March 14, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Finding Religion at Salvation Burger

 I wasn’t expecting to favor the Classic with its duo of thinny burgers but it’s my favorite.
I wasn’t expecting to favor the Classic with its duo of thinny burgers, but it’s my favorite.

          Don’t make any mistake about Salvation Burger. This is not a fast food blowout from April Bloomfield and her partner Ken Friedman. The fiercely workaholic chef already has two Michelin-starred burgers – the landmark tower at Spotted Pig and her luscious lamb burger at the Breslin. Yes, it’s a burger joint, but there is nothing typically fast-casual here.

 
I tasted the $25 brawny wood-grilled Salvation namesake burger in two different incarnations.

          The local meat is aged in-house and ground by the resident butcher. The crew smokes the hot dogs and brines the pickles. Supposedly, they even make the cheese themselves. The sesame potato buns are bespoke. Everything is cooked and stuffed, tossed and layered to order.


Chef-partner April Bloomfield, smaller than I expected and deadly serious, is everywhere in the kitchen.

          That’s not a cutout of April in the kitchen, it’s the chef herself, adding and subtracting items every night, rethinking the Salvation Burger, offering and then deleting a marrow dish or listing a new pickle. Last week I discover the chili, a luscious rich stew with sour cream swirled and crushed corn nuts hidden under a toss of cilantro, shredded Tickler cheddar and radish. I’d come back just for that chili and the banana cream pie.

 
I’d come back just for the chili, the excellent romaine and the banana pie.

          “We’re trying to do everything the right way,” Bloomfield told the Times. “This is our version of fast-casual: more like fast-paced slow food.”

          No wonder there are groans and complaints over long waits: first, the line for a no-reservation table, then the occasional drawn-out intermission on a backless stool. I must confess I wasn’t willing to grow stale in a queue. I called Friedman and asked if he look out for me and not let me wait too long.  “I’ll save a booth for you,” he offered.

 
There’s a butcher theme on the lampshades hanging over the few booths where I was lucky to sit.

          That means wait staff took special care on each of my three visits to this dim, wood-lined room attached to the Pod 51 Hotel. No backless purgatory for us. My pals and I slide into a coddling booth with butcher cuts of meat painted on the cream-colored lampshade overhead. We gaze out at the framed livestock across the way and the cow painting at the bar that appears on Pink Floyd’s album “Atom Heart Mother.”

 
Flickering flames in rotating colors on the video in the booth actually seems to radiate warmth. 

          Our cubby even muffles the noise a little. Glasses, paper napkins and tableware are there to be handed around. On the booth’s video screen, flames flare, change color and seem to radiate actual heat. I hope Ken and April plan to feature cresting waves once the weather decides it’s spring.

 
Should I join my pals in boozy milk shakes, grasshopper mint here? I feared it would make me too happy.

          Classic cocktails are on tap – Moscow Mule, Gin and Tonic – and there’s a bottled rye cocktail for two ($22) and milkshakes –creamsicle, toasted marshmallow and sour cherry Sarsaparilla. But probably the best antidote to the insult of a longish pause between dishes is a thick, boozy milkshake. On my last visit, Butterscotch Scotch has replaced Chocolate Chipotle Mezcal but we can still choose the Grasshopper Crème de Menthe with a chocolate cookie. The intoxicating, sweet sludge comes in a tall glass with a fat straw to suck it up, and suddenly you’re giggling.

 
The towering fishwich with coleslaw and tarter sauce in a sesame potato bun was crisper the second visit.

          With time, the pacing seems to improve, though my vows not to over-order always fails. Last Friday, I suggest the three of us share the two beef burgers and a fishwich. My pals, first-timers, want a veggie burger too. Believe me, even with a steak knife, it’s not easy to cut a towering stuffed burger in three. What a delicious mess!

 
The veggie burger, for those who must, is not bad at all. At times, the blend has changed.

          I would probably never order a $16 veggie burger (a perfectly pleasant round of carrot, sweet potato, vermicelli and garam masala), as long as I can have the luscious, overwrought $17 “Classic” with a molten slick of homemade cheese, “secret sauce” and pickles between two thin patties on the house made bun. “It can’t be rare,” the server will probably alert you.

