16 West 29th Street
New York, NY 10001
by Des Ayuno
The night we visited the Breslin, Fred Durst was in the house. Frank, whose day job is waiting tables there, was treating me to dinner as a kind of apology for quitting the band; he was apologetic about Durst, too. In the course of his job, Frank has dispensed after-dinner marijuana to many celebrities who are far sexier and more name-droppable than Durst, but who should probably remain nameless. He has waited on those who tip generously (Jay-Z, Beyonce, James Murphy) and those who, with no claim to remaining nameless in their stinginess, do not (David Byrne, I love you but you’re bringing me down).
The Breslin, though, is genuinely more famous for its burgers than for its guests. The New Yorker, in a breathless profile of chef April Bloomfield from last year, reported that its burgers were served “one way: char-grilled, on a brioche bun, topped with crumbled Roquefort. Only Lou Reed, a fixture in the neighbourhood, is allowed to have his burger with onions, and that is owing to precedent: an awestruck employee took his order one afternoon when Bloomfield was out. Mayonnaise is forbidden.”
These days, Bloomfield serves her burgers (lamb only) char-grilled, on a sourdough bun, topped with one full cross-sectional slice of red onion (approx. 2mm thick; one gets the feeling that she stands behind her chefs with a ruler, ready to rap their knuckles at any deviation) and a small amount of crumbled feta cheese. There is, surprisingly, a ramekin of cumin mayonnaise that arrives with the burger, and whilst its placement on the rustic board that serves as a plate suggests it is meant for the “thrice-cooked” fries, there is nobody to stop you slathering it on the burger too.
This being my first visit, Frank and I decided to cram in as many dishes as we could physically ingest, including one of the famous burgers, which we would split. When the waitress placed it on his side of the table, as I was busy inhaling the steam from a bowl of oxtail in broth, Frank waved his hands under my nose. “You need to try this NOW,” he said. “While it’s hot.” I gestured at the cumin mayo in a way that I thought suggested slathering. He frowned and shook his head and, carefully, as though it was a newborn babe, handed over the burger.
The bun was thin, almost just a crispy shell, and my teeth sheared through it with a crackle. The patty, more sphere than disc, was so fatthat my first bite capturedonly meat and bread, and none of the onion or feta hidden at the center. Still, the intensity of flavor and moisture – wetness, even – was astonishing. It was the most explosively succulent ball of meat and juice I had ever put in my mouth. I swiped in vain at the hot, melted fat that cascaded down my chin. On the next bite, I got some onion – more a crisp textural pleasure than a discernible flavor, so potent was the lamb – and some cheese, which was pleasantly dry and crumbly but made the whole bite almost too salty. The juice was beginning to pool in the bottom half of the bun, where the sourdough’s sturdy texture both soaked it up, into the thin, chewy inner crumb, and held it neatly in place, with the crust.
At this point Frank reached across and removed it from my hands. “Try the oxtail,” he said solicitously, “look at those new-season ramps!” but the room had closed in on me in short focus and all I could see was that rustic board and its precious cargo. Frank cut the burger carefully in half, my side marred with two enormous bites, and thoughtfully consumed his portion. I was less greedy, and the burger less molten, when it made its way back across the table. But even at room temperature, the bun collapsed almost flat with juice, it was a luscious, sticky delight.
The fries were pretty good – not quite the holy grail of fluffy perfection inside and crispy out, but not far off. As a non-evangelist, I’ve always been surprised that big-shot chefs spend so much time and effort trying to mimic what is basically the precise mouth feel of a chemically grown, industrially processed, water-pumped, preservative-laden, low-grade-fat-infused, heat lamp-crisped, half-day-old, all-American drive-thru fry. The cumin mayo surprised me with its mediocrity. It tasted dusty and flat, a one-trick pony of an emollient. Maybe the cumin seeds should have been roasted before grinding; a hint of acidity would not have gone amiss. The house-made dill pickle chips, on the other hand, embodied sheer pickle perfection in their delicate balance of crisp and flab, salt and sour, sweet and pungent. As Frank said, it may not have been the best pickle in the entire world, but we could not think of one that was better, and we considered this grave question for at least ten minutes.
On the way out, our farewells took half an hour, each effusive, hug-proffering waitress and busboy more charismatically kooky than the one before. But still the memory of the burger remained, as did a glaze of grease under my fingernails. I could not remember the last time I’d eaten a burger at all; near-vegetarian, and especially wary of ground meat, I avoid any animal on a menu that cannot guarantee me sufficient ecstasy in its eating as to justify its wretched death. But I am pretty sure, even now, a few weeks later and away from the hypnotic presence of the burger and the Breslin’s gloriously rowdy downstairs bar, that that lamb was indeed one of God’s – pulled from Eden, where it probably gamboled over green hills and was fed apples from Eve’s fair hand, sung to sleep and carried gently to the finest slaughterhouse in the land. That’s what I’ve got to believe, anyways, because when I’m next in town it’s trumped Momofuku’s pork buns as the very first thing my lips shall touch.