has created scores of musical genres, the 80s being the most diversely creative, yet waning quickly after the 90s, and presently, in these 10s, offering the mass- and over-produced junk-fusion of what can only be described as the music equivalent of fast food.

Fortunately, we are presently experiencing the 80s version of culinary diversity and proliferation, as we now look forward to enjoying cuisines from countries—and provinces of countries—we were formerly unfamiliar with, and welcome consuming parts of various animals, traditionally common and newly discovered, that we would not have placed in our mouths on a competition reality show—for money!—a few scant years ago.

Justin reminded me, in our car service headed downtown on the FDR, that even despite these plentifully new dining experiences, certain dishes are never going away. He is right. For every new Japanese place that serves cod milt, twenty places open up serving Roman-style pizza. For every new “oink-to-stink” butcher-housed resto that offers pig ears, trotters, and jowls, ten more “traditional American” menus feature their “rustically modern” spin on fried chicken and/or macaroni and cheese.

And no matter how popular bánh mís and Korean wings and geoduck molecular gastronomy become, food fans casual and fanatical will always have, at least in this city, their absolute favorite burger place.

And since I posted the list of my personal Top Ten favorite NYC burgers, I have been reminded by food blogs and critics, and many of my friends, that this list is theoretically rendered “incomplete” without having tried the now historically revered Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern.

So after years of avoiding the place—unable to resolve spending $28 on any burger, and innately averse to “believing the hype” (sorry, Tony Bourdain, but that includes you as well)—Justin, my friend, social adjunct, and avid PHUDE-nyc follower, convinced me to let him “sponsor” my dinner, so that I could enjoy his favorite burger, unencumbered by subjectivity. Our lively food culture discussion in the car service made the trip fly by, as we alit to McDougal Street, and stepped over to short Minetta Lane, entering Minetta Tavern’s through its rather innocuous facade.

And walking directly into an environment that was antipolar to the wintry conditions outside. The Greenwich Village night outside had been cold, wet, and dankly lit but inside the restaurant was bright with warmth, inviting, and luxuriant with homey comfort. (And as I wait to replace my camera, Justin was again charitable enough to let me take these pictures with is iPhone.)


Minetta Tavern | Front Room

Minetta Tavern | Bar


Proprietor Keith McNally is famous for repurposing spaces into old-school New York-style dens of acclaimed high social comfortability; both opulent and familiar are his other places, such as Balthazar, Odeon, Lucky Strike, Pravda, and Nell’s—all favorite places and frequent hangouts of mine a much younger self ago!—and, more recently, Morandi, Pulino’s, and Schiller’s.

Yet, Minetta Tavern has the distinction of being 75 years, old-school by default and definition. The bar’s woodwork nearly all original (or at least 40 years old), the tiles walls and floors probably not needing more than a good scrub and mop when Keith took over. Big inviting cloud of red leather covered banquets are matched in their comfort by dark wood, charming wall illustrations, and old framed caricatures of old celebrities. The light emanating from the kitchen in the back room, where we were seated, acts almost like a hearth, and the seasonal decorations only add to the “homey”-ness.


Minetta Tavern | Back Room

Minetta Tavern | Diners


THe menu, however, quickly reminds me that we’re 21st-century diners, as hors d’oeuvres include smoked salmon galette with salmon roe and truffled pork sausage with oysters. Piquing my always explorative culinary interest were the roasted bone marrow with shallot confit as well as the oxtail & foie gras terrine with poached leeks. Justin and I ordered each.


Minetta Tavern | Hors D'ouevres

Minetta Tavern | Roasted Bone Marrow

Minetta Tavern | Oxtail & Foie Gras Terrine


A great start! The smoky, richly flavored, and perfectly malleable bone marrow spread smoothly over warm toasted baguette “soldiers”, with the sweet, piquant shallot confit’s aromatic acidity cut through the morrow’s slick richness. The rough ground of the oxtail meat offered fine rustic texture to the terrine, compliment by a center of luscious foie gras, with cooked-through leeks supporting the proteins’ natural gaminess with bite and florality.

