Five Napkin Burger, UWS: A Five Napkin Concept

100218-demian-5-napkin-burger-1I just ate lunch at the newest location of ‘Five Napkin Burger’ on the Upper West Side.  I had the mini boss along so I was a little worried that I could actually pull it off without him becoming belligerent and causing a scene.  Causing a scene?!  What was I worried about?  I mean, really, what constitutes a ’scene’ in New York City?    I’ve watched people shrug off some pretty freaky stuff over the years and just go on eating.  Evidently I am still getting used to the ‘parent’ thing.  Thankfully, though, it all went smoothly.  The hostess gave me a table with ample stroller room next to it.  And within sight of the bar TV which was perfect to distract him for a while.

The service at Five Napkin Burger was prompt and straight forward, which I enjoyed.  I wasted no time in ordering an ‘Original 5 Napkin’, but I held onto a menu to study it for a while.  What’s with all the sushi?!  Though the restaurant was nearly full my burger came without delay.  The kid sucked on his pacifier while I sucked it down .  Everything my mother taught me about ‘chew each bite twenty times’ was out the window on this occasion.  I had to act fast lest the kid decide he was annoyed, bored or hungry and start freaking out.  Luckily the burger was a gooey mess, so chewing wasn’t a problem.  Luckily?  As seen in the above photo, the burger was presented in a way that made me think that they were actually trying to make it messy.  Covered in tons of melted cheese with caramelized onions and ‘rosemary aioli’, un-picturesquely globbed on top and down the side.  Not the prettiest presentation, yes?  And fairly limited in it’s color palette of beiges and browns between the burger, the bun and the fries that came with it.  Which I found odd considering that the photos on the website show the burger with lettuce and tomato. 

But color composition be damned!  The taste is what is important.  I will preface this by saying that I am not one of those burger fanatics out there.  I have had a few, The Spotted Pig, Shake Shack, etc., but my burger experience is not exhaustive.  Of course burgers are not the pinnacle of taste!  We could go on and on as to whether I am qualified to opine or not…  Nevertheless, in my judgement, the ‘5 Napkin Burger’ was very good.  Not great.  Not superlative.  But very good.  Well executed in it’s medium-doneness.  Some of my bites were super-delicious.  But ocassionally the bite was overcome by fat.  Unsalted fat.  Which can be a bummer.  Whether it was from the burger itself or from its various coatings.  And a couple bites had me tasting nothing but carbon char.  Salty char can be a nice earthy highlight of taste experience.  But char without salt can finish a bit ’sour’ I think.  Maybe pre-salting the burger before grilling might have solved this.

The other issue about taste is that I wonder about the layering of the three flavors of gruyere, caramelized onions and ‘rosemary aioli’.  Did their combination work well together as a taste composition or were they more of a sum of their parts?  After some contemplation, I was left thinking that it was more the later.  I think the gruyere did not add much in terms of ‘funky cheese’ complexity.  The caramelized onions, while good on their own, ended up being overwhelmed by the aioli.  And the ‘rosemary aioli’ I put in quotes because I didn’t really taste much rosemary at all.  It was more like a garlic bomb.  Gobs of garlic is good, but maybe ‘garlic mayo’ would be a better name.  As they didn’t seem to harmonize with each other very well, maybe an ingredient adjustment might help.  Or one less of them?  Or is the real point that they were chosen for their messy-ness potential?  And was I wrong in wondering where the lettuce and tomato were?  If it’s pictured on the website should I not expect it on the plate too?

Really though, I did enjoy my burger.  And, otherwise, the fries were good too.  Pretty straight forward but good.  My real criticism I am saving for the overall concept.  And here it is:  the concept for Five Napkin Burger is a total unfocussed mess.  As messy as its namesake burger.  I don’t get it. 

