(Apologies for the quality of the photos, spontaneous iPhone use, blah blah…)
Minetta’s Tavern. A swanky nouveau-speakeasy, reconstructed from a 1930’s neighborhood Italian resto and saloon. Black and white check tiles, crimson leather couches. Glossy fresh, while retaining its authentic antiquity, the walls pulsating with the still audible echoes of our cultural forefathers (Hemingway? E.E Cummins?) soothing their troubled souls with plenty of red in here, way back when. Service is quick and friendly and the atmosphere is pleasantly chaotic, busy and boisterous even at lunch time on a weekday.
The menu hints a happy mélange of a Parisian brasserie du coin favorites and classic, hearty New York tavern fare. Oxtail + foie rilette and roasted bone marrow both feature as hors d’oeuvres, while Dry Aged Côte de Boeuf, Filet Mignon au Roquefort and Bone-In New York Strip share the lead role on the Grillades list. Entrées include (Tavern) Steak Frites as well as 2 all-American signature burgers.
My dining companion holding a conspicuously strong preference for dry-aged-for-a-long-time meats and me being generally indecisive on what to order, especially when it comes to any restaurant in this particular city, we opted for the famous Black Label Burger and some Huîtres et Crépinettes to start.
Huîtres et Crépinettes – Raw Salt Pond Oysters on the half shell served with a truffled pork “crépinettes” (basically a minced pork sausage, but pressed into a membrane with a rounded shape as opposed to a tube shaped intestine). I was a tad hesitant at first, as I am whenever I try a seafood-meat combination I’ve never had before, but my lunch companion assured me, “It’s a French thing.” Knowing nothing about “French things” in general, I made a point to be open-minded. Plus, I went over all pork and oyster combos I could think of in my mind and landed on Thanksgiving dinner stuffing (with chopped up oysters and broken up bits of pork sausage)… which ain’t so bad. Turns out the French (Girondais in particular) were right, as those bastards tend to be about most things having to do with the art of living.
The combination is a good one. The crépinettes are wonderfully juicy and soft, the taught casing popping open to reveal the flavorful pork inside, and then sticking to the back of your front teeth a bit. The sausages are “truffled” in that a few dark layers of black truffle are layered over them, adding some earthiness that I appreciated but thought a bit unnecessary, especially considering the effect of the thick glaze poured over the crépinettes. The glaze is a tiny bit acidic and, as it was probably a gravy made of the process of searing the crépinettes, also encapsulates the natural sweetness of the pork very nicely. The warm, fatty, comforting balls of pork go very well with the crispy cool, clean flavors of the Salt Pond oysters. A weird textural contrast, but one that ultimately works. The oysters come pre-mignonetted with vinegar, shallots and red pepper. They are huge and heavy, with a very robust flavor, sweet and briny and pretty metallic as well. To have by themselves they would almost be a bit too intensely flavored by my standards (even with the calming effects of the mignonette), but when paired with the sweet, salty and smoky flavors of the sausage, they stand their ground both in flavor and texture.
Although I suspect I should, because of the proximity, I don’t really keep up with the New York restaurant scene, because it tends to become an infinite vortex of constantly changing trends, which, frankly, I cannot keep up with without actually living in the midst of it and biting into it 3-4 times a day or at least once every few weeks. But trusting one who does keep up with it with both restaurant and dish choice definitely fills that information gap right up. It’s how I came to learn about the much talked about Minetta Tavern Black Label Burger.
This guy comes with a $26 price tag, yet has no perigord truffle shaved across the top nor a wad of foie melting its fancy-pants essence over and into the meat. The beef is not imported from Japan or Australia or Argentina, and has not been hand-massaged by loving caretakers throughout its life. There is no hard-to-find-and-even-harder-to-import Roqueforts or Comté’s melting over the top. So why $26? The answer lies in one of the three cuts of prime Kentucky beef used in the mix, the rib-eye that is dry-aged a shocking 6-7 weeks in Minetta Tavern’s very own dry aging room and a) sold with roasted marrow bones at $140 for two as well as b) ground and used in the patty to add that funky musk to which the B.L.B. owns its celebrity. The patty itself is thick and juicy, but still very light (as in not dense), which tells me the meat is far from overworked. It has a nice char, the smokiness of which does not overpower what lies within, a funky, earthy twang similar in a way to an aged blue cheese or a dehydrated morel, but the beefy version. The patty is also notably basted with butter, which gives it a soft, luxurious finish which rounds out the burly flavors of the meat.
The bun is of the not-too-sweet, day-old brioche variety, packed with butter and not unlike a croissant in both flavor and fattiness. The thing is allowed to dry a bit and then is also toasted, so that it doesn’t contribute any moisture of its own to the burger, soaking up the salty, funky and butter-boosted juices of the meat itself. Toasting the bun also awakens the sesame seeds with which the brioche is studded, unlocking the nutty flavors that add another layer to the already pretty deep flavor of the meat.
No cheese on the thing; it doesn’t need it. In fact, any sass from the cheese would overpower those beloved musky grandpa flavors that make this burger so special in the first place. What is added is a little mound of sauteed onions on top of the meat. The onion is cooked very nicely to the point where it caramelizes but does not become mushy or goopy, as happens all to often with this burger-topping. The onions add a natural sweetness that combines with the very subtle sweetness of the bun to combat the salty char of the burger, quieting it down to allow that subtle dry-aged musk to slowly make its way to the palate and coat it with its long-lasting presence.
The Black Label Burger is served with golden brown hand-cut frites which are blanched, then allowed to rest and then fried, resulting in seemingly starch-free fries that are crunchy and very salty on the outside and almost a puree consistency on the inside.
The burger really is one of the best I’ve had, succulent and moist, with all those pleasures of a crispy char and a juicy red interior which is expected of a famous burger, but with the added peculiarity of an aged beef twang usually only fully discernible in steak-form.