915 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10022 (at 55th St; map); 212-317-1616; pjclarkes.com
Short Order: A once great hamburger neutered by changing it to "natural" beef and a fancy bun—a change no one asked for, and after tasting one that no one will want.
Want Fries with That? Yes; here at least the touch of a world class chef makes a difference.
Price: Cheeseburger, $10
Back in 1985 the Coca Cola Company, facing a decline in market share, decided to change the recipe of their eponymous beverage. At the time it appeared to be a colossal mistake. Despite some initially positive reaction, there was such a backlash that the company reintroduced the original formula, now dubbed "Coca Cola Classic," just three months after the launch of what became known as Coke II. Coca Cola learned a couple of lessons with the move. First, they realized that they needed to worry about the customers that they had before trying to gain new ones. Second, the realized that Coke had become a cherished institution—some saw changing the formula as heretical as changing the colors on the flag. But most importantly they proved the age old idiom: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
P.J. Clarke's could learn a thing or two from New Coke. The classic New York City saloon recently revamped their entire menu by hiring "the Godfather of American cuisine" Larry Forgione to create a seasonal "locavore" focused menu in anticipation of the franchise becoming a national chain. The results look good on paper—the menu offers Red Angus beef from the Meyer Ranch in Montana and vegetables from a farm in Millbrook, New York, that the company acquired.
As laudable as the changes may be, I'm not sure anyone was looking for them. Certainly not the suits that congregate at P.J. Clarke's after work to quaff domestic brews before hoping the train to the 'burbs, or the sports fans who flock there to watch games. The only seasonality they care about relates to golf and professional sports. Those obsessed with seasonality and the provenance of menu ingredients are far more likely to flock to trendy downtown restaurants than P.J. Clarke's with its cramped, dimly lit room in one of Manhattan's more conservative neighborhoods. P.J. Clarke's appeals more to the frat house than the farm house—a revamped menu won't change that.
The hamburger, once the quintessential example of the New York City pub burger and one of my and a great many New Yorkers' favorite burgers, has been revamped as well. I am not alone in my disappointment in the result. The venerable Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post recently lamented the decline in the burgers juiciness with the adoption of the new beef. I found a few other problems as well.
The bread, once a wonderful white squishy bun from Arnold (chock full of preservatives) has been replaced with a fresh one from Pandoro Bakery. That would be great if the bread were delivered daily, but I ate there on a Sunday and the bread on both burgers I sampled was slightly stale. Even fresh I am not sure I would particularly care for it—it had a pronounced sour, yeasty flavor that threatened to mask the beef. It was chewier than the old bun and had a less dense inner structure. It would have been no match for the old burger, which was always brimming with succulence. But the new patty is not nearly as juicy, and while it does has a pleasingly beefy flavor the grind seems finer and feels more mealy.
The classic Bearnaise burger, once a staple of the P.J. Clarke's menu of old, is no longer listed, but the kitchen will still serve it. It adds some needed moisture, along with a velvety decadence to the experience.
The fries are worth ordering. They show that having your own farm and a world class chef does have its benefits, although apparently not when it comes to burgers.
When Coca Cola reverted back to the "original" formula they increased their market share, leading some cynics to postulate that the whole thing was a clever ploy. I sort of hope that P.J. Clarke's is doing the same thing and that they will bring back the old burger ASAP.