But the reason we were here was for me to try what has topped many a list as New York’s best burger, the Black Label, famous for its exclusive, custom Pat Lafrieda dry-aged meat blend. And, yes, I was “titillated” by Anthony Bourdain’s threesome with a Black Label burger and meat-enthusiast Josh Ozersky, but shared the same skepticism as Tony did, even more so when he effusively raved about it after having one.

We order one each, both medium rare—and nicely the waitress alerts us they always cook their burgers a little “under” the ordered temperature—and a few minutes later, after chatting up our neighboring diners who were thoroughly enjoying their meals, our burgers arrived.


Minetta Tavern | Black Label Burgers

Minetta Tavern | Black Label Burger


Wanting to appreciate the quality of this meat while enjoying what would be personally my favorite wait to eat this burger, I left it unadorned of lettuce and tomato, choosing to add only the slightest smear of a wonderfully heady Dijon mustard, before taking my first bite.

And during that bite an subsequent next three of four chews, my thoughts were to make sure I would react naturally yet objectively. This burger can’t be as good as everyone says! I waited with each chew to find/feel/taste that one flavor/texture/”thing” that would immediately render all other hyperbole moot….

But that never happened! Instead, I stopped after the fourth chew, and just let the whole of my mouth experience the stunned ecstasy of the whole of this burger.

Usually, when ordering a medium rare burger, the “rare” part is all mush and no texture. Somehow there is remarkable “grind”-ness to the pinkest part of this unique blend, giving my teeth and gums more than usual to do and enjoy. The warm, beefy juices ran clear, even from the more cooked parts of the meat near its edge, expertly caramelized by almost “confit”-ing in not just its own naturally juices and rendered fat on a flat-top grill, but from the clarified (read, non-burning) butter it gets grilled on as well.

The default caramelized onions on type highlight the beef’s natural sweetness as well, perfectly cooked down to a burned (not burnt) sugar reduction of a still slightly verdant al dente allium. The bun is aromatic once toasted, airy yet firm enough to maintain its structural integrity while absorbing all of that yummy juice. My addition of a hint Dijon mustard rewards me with a bright, almost “kicky” headiness that brought all of those wonderful tastes and aromas up through my nose.I wasn’t just eating this burger, I was breathing it, and very happily so.

So, I finally had the burger, and without argument will concede that it is as great as the “masses” have proclaimed. (Does it make it my new “favorite”? You’ll have to wait and see….) But the burger would not be the “take away” from my visit. Even if the burger had disappointed me, I was thoroughly enjoying every other aspect of my dining experience. The décor, the unflinchingly personable and professional staff, the camaraderie of its many regular customers from all over the country, and, on this occasion, my gracious host.

Even our the diners at the table next to me were willing to trade me a burgundy truffle shaving for a few pommes frites, as well as section of some bites off of their bone-in N.Y. strip steaks steaks. (Yes, I thoroughly won out on that deal!)


Minetta Tavern | NY Strip Steak

And even after that, we weren’t done, as Justin and I surprisingly found it in ourselves to order dessert: a made-to-order Grand Marnier soufflé.


Minetta Tavern | Grand Marnier Soufflé

Once again, ideal. The highlight(s), to me, of an expertly prepared soufflé is that the exterior (or at least, top) gets as sugary, “cakey” crust, while the entire is a cloud of fluffy custard, and this dessert succeeded in having both, as well as that boozy aroma of orange liqueur, highlighted by little sections of tartly sweet orange through the evaporate-in-your-mouth custard.

It’s unfair, really, that to the uninitiated, Minetta Tavern is best—or only—known for its the Black Label Burger. It offers so much more. There exists dining experiences that are not of a trend. They do not have a “tipping point”. Like the burger itself, they’ll never go out of style, old school or otherwise. They are like jeans; they’re many styles but they’re all made of denim.

They are like music, like Christmas carols. You may have a favorite artist who sings O, Tannenbaum, or Winter Wonderland, but it’s not the artist that warms your heart on a cold winter night, but the actual carol itself. The Black Label Burger is akin to the Christmas tree that gets all the attention and fanfare, but Minetta Tavern, itself, is the true gift.

Bun Apple Tea!

KAC


Minetta Tavern on Urbanspoon


Minetta Tavern | 113 McDougal Street (off Minetta Lane) | 212.475.3850 | minettatavernny.com | | |



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