Savoy, At Lunch: The Best Burger in New York? No Cheese, Please
70 Prince Street, New York NY 10012 (map); 212-219-8570; savoynyc.com
Service: Casual but attentive
Setting: Small, comfortable, minimally decorated dining room
Must-Haves: Burger (not a cheeseburger), merguez sandwich, fried duck livers, coffee 'n cream terrine
Grade: A for the hamburger, B/B+ for the rest of the lunch menu
Here's a lede that's sure to generate controversy: In the last ten years New York has become the burger capital of America, and therefore the world. I would argue that thanks to the laser-like focus on burgers by New York's large and hugely competitive chef and restaurateur community, no other city (not even Los Angeles) offers burger lovers the breadth and depth of the burger offerings found in Gotham. But let us argue this point elsewhere. I only offer this bit of provocative burger punditry as a vehicle to extoll the virtues of a new discovery, the burger served only at lunch at Savoy—chef Peter Hoffman's about-to-be twenty year-old Soho restaurant. One that deserves a place in New York's burger pantheon.
I discovered Savoy's burger at a recent business lunch; had another at a second business lunch; sent my discerning burger-loving brother there to get an outsider's considered opinion; and finally, after the Savoy burger passed all these tests with flying colors, I brought the Serious Eats crew there for lunch—where four of us took up 15% of the seats in the small, minimalist, downstairs, street-level dining room.
Did we have a burger? Oh yes, we did, but we also had a whole lot more. And it turns out that Hoffman and his executive chef turn out quite an impressive lunch service—on or off a bun.
Like any chef-derived burger in New York, this one has a very specific provenance. Hoffman has been a local and sustainable food advocate for years, well before it has become de rigeur to say and do so. So it's no surprise that his burger is derived from a mostly grass-fed cow finished on grain by Josh Applestone and his cleaver-yielding minions at Fleisher's Meats in Kingston, New York. Half the cow goes to Shanna Pacifico, the chef de cuisine at Hoffman's other restaurant, Back Forty, and the other half goes to Ryan Tate, her counterpart at Savoy. (Having I taste-tested both burgers on the same day, I much prefer Savoy's)
What makes Tate's burger ($15 with fries and no toppings) so great? Two to four weeks of dry-aging gives the meat a fabulous pronounced funky, minerally, almost nutty flavor. Tate adds freshly ground short rib into the meat mixture, and that short rib adds a whole other level of fatty, beefy, juicy deliciousness. Also, the grind is just right at Savoy—not too mealy and not too fine—and that makes a huge difference as well. The bun is a mercifully thin Tomcat brioche bun.
Of the three times I've had this burger, on two occasions it was so good I wouldn't bet against it in a burger competition with the Minetta Tavern's $26 Black Label burger. Alas, the last time I had the Savoy burger it wasn't all that juicy because it didn't have enough fat. Is that due to the vagaries and resulting lack of consistency in the flavor and texture of cows mostly fed on grass? Could be.
The burger comes with terrific, salty fries that severely tested my self-imposed six-to-eight fry limit, and house-cured thin slices of half-sour pickle. This burger has so much flavor it needs no cheese or bacon to top it. In fact, the cheddar cheese Savoy offers as a topping is so good that it becomes an unnecessary distraction that ends up competing with the meat itself. I am normally a huge cheeseburger advocate (I even like the pre-cooked and reheated cheeseburgers served on Continental Airlines), but the Savoy burger needs no cheese.
Oh yes, they do have other things on the lunch menu at Savoy. A wonderful house-made lamb merguez sausage sandwich ($15), for one, which comes with a black olive tapenade, cardamom yogurt, and shaved vegetable salad.
And a rotating collection of small plates that you can order individually ($6.50) or in groups of three ($16). I loved two of the three dips we tried, a roasted beet and goat cheese dip that looks just like the Gold's horseradish my aunt used to serve us with gefilte fish; and a splendid Greek potato spread enlivened by fresh garlic and pureed almonds. An underseasoned watercress and ricotta spread just needed some salt to brighten its flavor up.
Lack of salt and underseasoning undermined a few of the other small plates—the caramelized Tokyo turnips with pea coulis, the freekeh with radishes, cucumber, and mint yogurt, and even the sauteed greens with chili, lemon, and garlic.
Two other small plates certainly didn't lack for flavor. Braised maple bacon with a little too much unrendered fat came in a pool of tasty rhubarb mostarda. And fried duck livers, deftly fried and righteously seasoned, were so cleanly and vividly flavored they didn't need the chive-buttermilk dipping sauce they came with.
Fish and chips ($14) were also perfectly fried, though the sweet-ish fish batter was a little thick. A confited duck leg ($15) special was perfectly executed. Tate and Hoffman are justifiably proud of their housemade salumi and charcuterie, so duck rilletes are an easy order.
For dessert, you can't go wrong with the coffee n cream terrine ($9)—a slice of intense dark chocolate cake served in a pool of coffee cream alongside a scoop of tart creme fraiche ice cream. Or the strawberry or the peanut butter ice cream that, combined, become peanut butter and jelly in a dish. Or the rhubarb sorbet. These are better choices than a strawberry cheesecake tart that hadn't quite set or an overwrought brown sugar panna cotta served with a rhubarb consomme, coconut genoise, and poached rhubarb.
So go ahead. Go to Savoy and order a burger and you tell me if it is one of New York's top three or five burgers. Just skip the cheese. This burger doesn't need it. Or if you do, bring your own slice of Deli Deluxe American Cheese and ask them to melt it on your burger. A BYOC burger. Our kind of lunch.