100218-demian-5-napkin-burger-2Five Napkin is a spin-off from the Upper West Side dining stalwart Nice Matin.  A fairly French French restaurant.  It leans on Italy a bit but otherwise it’s fairly French.  So evidently the ‘Five Napkin Burger’ on the menu there won such high praises that they decided to open a new restaurant devoted solely to it (even if, in the process, they switched the cheese from compte to gruyere…).  They even named the place ‘Five Napkin Burger’ further reinforcing the perception that this place is a serious burger place.  Right?  Well… maybe a better name would have been ‘Five Napkin Friday’s’ as the menu feels scarily close to the ‘a-little-something-from-everywhere-for-veryone’ ethos that is usually the realm of chain restaurants located in suburban mall parking lots.  In addition to eight different burger selections you can also pick from an equal number of sushi rolls.  I’m sorry but if this is a serious burger place then why, why, why is there a sushi section of the menu?  Why is a place called ‘Five Napkin Burger’ serving sushi???  An utter non sequitor.  Not only that but there is ‘Chicken, Noodle & Matzo Ball Soup’, Mexican ‘Pork Taquitos’, ‘Vietnamese Shrimp & Salad Roll’, Italian ‘Milanese Chicken Tenders’ or English ‘Beer Battered Fish & Chips’ among other things.  In case you are not a fan of burgers.  Or Americanized Japanese food.  At least they have ‘Steak Frites’, a nod to ‘Five Napkin’s’ French roots.

The menu is all over the place.  And even the things that are trying to stay within the ’serious burger’ genre come off as a bit strange.  First and foremost being the ‘Burger Salad’.  Ridiculous.  If I am the type of person that wants to eat a salad I am probably not interested in a meaty burger.  Or if I am the type of person that wants to eat a meaty burger I am probably not interested in a salad.  Or is this for the person that wants a burger starter before their burger entree but feels weird ordering two burgers?  And, really, it sounds awfully close to the ‘Inside Out Burger’ which features lettuce and tomatoes in place of a bun.  To me the food at ‘Five Napkin Burger’, while strange, is not as focused or as imaginative as it could be.

And being imaginative brings me back to the concept.  The restaurants’ ’branding’ if you will.  The place is called ‘Five Napkin Burger’.  So why isn’t its’ signature namesake dish served with FIVE NAPKINS?  I am serious.  Five paper napkins would be crazy.  Simply outrageous!  And people would laugh and make comments and count how many napkins they actually used and talk about it with each other.  But it would reinforce the name and reinforce the concept in diner’s minds.  Seems obvious doesn’t it?  Instead… I had one nicely folded cloth napkin at my place.  Like every other restaurant does.  They could do all sorts of things with this idea, like number the napkins, or have drawings of the ‘juiciness’ components (a cow, cheese, onions, etc.) on each napkin.  Whatever.  A missed opportunity I think.

In terms of food, why not pare down the menu to just burgers, a few burger-appropriate sides and two or three other things?  They could do, say, 14 deluxe gourmet burgers of various types and a couple salads.  Move the grill out to the bar area, dress the staff in white butcher/lab technician coats and make a huge show of doing very serious burgers?  People would flip out.

That thought brings me to the issue of the interior.  Is it meant to be inspired from a butcher shop or meatpacking business?  There are some tracks and hooks incorporated into the ceiling decoration.  Or is it simply a take on a french brasserie with it’s white subway tiles and nice bar?  It is not very clear.  Not to mention that the few scales up on shelves are purely decorative and end up looking a bit cheesy.  If it is supposed to be a riff on a butcher, why not weigh and grind all of their burger meat (assuming they grind all of their meat in-house) where everyone can see it?  Maybe make it part of the bar area.  There is nothing like kitchen activity to capture diner’s interest.  Just ask any sushi chef.  Except, maybe, the ‘Five Napkin’ sushi chef since he is nowhere to be seen.  Ahem.  Anything they can do to bring more authenticity to the experience would be a good move.

I could go on as there are lots of things that could be tweaked or edited, but I will spare you.  And really, what would Five Napkin care?  This new ‘Five Napkin Burger’ is the restaurant’s second location.  So they are obviously doing something right.  As for the food, I can’t speak for everything on the menu but the burger is very good and appropriately messy.  If you are in the neighborhood it is worth a stop.  I am just left wondering that if ‘Five Napkin’ were more focused in concept and food that it would be better at capturing the imagination -and stomachs- of more people.
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