299 Bowery New York 10003 (at 1st Street; map); 212-933-5300; danielnyc.com/dbgb.html
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Three variations on the burgers, the most simple of which is the winner, but the price of admission is relatively high
Want Fries with That? Absolutely; golden, delicious and included in the price
Price: Yankee Burger, $14 (bacon and cheese $2 each); Frenchie Burger, $17; Piggie Burger, $19
As someone who misspent the better part of their adolescents loitering outside the CBGB's hardcore matinees, I have misgivings about Daniel Boulud dubbing his latest downtown venture DBGB, but not about him opening his casual, "downmarket" restaurant in the neighborhood. Years ago "we"—the kids that hung around the New York hardcore music scene and lived in the neighborhood—would have met the arrival of a place like DBGB with suspicion bordering on hostility. It would be seen as an encroachment—an invasion even—of our urban dystopia. But the reality is that we actually cleared the way for the urban renewal projects, becoming the unwitting shock troops of the developer.
As surely as CBGB's was destined to close, so was it inevitable that a four-star chef would open a restaurant selling $16 six-ounce cheeseburgers on the Bowery. I don't have a problem with that—I have come to embrace many of the effects of gentrification, my nostalgia aside. But assuming the moniker DBGB sticks in my craw a bit, despite being a rather clever name. It feels like cultural misappropriation, as if the goal is to give the venture some unwarranted (and unnecessary) street credibility. The fact is that there is virtually no connection between the Bowery that was and the Bowery that is. But enough sentimentality.
DBGB is a thoroughly modern restaurant with a sweeping bar area leading in to a rear dining room that is supposedly inspired by the restaurant supply shops that line the Bowery. The entire room is surrounded by shelves stocked with glasses and ketchup bottles, and pans with the names of famous chefs written on tags line the upper shelves. The lighting is low and the room is both stark yet oddly cluttered.
Perhaps surprisingly, Daniel Boulud's famous DB Burger from his DB Bistro Moderne does not make it on to the menu downtown. Instead Boulud does the purist a favor by putting three burgers on the menu, two of which seemed designed to prove that the third—the simplest and most classic of the bunch—provides the best experience. It reconfirms to me that the essential construction of the hamburger—white bun, cheese, beef, lettuce, tomato, onion (or any combination thereof)—provides a synthesis that has stood the test of time.
The beef is the same for all three burgers, and despite being slightly under seasoned (a surprising sin of omission) it is utterly superb. It tastes so fresh you will swear that it was ground moments before hitting the grill. All three burgers were ordered rare and were delivered as such, the coarse grind having a buttery texture with a pronounced steak-like flavor. The only knock other than the under seasoning was the lack of significant external charring on the patty, surprising considering the flames one can spy from the dining room in the semi-exposed grill station. Order your burger medium rare or medium and I think you will probably see more significant hash marks.
If you judge burgers by the beef alone the one at DBGB should be high on your hit list, although at a minimum of $14 for only six ounces the price is steep, not to mention the fact that getting a reservation at DBGB is no small feat. But I am of the school of thought that a burger should be judged in its totality and that the pedantic trappings of discussing things such as beef to bread ratios, the synthesis of ingredients, and taste itself are all essential parameters in evaluating hamburgers.
The Piggie comes piled high with barbecue master Adam Perry Lang's pulled pork from Daisy May's USA BBQ and is slathered in jalapeño mayo, topped with lettuce, and served on a cheddar-cornbread bun with mustard vinegar slaw. It tastes almost completely like a pulled pork sandwich rather than a burger. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it is as good as it is here—succulent ribbons of pork in a sweet, tangy sauce, the spicy mayo and crunchy slaw providing interesting flavor and texture contrasts—the beef is almost superfluous, having a difficult time asserting itself over the deluge of 'cue. The bread was not nearly as cornbread-like as I expected and I didn't pick up too much cheese flavor from it. In terms of meat-to-bread ratio, the five-ounce burger patty and generous portion of pork almost overwhelms the bun, but it just about contains it all.
The sandwich combines two of America truly indigenous cuisines—burgers and barbecue—but the result does not attain equilibrium between them. To put it into terms that Boulud might relate to, the Piggie is a bit like mixing beef bourguignon and coq au vin in the same dish. A word of warning about the pickled jalapeño that is skewered to the top of the burger: It is excruciatingly hot; please be careful if you eat one.
Topped with a crispy pork belly, caramelized onion, arugula, cornichon, and mustard, the Frenchie has far more beef flavor than the Piggie. In this case the additional ingredients do not steal the show as pulled pork did in the Piggie. But the supporting caste does not necessarily help the star—the hamburger patty—much either. While the caramelized onion adds a pleasing sweetness, the slight gaminess of the pork belly and the bright flavor of the arugula adds a strangely discordant element to the sandwich. I am surprised that there is no cheese offered on the Frenchie, but then in that case it would likely devolve in to a croque monsieur/hamburger hybrid. At least it isn't served on a croissant.
The most traditional and I think most pleasing—both in terms of texture and flavor—is the Yankee. It involves a simple seeded bun, lettuce, tomato, and onion—a near perfect architecture that compares most favorably to the menu's more complex offerings. The shredded lettuce is applied in sparing amounts and the slice of tomato and onion are wonderfully fresh—vibrant and crisp.
Unfortunately, the bun is a bit of a letdown. While perfectly proportioned for the patty, it is a bit on the stiff side, lacking the compliance of a traditional bun. But it is a minor quibble considering that the sandwich attains a level of synergy that escapes the other burgers on the menu.
Having praised the Yankee vis-à-vis the other offerings it is hard to ultimately recommend DBGB as a hamburger destination. The outstanding beef aside, I found the variations on the classic theme to miss the mark, at least in terms of providing a hamburger experience, although the Piggie in particular makes for good eating if you like barbecue. The Yankee, while being a very good hamburger, is just a bit too expensive for the payoff especially compared to the superb sausages (don't miss the DB dog) or some of the other menu options.
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