Peoria, Illinois, is often considered the most average city in America, its population perfectly representing mainstream Midwestern and, by extension, American values. The oft-posed refrain "Will it play in Peoria?" actually dates back to the Vaudeville era but has now become synonymous with marketers looking to appeal to a broad section of the American population. It thus speaks volumes that celebrity chef Bobby Flay decided to open the first of his intended national burger chain in the upscale digs of the Smith Haven Mall on Long Island, in Lake Grove, New York. Bobby's Burger Palace (BBP) opened in July and conceptually, at least, it is an amalgam of both a fast food joint and a diner-style restaurant, it is a balance that is perhaps difficult to achieve and the potential for schizophrenia is distinct.
While BBP is situated within the confines of the mall, adjacent to the food court, it is only accessible from the building's exterior, there is no entrance leading from inside the mall itself. There is a distinct paucity of signage in the mall indicating where BBP actually is, the floor plan still indicates that the restaurant is "coming soon" and I found no other mention of the spot elsewhere. When I did finally find the restaurant I was impressed both by the clean, uncluttered modern design and the large crowd that was amassed at the entrance way. I got there around 1 p.m. during a Friday lunch hour.
The room is brightly lit, spacious and clean. A large corrugated counter undulates through the room dividing it almost in half, mirrored above by a similarly shaped light fixture. On one side there are several tables offering additional seating and the self serve soda station, on the counters other side lies the closed kitchen which one can only glimpse at through the narrow service windows. The counter is quite tall and deep and offers extremely generous space between patrons as well as plush stools, it is obvious that comfort was more important than maximizing counter space.
The crowd that I encountered was, unfortunately for the restaurant, a bit of an illusion. While I thought that I would have to wait for a table, by the time I made it in to the register it became obvious that a lot of the tables were empty and that the crowd was more the result of only one register being open and confusion about the ordering system on the part of the customers. Or potential customers—I witnessed at least three parties indignantly storm out after standing around for a few minutes seemingly no closer to ordering than when they entered. Losing customers because you have no room is one thing, losing them because they are ignorant of the ordering system and because only one of three registers is operating should be cause for concern. The real problem when entering BBP is that there is no instruction of how one should proceed when there is a glut of people obscuring the registers. Rather than funneling the patrons into a line, the spacious foyer leads to confused, ambling crowd. The large menus hanging from the wall facing the entrance are actually hard to see from the register and while there are paper menus available they are not located by the registers but instead in a little island. A simple rope would have sufficed in directing the crowd toward the register, looping it around the island, past the menu.
When you finally get to order you are given a small tag with a number on it as well as cups for soda, while the food, milkshakes and alcoholic beverages (BBP serves wine and beer) is delivered by waiter, you must schlep your own water and soft drinks. The number system will be familiar to anyone who has eaten at Brgr. You find a seat and put your number on the table. A server then brings you your food. It is a system that works relatively well at Brgr because the numbers are placed on the end of a pole and are thus visible from across the dining room. Unfortunately at BBP the numbers are very short and are easily obscured by soda glasses and condiments making it harder on the wait staff to find you and delaying your meal. The numbers are not the only problem with service, my food was delivered without napkins, and it took a few minutes before I could flag down one of the frantic waitresses who were doubtlessly seeking out those elusive numbers. More egregiously, my milkshake sat in the service window for almost my whole meal, I had to finally ask for it and by the time it arrived the whipped cream topping had completely deflated.
The menu at BBP is relatively expansive offering Angus beef burgers, turkey burgers and chicken breast sandwiches in 10 styles as well as fries, rings, chips, milkshakes in numerous flavors, sodas and the aforementioned beer and wine. The burger styles range from the relatively familiar to the more esoteric. The Palace Classic Burger($6.50) for example comes served with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onion. The Bobby Blue Burger features blue cheese and bacon and the trademarked Crunchburger ($7.50) is served with a heaping topping of potato chips and a double order of American cheese. The regionally named burgers, all priced at $7.50, are where Flay's chef background manifests itself. The Dallas Burger is spice crusted and served with coleslaw, Monterey Jack cheese, barbecue sauce sauce, and pickles, the Napa Valley Burgercomes with goat cheese, watercress, and lemon-honey mustard, and the L.A. Burgeris dressed with avocado relish, watercress, and cheddar.
