If nothing else, Whitman's deserves credit for their dedication to Burger Craft. The small burger joint—they have a a handful of seats on the top floor and some more downstairs—sources their beef from no less than three different vendors (including one that doesn't even deliver—they pick it up themselves) and their bread from at least two. Further, they employ three different cooking techniques while drawing inspiration from a variety of regional styles. This would all be for naught if their burgers were lackluster, but aside from one curious composition I found the opposite to be the case. There's some original thinking going on here, while still honoring the hamburgers storied and illustrious past. Take Whitman's Juicy Lucy for example. It's not the classic version popularized at Matt's Bar and the 5-8 Club in Minneapolis. Rather, it's an amalgam of the Midwestern Juicy Lucy and the pimento cheese burger popular in the South, but proves a worthy homage to both. Pimento cheese for the uninitiated is a mixture of cheese (typically sharp cheddar), pimento peppers, and mayonnaise which is typically placed on top of, rather than inside, a burger patty.
Heed the warning on the menu: The Juicy Lucy is extremely hot and it might squirt.
A short rib blend sourced from Pat La Frieda is stuffed with pimento cheese and then griddled. Unlike many cheese stuffed burgers that need to be cooked well done to ensure that the cheese inside melts fully, the mayonnaise in the pimento cheese allows it to melt quicker and thus one can get a medium burger with a melted center. This is highly desirable when the beef is as good as it is in Whitman's Juicy Lucy.
The Walt is Whitman's priciest offering: a $15 dry aged grass fed beef patty sourced from The Meat Hook. It comes with lettuce and tomato on a Blue Ribbon bakery bun and a side of fries. Cheese adds a buck, bacon two. I don't think you'll need either. Unlike the other burgers on the menu which are griddled, this one is grilled because that's how butcher Tom Mylan of The Meat Hook recommended they cook it. Those looking for an extremely funky blue cheese-like flavor to the beef will be disappointed. Rather, it has a very clean, fresh flavor. It's arguably more purely beefy than a more funky dry age product, but perhaps not as complex. The resulting burger is most evocative of a backyard cookout—the beef getting a nice charring and some pronounced hatch marks along with a smoky sweetness from the grill. The bun is equally good: Spongy and fresh, it's a perfect match for the beef both structurally and texturally.
About the only disappointment I experienced at Whitman's was the dreadful PB&B; Burger. It combines bacon and peanut butter—the culinary refuge of scoundrels and the lazy. Add either one to a dish and you don't have to work much beyond that. Especially when it's applied in the quantities that I was given on my burger—I could taste little aside from peanut butter and what little else I could taste was bacon. The organic peanut butter would have been delicious on a slice of Pullman bread with a schmear of jam from the Farmer's Market, and the bacon was a worthy addition to a breakfast plate. But on the burger they completely masked the taste of the beef itself. If you love bacon and peanut butter and hate the taste of beef this is the burger for you.
But all was forgiven when I bit into the Upstate Burger. The beef is grass fed, sourced from yet another vendor than the Juicy or the Walt. Served on a potato roll with American cheese it looks like a Shake Shack burger, but it doesn't taste like one. It's not quite a juicy and not nearly as sweet but it has a more savory taste—a hearty, earthy beefiness. It had a superb salty, thick crust. It was matched perfectly to the potato roll and didn't require the lettuce, tomato, onion and special sauce that come standard with it. It's a delicious hamburger by any measure and particularly impressive considering its use of grass fed beef.
The sides are uniformly excellent. The fries and fried pickles might be the most obvious choices, but don't miss the crack kale.
Apart from the PB&B; I loved the other burgers at Whitman's. They were all cooked to order—rare on the Walt and Upstate, medium on the Juicy Lucy and PB&B;—and they all came out correct. While the Juicy Lucy might garner the most attention, and it is admittedly one of the most original burgers I have tried lately, I found the understated simplicity of the Upstate to be my favorite. The Walt was also very good, but I prefer griddled over grilled, and if I'm going to spring for dry aged prices I want it to be funky and blue cheesy. The Walt is far too restrained in this regard for my taste.
406 East 9th Street New York NY 10009