 
It’s not really this dark, but it’s noisy and most comers seem not to mind backless stools.

          Never mind, nothing-but-rare-burger fans, it will be juicy and complex, maybe sweetly caramelized on the edges, and, like me, you might prefer The Classic duo of thinnys to the very thick and meaty $25 wood-fired Salvation Burger. That originally got topped with not-enough, not-caramelized-enough onions and Taleggio. But at my most recent visit, it comes coiffed with hen of the woods mushrooms and blue cheese. 

          “It most likely will change again,” Bloomfield suggests. “It could be what we find in the market. That’s a playful opportunity we’d like to take advantage of on such a small menu.” 

 
The thin fries, MacDonald style, are first rate. Catchup is the only thing not made in house, they say.

          Yes, the $16 fishwich stuffed with coleslaw and tartar sauce, for those so inclined, is excellent, too. At this point, if you’ve been as reckless as we, one order of very good thin fries will be more than enough for three or four. I tried the house-smoked dog once. I don’t crave it again. Anyway, now you understand why a gourmand might want to come with a couple of friends to share everything.

 
I don’t need to come to Salvation Burger for $25 shrimp. I come for the burger, the chili and the pies.

          On this recent visit, I determine to try everything from the “Snacks and Pickles.” I miss the little jalapeno fritters, gone now, as Bloomfield adds more expensive options, like two shell-on, head-on wood-grilled shrimp for $25.

 
I’ve always thought Bloomfield’s Ceasar at The Breslin is the best ever, but these romaine crisps are close. 

          All four salads ($11 to $14) are excellent, especially the gnarly beets with tarragon, smoky blue cheese and walnuts, and the splendid romaine. In a feeble attempt at temperance last weekend, I order only that favorite with its crisp, long leaves in clumps, salty and savory from roasted garlic, anchovy and a crunch of croutons.

 
The wood grilled oysters with garlic sauce are fine. There are three, and we are three. 

          But my companions insist on the spicy Kirby pickle, a monster touched with fresh dill and Olave olive oil, and the wood roasted oysters with garlic butter, too. They are three and so are we, so no trauma there.  I certainly don’t need to repeat the beef heart – monolithic and ugly. No one but me even tasted it on a previous visit. I’m happy to dominate the brilliant chili. I know we didn’t order the giardiniera, but here it is on the table. Ignore it? I don’t think so.

 
I like all the salads as well as this glorious collection of giardiniera, a gift from the kitchen.

          `           That brings me to pies. Just when I was longing to find a restaurant that does old-fashioned pies, Bloomfield comes along celebrating that seemingly lost art. I like the classic ones better than her fried hand tarts – choose lemon or apple -- even though they are certainly superior to any I’ve ever tasted.

 
I convince my pals we need to order three pies. Banana with standing up crisps is the favorite.

          Banana cream studded with a forest of banana crisps is my favorite, although the parsnip on gingersnap crust with little cubes of candied ginger must be tasted, too. I’m disappointed by last Friday’s special blackberry custard pie with aged and fresh. I expected glazed whole blackberries. Peanut Butter S’mores pie under marshmallow peaks might not be on the menu but it’s already legend. Ask for it. 

 
Not on the menu, but a special most nights: Peanut Butter S’mores Pie with marshmallow peaks.

          You might have to send a strolling busser or a manager to find your waiter and get the check. It’s still not West Point on the floor. It may never be. Remember, it’s a burger joint with beef tongue, an obsessive chef in charge, and a more or less accidental wait staff.

 
Not every waiter is as enthusiastic and devoted as Adair. Not that we need her urging to order too much.

          The bill might shock you. My tab was never less than $80 per person. But then, no need to order as if you expect to be run over on your way home.

 
Parsnip pie on a ginger snap crust is incredibly elegant. I’m hoping for sour cherry pie soon.
 

230 East 51st Street. The Pod Hotel 51. 212 355 0300. Monday through Saturday noon to midnight. Closed from 4:30 to 5 pm. every day. Closed Sunday.

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Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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