Stage Restaurant: Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

"Try to resist the impulse to press down on the patties with a spatula while they're cooking. This not only presses the juices right out of them, it compresses the meat, and that combination defeats the point of everything you've done up until this point" —Kenny Shopsin

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Stage Restaurant

128 Second Avenue, New York 10003; map); 212-473-8614
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A potentially great hamburger ruined by being pressed into the griddle with merciless force
Want Fries with That?Not available. Choice of home fries or boiled or mashed potatoes
Price: Cheeseburger, $4.40; $5.70, deluxe

Stage Restaurant occupies a tiny sliver of real estate next to the seemingly eternal and infernal production of Stomp. When the show lets out the crowd that spills onto Second Avenue virtually obscures the little diner's entrance from view, the only indication that it exists being the weather-worn sign that hangs above the storefront. The sign is very useful because it indicates that the Stage is not only a restaurant but one that serves food, specifically dairy and meat. Despite the fact that it looks about 50 years old, Stage actually dates to 1980. The room is a classic lunch counter with an open kitchen facing the only seats available—a tidy row of stools. The interior is worn to a dull patina, and the menu, despite some expected price hikes, is as classic as the place—Polish comfort foods (pierogis, blintzes, stuffed cabbage) are listed along traditional American diner fare—eggs, sandwiches, and hamburgers.

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I immediately sensed the potential for a great hamburger when I walked into Stage and plopped down on one of the stools as close to the griddle as possible. The place just exudes the aura of a wellspring for burger perfection. It is thoroughly nondescript, completely utilitarian in form and function, and, despite the ascension of the surrounding neighborhood to bourgeoisie-dom, it remains thoroughly rooted in the past. It is perhaps the last of the pure breed of Eastern European restaurants that once proliferated in the East Village in the days when the neighborhood was referred to as the Lower East Side. Kiev and Leshko's are distant memories, Odessa has adapted by adding a late-night bar, and Veselka serves an elevated, fancyfied slant on Ukrainian cooking—Slavic food would have a far better reputation if it all tasted like Veselka's recipes.

I was heartened to see the cook at Stage take out a plate from the refrigerator that was stacked high with fresh-looking hamburger patties. It resembled a giant stack of pancakes. I asked him where the beef came from and if it was frozen. "My boss gets it fresh every day from butcher," he replied in a thick Polish accent.

His accent might have been thick, but the burgers were quite the opposite—fast-food thin, but since they probably weigh seven ounces, they have a large surface area. Proportionally it is not an ideal shape, especially if you want your burger rare or medium-rare. But I have been wrong before; the burger at Veselka is similarly apportioned and is a rousing success. Out of sheer whimsy I ordered my burger medium-rare, as opposed to my regular order of rare. Things looked promising, as the burger sizzled when it hit the flat-top and the cook deposited the large, seeded bun on the griddle alongside the burger to toast.

I have sat in front of enough griddles to sense when burgers are done. As soon as the thought that the burger needed flipping crossed my mind, the cook, almost psychically, flipped it in a rapid, effortless motion. This guy knows his stuff, I thought. That may be, but he wandered off, leaving the waitress to manage the griddle. Things went precipitously downhill from this point on. She left the burger alone for a few minutes, in fact a little longer than I would have liked, and I was beginning to fear the worst—that the burger might be a tad overcooked.

As it turned out, something far worse happened. The waitress next picked up the spatula and turned it from an artist's implement to one of grotesque medieval torture—she mercilessly pressed down on the poor patty with all her might. I let out an involuntary "No," my voice equal parts shock and horror.

Juices spewed from the rapidly desiccating burger and evaporated in a steaming, spluttering spectacle. It looked like a broken steam valve. To add insult to injury, she flipped the burger and applied the same torture to the other side. Next she placed a single slice of American cheese on the burger and covered it with a sauce-pan lid. At this point I knew all was lost. With a single action defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.

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When the burger was placed in front of me I knew that it was a lost cause. My fears where confirmed by the first bite—completely cooked through and somewhat mealy, the patty was flattened, rendering the beef-to-bun ratio hopelessly skewed in favor of the bread, and any fluffiness that the fresh patty might have had was a mere pipe dream. The bread, even if the burger was not flattened to pancake proportions, might be a bit too big for even a properly cooked burger, but it was otherwise a fine vessel for a burger—golden-domed, lightly dusted with sesame seeds, and perfectly burnished. The beef was rather underseasoned but otherwise had the classic ground chuck flavor.

Under normal circumstances I would have sent the burger back but was pressed for time and had to leave. The burger benefited from the addition of salt and yellow mustard (I have turned the corner on ketchup, I finally see what George Motz is talking about when it comes to the red versus the yellow stuff). I sense there is a potentially great burger at Stage Restaurant. Certainly the formula is there—griddle-cooked fresh ground beef, American cheese, and a generic seeded bun. Now if they could only restrain themselves from pressing down on the patty, the burger's true potential might be realized.