321 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York NY 10027 (cornersocialnyc.com)
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Great meat, but everything else is pretty terrible
Want Fries With That? No; overcooked, yet limp
Price: Cheeseburger Spring Rolls, $11; burger, $14; w/cheese or bacon, +$2
I've been keeping my eye on Corner Social, a new bar/restaurant on 126th and Lenox, ever since they first revealed their renovations a couple months ago. A the time, the space was called Lenox Social (a much better name, not sure why they changed it), and it was open only for drinks and a few appetizers. The staff has been consistently friendly and the space is well-designed: plenty of outdoor seating, a handsome bar and low tables, and space for the inevitable small groups of dancers that appear in Harlem restaurants. Of primary interest to AHT on their menu was the Cheeseburger Spring Rolls, an odd item that seemed to have the potential to be good if executed well.
New Yorkers got their first taste of cheeseburger spring rolls—that's ground beef and cheese stuffed into a deep-fried Chinese spring roll wrapper—back in 2008 at Delicatessen, the trendy SoHo diner helmed by chef Doron Wong (now Michael Ferraro) that is as much about high fashion and design (how many other restaurants do you know that list their grand consultants, architects, and mural painters on their website?) as it is about the food. Page Six—the New York Post's magazine—called the things "a new classic", which left some of us here at AHT...scratching our heads. Do these confused appetizers really need to exist?
I mean, there's no doubt that there are some great examples of things-stuffed-in-spring-roll-wrappers that work marvelously. First in my mind would be the awesome Katz's pastrami-stuffed spring rolls at RedFarm in the West Village. Crisp skins and a salty-smoky pastrami filling balanced by fresh vegetables and a tangy-hot mustard dipping sauce.
But at Corner Social? Unfortunately, the things are nearly inedible. A filling consisting of nothing but greasy beef and cheese stuffed into a thin wrapper that's fried to a perfect limpness, there's nothing fresh or bright to balance out the unrelenting heaviness. The plate comes with a big smear of "Bacon Aioli," which tastes of neither bacon nor garlic. Indeed, it's distinguishable from the pasty fava bean purée served under a truly terrible Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Salad ($11) only by its color (one was white, the other was puke green).
Add to that a handful of sloppily shredded, undressed iceberg lettuce and a few random shards of under-ripe tomato that look like they accidentally landed on the plate, and you have one big hot mess of an appetizer.
It's not worth getting into (or ordering) the rest of the menu, which ranges from poor to terrible other than a decent fresh Jumbo Lump Crabcake ($20) and a Social Burger ($14) with good chargrilled, juicy beef served on a terribly inadequate, squished bun with more of that limp shredded iceberg and underripe tomato along with a meager handful of fries that manage to be overcooked yet limp at the same time.
You're far better off going across the street to Chez Lucienne, which serves an excellent burger with great crisp skinny fries for $2 less.
It's saddening to me, because the great space and awesome service makes me see the potential for a truly great neighborhood spot. The restaurant is great, but someone needs to hire a new chef, stat.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.