Back Forty West
70 Prince St., New York NY 10012 (map); 212-219-8570; backfortynyc.com
Short Order: A potentially great burger that falls short with peripheral dryness
Want Fries with That? Sure—fresh cut and well-cooked, but not earth-shattering
Price: Grass Fed Burger, $12; +$2 for cheese, Heritage bacon; add fries, $2; basket of fries $6
Close your eyes for a moment and let these terms evoke some mental imagery: "Slow Food," "locavore," "farm-to-table." What do you see? A bearded Brooklyn chef cooking some glorified cornish hen that came from less than 20 miles away? A $20 plate of seasonal vegetables? Or perhaps Alice Waters crouching in a garden? Well, maybe you see none of these—but I'm pretty certain that almost nobody has imagined a hamburger.
In theory, a standard burger—fatty beef cooked fast and topped with American cheese, forgettable veg and mass-produced condiments—goes against nearly everything the so-called locavore restaurants stand for. Nevertheless, these restaurants are bold enough to experiment with farm-to-table burgers on their menus. In fact, Peter Hoffman, one of the original innovators of Slow Food, offers a grass fed burger ($12) at his Back Forty restaurants in Lower Manhattan. Ed loved the burger at Savoy (Hoffman's original restaurant in this location) back in 2010, so I was particularly excited to give BackForty's version a shot.
Back Forty's primary mission is to provide accessible and affordable organic meals while maintaining "farm-to-table ethics." The website literature even goes so far to claim that "at its core, Back Forty is a burger joint." The woody décor didn't necessarily scream "burger joint," but the patrons seemed happy enough. I placed my order without hesitation; when my waitress swiftly delivered squeeze bottle of deep red, earthy-looking ketchup, however, I couldn't help but cringe a bit.
Arriving open-faced with veggies on the side, the burger itself certainly looked appealing. Although many AHT'ers deride cheddar for its melting issues, the slice of sharp white Cabot was melted (but not gloopy) and seemed to hug the patty like a tight sweater. Underneath the cheese, a pleasantly plump eight-ounce grass-fed beef patty boasted some beautiful browning from the grill—dark and crusty, but not burnt in any way. The commercial-looking Orwasher bun, additionally, had a light toast on it that just crisped it up around the edges.
As I cut the burger in half and saw a medium-rare center with sad, grey edges, I realized what I was dealing with: Back Forty's burger suffers from grass-feditis. There is a seemingly constant (though still inconclusive) dialogue on AHT regarding the merits of grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef. In simplest terms, grass-fed cows seem to produce more complex-tasting, beefier meat with less marbling (lower overall fat content). Back Forty claims their blend (mainly trimmings from in-house butchered half steers) is 80/20, although sourcing beef from three different New York State farms doesn't scream consistency.
Here, the fat deficit led to significant dryness on the burger's periphery. There is a chance that my doneness issues were an isolated incident. The more likely scenario, however, is that the cooks, working with a hot grill, face a tradeoff between rare insides and crusty outsides. Couple these cooking issues with the generally higher cost of grass-fed beef (a similar-sized burger costs $7.50 at two8two), and the burger's main ingredient becomes its own worst enemy. In other words: grass-feditis.
Nonetheless, my first bite, which I took from the burger's rarer center, was absolutely delicious. The well seasoned, crusty and subtly grill-flavored outside gave way to an intensely beefy inside. Combining the juiciness of a fatty burger blend with the funky mineral punch of grass-fed beef, this blissful bite hinted at what my burger could have been had it not suffered from overcooking. Though I could have added mixed lettuce, pickles and red onion, I found that the cheese was a sufficient topping for the burger. The sharp, aged Vermont cheddar complemented the beef well, though it wasn't present enough to distract from the overcooked edges.
Beyond the patty, the Orwasher "potato" bun ultimately tasted like simple, dry white bread (which in turn compounded the patty's issues). I would have turned to condiments to save the burger, but the three housemade condiments (which I sampled with french fries) were all quite flawed. On one hand, the magenta ketchup had a rich, deep one-note tomato flavor, but it lacked Heinz's vinegary tartness. Furthermore, the house mayo had great texture, but little flavor. Finally, the Dijon mustard tasted only of horseradish, as unpleasantly potent as the fake wasabi one finds in supermarket sushi.
My side of rosemary fries (+$2), however, was a more consistently pleasing affair. Although fries of this vein are rather standard at self-respecting NYC restaurants, the fresh-cut spuds were cooked until crispy and liberally salted. The fried batches of rosemary (rather than individual leaves) were also nice to bite into, though I wish I'd had some Heinz on the side instead of the trio of housemade condiments (in the end I mixed ketchup and mayo for a somewhat satisfying dipping sauce).
What's the take away? If you're at BackForty and want to order the burger, order it rare. But if you're seeking a destination worthy $12 hamburger, perhaps you should make the trip to Roberta's, where cheese, fries (and an "insanely tasty" hamburger) are included in the price.