Variations on the theme are all well and good, but I always go for the basic cheeseburger (above) to properly determine what is going on under the bun. I had high hopes for BBP, not because Flay is a chef but because he recently named the J. G. Melon burger as his favorite example of the breed. The fact that Flay adopted the griddle, rather than the perhaps more obvious grill, also bolstered my enthusiasm. I say obvious because Flay is well known for his use of the grill.
I ended up ordering a Palace Classic Burger (above) and, out of sheer curiosity, the Crunchburger as well as fries and a vanilla malted milkshake. The food came out in a relatively timely manner, aside from the aforementioned milkshake. I was somewhat disappointed by the presentation of the Classic Burger, the top bun was rather squished and the rabbit food was sloppily strewn on top. The large leaf of lettuce had way too much stem and dwarfed the patty although I will grant that the ingredients appeared to be quite fresh.
The Crunchburger looked better, a pile of potato chips seemingly floating above the patty, which positively oozed with melted cheese. Looks aside, the proof is always in the tasting, and despite my intent to try the basic burger first, curiosity got the better of me and I went for the Crunch. The sandwich stays together far better than I anticipated, the bun conforms nicely around the chips on the top and the double order of cheese cements them from the bottom. Of course there will be some shedding of chips but it is minimal. In a recent interview Flay stated "a burger should be about flavor and moistness" unfortunately the patty on the Crunchburger lacked either attribute. In fact it was overcooked. Perhaps I have understated things, it was incinerated to the point that it was utterly flavorless. I knew that Suffolk County Health Department regulations require cooking to 158°F, which roughly translates into medium, but my burger seemed as if it were cooked closer to 250°F. While I usually go rare on my burgers, I can appreciate a burger at medium as long as it is moist and flavorful. When I ordered, I was quite specific that I wanted the burger as rare as possible and was assured that it would be medium. In fact I was told that all burgers came that way unless requested well-done. The health department requirements aside, I think the culprit may be the fact that a large dome is placed on top of the burgers to, as a sign in the kitchen extols "melt the cheese completely." A double order of cheese needs more dome time than a single, and perhaps in my case the dome was placed too late to both melt the cheese and ensure a correctly cooked burger. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the crunch part of the burger more if the patty had been juicy, but since there was little contrast in texture between the beef and chips, I didn't think that it added anything to the sandwich. I did not finish the burger, it was that overcooked. Perhaps if someone had asked my how my food was, I might have said something, but I was completely ignored after my food was delivered.
The Classic burger was better, but not by much. It too was mostly overcooked save for the very middle, which showed some real potential. Whereas the circumference was cooked all the way through, the inner core had a nice pink hue and was very succulent. When I compressed the bun, juice bubbled up from the core like a molten geyser, and this part of the burger had good flavor and texture. The burger probably had an 80-20 lean-to-fat ratio and was quite finely ground. The bread, a perfectly proportioned generic white bun, received a nice toasting. The cheese was, as per Flay's instruction, completely melted. In short, it could have been a very good burger but for the overcooked beef. Again, I blame the dome, as it seemed to steam the burger beyond the desired temperature.
The fries were OK and reminded me a bit of the ones at Shake Shack, being crinkle cut and quite crisp, but as at the Shack, they did not appear to be fresh and had a prefab quality to them. They were reasonably priced at $2.50. The shake, aside from the deflated whipped cream, was decent with a subtle malt flavor but was perhaps a bit thick. I fully concur with GQ food writer Alan Richman when he states that people have become to accustomed to the "fake (milkshakes) at fast-food joints," a milkshake should be easy to drink with a straw. I advise you to forgo the whipped cream.
BBP has only been open for a about a month, and I only made one visit but would still expect that the fundamentals of burgercraft, such as correctly cooking the patty to temperature, to be nailed down. I will make a return visit in the near future because the quality of the ingredients is beyond reproach, the room is clean and spacious, and the potential for a great burger is apparent. Unfortunately in my experience the execution of the menu and the logistics of actually dining at BBP leave much to be desired.