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Hamburger Review: Diner, Brooklyn, NY

Bohemian Rhapsody

If I had to describe Diner in two words, they would be bohemian eclectia. Dating back almost a decade, Diner certainly anticipated the burgeoning of Williamsburg as a cultural and culinary destination. The restaurant takes its name from the fact that it is situated in a 1920s Kullman diner and is certainly not named for its menu, which, aside from a few staples including a hamburger, changes nightly and is far more avant garde than the restaurant's name suggests. You won't find pancakes here, but you will find savory crepes. And, while they offer steak, it is pasture-fed and dry-aged in house.

In one of the more impressive feats of waitressing, the entire menu is memorized and recounted for each table with exacting detail. The waitress frantically scribbles each course with a pencil onto the paper that lines your table (right) as she effortlessly lists them, often giving specifics beyond just the dish, furnishing one with the knowledge of the provenance of the fresh, locally sourced seasonal ingredients and method of preparation.

The restaurant is located in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, and, despite its narrow confines, offers booth, table, and bar seating as well as outdoor dining. The decor is a heterogeneous mix of tile, glass, and metal and perfectly complements the food.

Diner has an in-house butcher who grinds all its burgers fresh. The beef is grass-fed, which, in my experience, has never made for particularly good burgers. It is not just the fact that grass-fed steer exhibit a relative leanness vis-à-vis grain-fed steer but also that the fat itself is different, often exhibiting a yellow hue that is the result of the beta carotene is present in the feed. The fat of grass-fed beef is reportedly very high in the healthy and desirable omega 3 fatty acids and renders differently than grain-fed fat. It does not respond well to intense heat, instead requiring a more gentle approach lest it dry out and toughen. "Grain-fed" is actually a bit of a misnomer, as almost all cattle are pasture-fed for at least some of their life, grain being introduced after about nine months to increase the marbling in the animal. "Grain-finished" is probably a more accurate description of the process. That is not to say that grass-fed beef cannot exhibit good marbling, but it is just easier to achieve with grain.

The burger at Diner is large—probably more than 8 ounces—and is grilled. Aside from some tasty but ultimately superfluous pickled onions, the burger comes dressed only with a simple leaf of lettuce and the option of a hearty slice of white cheddar, along with a side of fries. Although I prefer American cheese on my burgers, I can see why it is not on offer here (or indeed at most any restaurant that has high culinary aspirations), for there is nothing remotely gourmet or artisanal about it. That said, I think that white cheddar works quite well as long as it is not too sharp. I recently had a burger with a white cheddar so overpowering that it obscured the flavor of the beef itself. Fortunately that is not the case at Diner; the tangy, nutty cheese complemented the burger perfectly.

The large and puffy bun, from Amy's Bread, is well-suited to its task, and while it conforms perfectly to the large patty, it is also robust enough to absorb the stream of juices that emanate from the beef. That's right, I said juices. I find that grass-fed beef has generally been less juicy than grain-finished beef, but that is not the case here. The patty was succulent to the point at which it left the bottom of the bun completely soaked, looking as if it had been French dipped in au jus.

I think having an in-house butcher who understands the beef makes all the difference. Not only is the fat-to-lean ratio just about perfect but the patty itself is wonderfully fluffy, and, dare I say, light and airy, more like steak tartare than the meatloaf texture that I normally associate with grass-fed burgers. I ordered my burger rare, and it was delivered perfectly cooked, although it could have used a touch more external char. If you order your burgers medium-rare, I think you will be delighted by the results, and even at medium, I can see this burger being juicy and delectable. The flavor of the beef was hearty and clean and much closer to grain-finished steer than other grass-fed burgers I have had, lacking the distinct earthiness that grass can impart. The Diner burger has certainly made me reevaluate my prior prejudice against grass-fed burgers. I should also mention that the fries, despite looking rather pale, were crisp with a tender interior, and they actually tasted like potatoes.

I think the Diner burger is so good because of its simplicity. A good-quality bun, a slice of cheese, and fresh-ground, well-seasoned perfectly cooked beef. No truffle oil or foie gras, no fancy ingredients, nothing to bloat either the palate or the reasonable $12 price tag. Just an honest burger at a good price using fresh local produce. This is what you expect at a diner. Who could ask for more? Certainly not I.

Diner, 85 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY 1124


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