341 St Nicholas Ave, New York NY 10027 (map); 212-222-9224; maisonharlem.com
Cooking Method: grilled
Short Order: A thick, juicy, well-seasoned burger served with no frills on a buttery toasted brioche bun.
Want Fries With That? Usually. When the restaurant is crowded, they can run a little greasy.
Price: $10.50, with salad and fries
Maison Harlem over on 127th and St. Nicholas is fast becoming my favorite neighborhood hang. The food—mostly classic Paris-style bistro fare like duck confit, steak tartare, escargot, and hanger steak—is nothing innovative, but solid enough to earn my money. The space is warm, a friendly neighborhood bar with worn-in tables and bar seats—the kind of space you'd expect in, say, the West Village, minus the oppressive crowds and loud music. Here it's mostly rock and jazz (the latter live a few nights a week).
And they've got a killer burger to boot.
I'm not the biggest fan of hefty burgers, nor grilled burgers, for that matter. Too often the juices end up dripping into the grate, so you end up with either a dried out burger (even when medium-rare), or a burger that's charred on the outside but raw and mushy in the center. It takes a careful hand at the grill to get a burger that's evenly pink throughout while still building up a decent amount of grilled flavor without drying it out.
Maison Harlem manages it exceptionally well. The meat, so far as I know, is an un-pedigreed blend of chuck (that is, it ain't LaFrieda or Creekstone or any of those other big NYC names), but it's nevertheless very juicy and meaty, its flavored bolstered by ample char and plenty of seasoning (this is, after all, a French restaurant, where seasoning is king).
You can order it with cheese (Gruyère, cheddar, or Roquefort), caramelized onions, mushrooms, or bacon (all for between $1.50 and $2 each), but this is a rare occasion in which I actually enjoy the unadorned burger more than the cheesed-up version.
The bun is a not-too-firm brioche toasted in butter, and holds up just well enough to get you through to the end of the burger without making too much of a mess. A normal white burger bun wouldn't be able to handle this large and juicy a patty.
Fries at Maison Harlem are for the most part great, though I've had a few soggy experiences, usually when the restaurant is crowded. I chalk it up to an overworked fryer that loses temperature when there are too many fries being cooked. If you make it on a weeknight or during lunch, I'd expect your fries to be excellent, like these greaseless, well-seasoned skinny fries were.
The best part is dipping them in the homemade mayo that you are obliged to order (yes, obliged. This is, once again, a French restaurant. They fuckin' drown'em in that shit). It's extra thick and creamy, with a good amount of black pepper. If I were you, I'd spread it on my burger as well.
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.