5 Napkin Burger
35-01 36th Street, Astoria NY 11106 (at 30th Ave; map); 718-433-2727; 5napkinburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A burger that doesn't live up to the hype
Want Fries with That? I would try something else; they weren't great
Price: Five Napkin Burger, $10.95; fries $3.25
Notes: Prices vary by location
I have to admit that I came to 5 Napkin Burger prejudiced against it, so much so that I willfully avoided eating it until this week. It's not just the size of the burger—a full 10-ounce patty, which is at least twice my ideal patty size—but also the amount and indeed the very nature of the toppings that are served with it. Not surprisingly, considering that the burger was born at Upper West Side bistro Nice Matin, the restaurant's namesake dish is all frogged up, the hamburger equivalent of French onion soup.
But I have to admit that I felt a little bit of professional pressure to try one. And not just because it seemed to be consistently mentioned on so many top burger lists—I got repeated questions about what I thought about it, and not just from burger fetishists. My fine dining friends, folks that tend to not want to eat things with their hands and spend their calories and huge amounts of lucre in fancy pants restaurants, were also curious about it.
The 5 Napkin Burger served at Nice Matin and at the original 5 Napkin when it first started in Hell's Kitchen is a little different from the one being offered these days. When Adam and Ed gave their initial report back in '08 they noted that:
The original Five Napkin Burger is a coarsely ground, loosely packed ten-ounce patty, topped with Comté cheese, a slew of caramelized onion, a salad's worth of butter lettuce, and a nice red slice of tomato. It comes with fries.
The Comté has been replaced by Gruyère and it is not served with fries anymore, which cost extra (at least at the Queens location). Also, my burger arrived without the lettuce or tomato. I wouldn't have used it personally (and I wouldn't even know where to fit it in the enormous burger anyway) but for the price ($10.95) I think you deserve a little greenery, if only to add some color to the otherwise rather stark looking plate. With fries the burger costs $14.20, up $0.30 since AHT's last visit.
As Ed noted this is a "snakejaw" burger, the kind that requires one to decouple one's jaw in order to get a full bite of it. I hate this type of burger—it seems to defeat the point of a sandwich in the first place. I didn't even attempt to hoist it up with my mitts, deferring to the knife and fork place on the conspicuously lone napkin at my table.
There's an awful lot going on here. The Gruyère covers the beef in a molten blanket, a mound of caramelized onions topped with a far-too-generous dollop rosemary-infused aioli sit precariously on top, threatening to cascade down the side of the towering burger. The bun looks like a brioche but is described as a "soft white roll" on the menu and fortunately tastes like one. It does and admirable job of remaining intact under the deluge of dairy.
In its favor the patty comes with a masterful crust, but it's at the expense of internal temperature. I ordered the burger rare and there was indeed some rare meat in the middle of the burger.
But it was surrounded by a large wad of meat that was medium and beyond. And to add insult to injury the meat itself was wan, flavorless and rather arid. There was some juiciness in the rare part of the patty, but it was not evident in the rest of the burger, not a good sign for those who actually want their burger medium. My burger was dense and tightly wound, unlike the "coarsely ground (and) loosely packed" burger Adam had back in 2008. (Adam returned to 5 Napkin a few months ago to update his opinion, summed up as such: "Note to Future Self: Do not go back.")
Have corners been cut as 5 Napkin has grown from a menu item to a restaurant and now to a mini chain? If this is the case the beef would seem to be the wrong place to do it, especially on such a large patty size which without the toppings would be ruthlessly revealing. I usually order a plain cheeseburger for review purposes, despite my misgivings about the toppings here, I am glad I didn't.