A Sinfully Bad Burger at Cloister Cafe in the East Village
I wouldn't wish to inflict Gordon Ramsay on too many restaurants in New York City, but the Cloister Cafe makes a worthy candidate for Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, at least if the hamburger they serve is any indication of what the rest of the food is like. The restaurant has everything the series relies on: a potentially good location, a once heralded chef who has lost his way, a confused front of house, and an even more confusing concept.
Cloister Cafe has been around since 1977. It offers surprisingly secluded outdoor dining considering it is just a block away from the hustle and bustle of St. Marks Place. It might be considered romantic if the stained glass windows that line the interior dining room weren't fake.
One wonders what the original concept was—perhaps it was an Irish-American restaurant serving comforting favorites like Shepherd's Pie, or maybe it was an early locavore eatery at the infancy of the green market movement. Whatever it was, I doubt it anyone planned on the schizophrenic combination of Italian, French, and Thai cuisine along with some diner staples, coexisting with a hookah bar.
There is a chef at the helm, Taweewat Hurapan, who has a story far more remarkable than his hamburger (which I don't actually consider his at all). Originally from Thailand, Hurapan worked for Thai Airlines and was aboard the last flight out of Saigon in 1975 before the city fell to the North Vietnamese. The next year he made it to the quarterfinals of the Montreal Olympics for fencing. He would teach the sport when he moved to New York City while working in kitchens to supplement his income before finding both success and acclaim as the chef at groundbreaking Upper East Side Pan Asian restaurant Rain.
But Rain eventually closed and Hurapan ended up at Cloister Cafe. Their menu—an eclectic and confused amalgam of East and West—certainly draws inspiration from his Thai background, but also seems to have dishes on there because someone at the restaurant thinks that customers want them.
Like their abysmal hamburger—a preformed, probably frozen, patty with a mealy consistency. Typically for this type of patty, as soon as you bite into it the little juice it has seeps out, leaving an arid burger in its wake. I ordered it rare—there was a small sliver of pink in the middle, but the defining color was gray. The beef appeared to be one of the those "seasoned" patties because it had a peppery flavor reminiscent of au poivre.
I could talk about the soggy vegetables, slightly stale bun, and the over seasoned scraps of french fries, but why bother? There is no passion in this hamburger, no love at all. I doubt that Hurapan had much to do with it—no chef could come up with such a poor dish. I can imagine Gordon Ramsey taking a bite of the offending burger and putting it down in disgust: "Oh my gawd!" he would exclaim. "This is absolutely horrendous." He would be right.