400 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10018 (b/n 36th and 37th streets; map); 212-613-8660; aifiorinyc.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Notes: The White Label Hamburger is available at lunch time only in the dining room and bar. The mini White Label Burger is available at the bar during evening hours.
There is no sign more apparent that we live in the Gilded Age of the Hamburger than the full court press event recently held at the newly minted Ai Fiori restaurant for the unveiling of the White Label hamburger.
Ai Fiori is Italian fine dining phenom Michael White's latest restaurant venture. While White has made his name serving up world class Italian fair and garnering numerous stars from the New York Times and The Michelin Guide, he hails from Wisconsin and has a deep and abiding love, not to mention understanding, of the hamburger.
Given the distinctly Italic leanings of his prior ventures, a burger would have been at odds with his other menus. But the conceit of Ai Fiori has changed slightly from his past efforts. At Ai Fiori we find White creeping up the Italian coast and in to the French Rivera, adding ingredients and techniques that are closer to Provence than the Piedmont. Since the restaurant is in a hotel the menu does have to make some concessions, at least at lunch and breakfast, to less adventurous palates. And so New York City gains another haute hamburger.
White worked with hamburger master Pat LaFrieda to come up with a custom blend for the patty. The result is a mix of chuck, brisket, short rib, and aged rib-eye. Unlike the Minetta Tavern Black Label burger, which also features dry aged rib eye, White opted to use only the meat and not the fat for the aged portion of the burger. He didn't want the over-the-top steak-like funkiness of the Black Label burger, especially because it is a lunch-only item and he felt it might be a little intense so early in the day. He did, however, want the velvety envelopment of aged meat and just a hint of the tang. Since most of the gamy flavor of dry aged meat resides in the fat, not grinding the fat into the blend helps control the funk. But rest assured that the aged beef has a distinctiveness and flavor that is unmistakable.
White originally used thick slices of white bread, which technically made the sandwich a patty melt. But this is not the reason the patty is square—White opted for the shape simply because most places don't serve patties that way. However, since the bread ultimately proved incapable of coping with the juiciness of patty, an alternative was sought. To this end he came up with a buttery roll from Pain D'Avignon, which was adopted after the official unveiling.
Being a Wisconsinite, White went with Nueske's bacon and white American cheese from his home state for his burger opus. Even the butter used to griddle the bun comes from Wisconsin. While some might have expected more exotic toppings from a three-star chef, White wanted to keep things traditional. Within the context of $19 hotel restaurant haute hamburgers, White's burger is about as classic as one can get.
In addition to the lunch-only White Label hamburger, which checks in at a buxom eight ounces, there's also a mini burger sold at the bar during evening hours for $8. It's a two-ounce miniaturized version of the White Label burger dubbed "A Taste of the White Label."