Peering through my looking glass, a once formidable cocktail whose specifics elude me at this juncture, I find my mind fluttering and, most importantly, my stomach growling. Mind you, this isn’t on account of an empty belly; rather, I’ve bellied up at one of the most notable gastro pubs in the world. I’ve finally made my way over to the Michelin rated Minetta Tavern, and before I can even sit down, I can tell I’m going to be a better man for it.
In 2009, when proprietor Keith McNally (of Balthazar ilk) introduced New York to this Art Deco era bistro homage, the praise came quickly, often, and adoringly. No doubt chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr had a lot to do with that. As such, by the time I walked into the door some three-months ago, I had very few misgivings as to what was on deck.
Now back to my out of body moment. It took me no time at all to secure a single stool at the bar. As I had walked in just as the turn from dinner to supper took place, the restaurant was only four-fifths full. Had I visited back in the early days, I would have been waiting out in the cold like droves of other folks. At least now, after all the hype and all the praise, you have a decent chance of finding a spot. Of course it helps if you show up at 12:10 in the AM. If that’s not in the cards, I’d still suggest you stick with the classic method (via phone only).
As for the digs, Minetta Tavern is cool. The type of cool that knows it’s cool and doesn’t need to tell you twice, let alone once. 70-seats amongst two rooms fill this updated 1930s restaurant space that still holds onto a number of its classic features. A black and white checkered-floor and caricature lined walls add to the ambiance that have transported me, at least in the idealized sense, back to years well before my time.
And while I’m processing all of this, the barkeep, a friendly chap who hails from either Ireland or Scotland, is feeding me several high-end samples of classic cocktails. I’m slurping as fast as I can; they are worthy of any beverage gourmand’s attention, and time is short. [Note: Ireland & Scotland aren’t interchangeable, I just can’t remember. So to all my friends du tater and my friends du haggis – apologies]
I’m comfortable, I’m drinking, and I’m really excited to sample something off the abbreviated late night menu. It occurs to me that this place isn’t about being comfortable (though I am). I don’t even think it’s about the cool (though it is). No, it’s about the chill. The employees and patrons of Minetta, at least from where I’m sitting, are much more concerned about the time they are having than who is there to look at them. I’m home.
After 12am, the menu gets shorter (not that it’s extensive in the first place) but no less impressive. Things like roasted bone marrow ($17) and oxtail and foie gras terrine ($16) are available. Or … I could go for Minetta’s eponymous burger for $17, or their take on the finer things, a much discussed black label burger. Black label it is.
So Pat La Frieda and Nasr-Hanson have assembled a high-grade, highly marbled, thick-cut disk of heavy hitter ingredients. There’s some dry aged rib-eye in this, some skirt steak, and some brisket [explained here]. Fuck me! This burger is basically a Kentucky transplant (courtesy of Creekstone Farms) and I understand why it’s $26 … it’s in the dry-aging and the plancha (close cousin to the griddle).
Carefully set in between a sesame seed brioche bun and some deeply brown (aka caramelized) onions, I’m starring at this high-brow of high-brow burgers. It’s been way built up, and I’m just short of tanked … so I rip in. Don’t forget, I’m on cocktail number who knows what, so please excuse the unsteady hand! Oh yeah, that cocktail (whatever it was) fit my burger like a sexy red teddy fit …
First things first, it’s fudging delicious … for a burger. I don’t mean that as an insult or a backhanded compliment. Seriously, I offended that burger’s right to privacy and it kicked both the crap and the nuts out of any $40 A5 I’ve had (but maybe not this guy’s) . The black label burger has received so much attention, so much care, so much of everything that it just seems a little closer to earth than reputation dictates.
It’s salty, it’s crispy, the onions maintain the perfect amount of tension, and the ratios are a lesson in ingredient assembly. But it is eerily reminiscent of a steak [Boy, Minetta’s Côtes de Boeuf must be some kind of bad ass]. There’s a strong sense of tang and funk in my perfectly medium-rare burger and it’s a worthy flavor no doubt. The example fits the description, but not the profile.
When you find yourself in front of an “airified” dish, flavors and textures can often wash away any context for an analysis. With something like a burger, no matter how high brow it may be, there is that sense of familiarity. There is no momentary lapse of joy, only an analytical bug up my ass where the thought meets the gravel. I want a burger to pine at my heart, not my inner snob. I ordered what I got and I got what I ordered, but the gap between this high quality burger and an incredibly good quality burger is much smaller than the gap from a similar lobster comparative.
So I work my way through the fantastic pile of pommes frites, a few more beverages, and my neighborly conversation. Turns out, they know a relative of mine from Boston … the chances of that have got to be off the charts, so the three of us become fast friends and set off into the cold New York night.
Hand me that plate and I’ll hand you $26 without a bat of the eye, but Minetta Tavern has a lot up it’s sleeve. Minetta … you had me at hello and you got me back with goodbye. See you soon my new found friend!