August 22, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Tasty Fixations: Burger & Lobster

With Burger & Lobster’s concise menu, no need to strain your brain making decisions.

          “Why are we here?” Diane asks as I duck around a pile of garbage on 19th Street, ignoring a clot of sidewalk loiterers, and step into the vast space that is Burger & Lobster. Inside, we collide with another undisciplined crush. I’d heard this place usually has a line. I walk around to reach the greeter at her podium from the other side.

Indulge yourself at the full service bar, and the wait for a table seems shorter.

          “Do you make any special accommodations for the elderly?” I ask, leaning on my cane and limping a little. (It’s true I am recovering from an injury to my foot, and I’m still carrying the cane in case the curb is higher than it needs to be.  It’s also good for getting taxis to screech to a stop.)

          “What is this place?” Diane asks. “We’ll be waiting for hours.” 

          I point to the sign that shows the menu. Just three choices: A burger with fries and a salad, a lobster roll with fries and a salad or a whole lobster with fries and a salad. Twenty dollars each. “That’s the menu?” she asks. 

            “Did you say your name was on the list,” the guardian maitresse asks.

          “Yes,” I lie. 

          “What is your name?” she asks.

Lobster traps piled high to the soaring ceiling divide the gymnasium into aisles.

          “Green,” I stammer, caught off guard. “Diane Green.” I spell it without the E as if that will make a difference. Clearly, Greene would mean nothing to this perky and officious woman.

          “I don’t see it,” she says, scanning her iPad. “Are you sure?”  She seems more concerned than I am. Almost sweet, actually. 

          “Oh dear,” I say. “I thought my friend put us on the list and she thought I put us on the list. We’ve been waiting a long time.” (I don’t say why waiting four minutes feels like a very long time.)

The no-challenge of Burger or Lobster and a relentlessly friendly welcome draw an eclectic following.

          “Well, you’re only two, so it won’t be hard to find a place for you,” she says. “You won’t need to wait very long.”  She dispatches her aide de camp, presumably to spot vacancies. Then, she hands the woman two menus and instructs us to follow her. Taken by surprise, I forget to limp.

          I didn’t know there was a hugely popular canteen called Burger & Lobster until last week. You’ll wonder how a wildly successful British fast food chain sneaked into a space that seats 320 on West 19th Street in January, 2015, without my noticing. But hey, this is New York, you go out of town for a week or two and you can miss a dozen restaurants opening or closing.

My publicist pal alerted me to the discovery of Rube the one-in-thirty-million yellow lobster. I tweeted.

          Then, last Tuesday, a publicist friend sent me a photo of “Ruby, the yellow lobster.” It seems Ruby was about was to go into the pot at a place called Burger & Lobster when the manager saw it and realized at once it was a rare one-in-thirty-million yellow lobster.

Stern advice from management: “Talk to each other,” the sign suggests, “Pretend it’s 1995.”

          “What is Burger & Lobster?” I asked. She seemed surprised and explained the place serves more than 1,400 diners daily with no menu, just three choices -- and lines out the door. I Google a little, reading the raves on Yelp. Apparently, some New Yorkers, possibly millennials especially, relish not having to make decisions. They flock here to take a vacation from the stress of deciding what to order at dinner. I’m stunned to see that Trip Advisor rates it #74 out of our city’s 9,957 restaurants.

Hoping “After Party” -- rum, St. Remy VSOP, orange liqueur and pineapple juice -- will give me a buzz.

          Diane and I are seated tête-à-tête at one end of a bare wooden table for 10, with two seats between us and a foursome just being served. The drinks menu -- with $12 cocktails, some on tap -- balances atop a fork, a knife and a paper napkin. The kitchen is narrowly focused, but there is a full service bar -- nine tequila choices, eight rums, seven gins.

It looks like a party when the runner arrives with our three choices on paper-lined metal trays.

          Lobster traps piled high to the soaring ceiling divide the gymnasium into aisles. The $12 cocktails are listed as burger cocktails and lobster cocktails. I’m so thrilled to be seated, I don’t need to initiate a rant on how preposterous that is. In seconds, our waiter arrives, saluting our ambition to share all three dinner options. “Shall we ask the kitchen to cut the burger and lobster roll in half for you?” he asks. I love that he can read my mind before I even think it. 

          Diane is pleased that it’s Rosé Sangria. “Rosé. You don’t usually see that,” she enthuses. Brooklyn gin, orange liqueur and prosecco in the mix is original, too. I am hoping my “After Party,” a blend of rum, St. Remy VSOP, orange liqueur and pineapple juice, will give me a buzz.

          A runner, the same size as the waiter but a different face above the striped denim apron, arrives with a triumphant smile and our three  $20 meals on metal trays. The paper lining flares in ruffles, adding to a birthday-party kind of excitement.

          We start with the two giant halves of the towering burger, a huge 10-oz monster on an “everything” seeded brioche bun that we ordered with the works -- bacon, tomato, melted cheese, and pickles (like the pickled onions, pickled in house). It’s juicy and meaty, maybe not as rare as I might like it.

The Monster burger with its 10 oz. of bespoke beef comes with fries and a salad and fries.

          The meat comes from corn-fed Hereford cattle in Nebraska, just as it does in London. Here, my PR pal assures me, it’s a Pat Lafrieda blend of chuck, tri tip and brisket “in perfect proportion for minimum shrinkage, maximum flavor and superior juices.” I have to smile at the hyperbole. After all, it takes poetry and chutzpah to sell a fast food dispensary in a snooty town even if the critic is your pal. But anyway, this whopper is juicy, sticky and good.

The lobster roll is more sedate but impressively sweet and fresh with nothing but lobster and mayo.

          The 6-oz. lobster roll -- supposedly nothing but chunks of claw and tail meat in Japanese mayo -- tastes fresh and pure.  Why wouldn’t it, considering how many lobsters move in and out of this place every day. At Heathrow Airport, the company has tanks to hold up to 35 tons of live lobsters. In New York, you can go downstairs and see the tank that holds 4,000 at a time in cold, salted water. The big boys in the tank up front are available for a cabal at a premium.  

We should have asked for extra crisp and dark fries; but never mind, the waiter runs off to fetch more. 

          The two of us are sharing the thin, slightly browner salted fries from one of three metal cups. I point that out to the waiter. “Oh, you want them crisper and darker,” he says, grabbing the pale rejects and racing to the kitchen for a bouquet of tawnier fries.

Diane, who summers in Maine, says I should have ordered the boiled lobster. Still, it’s amazingly moist.

          It’s my fault the lobster is not as juicy as it might be. The choice was boiled or grilled and I said grilled. But it’s still clean and tender, especially the huge claw. (There are two -- these guys don’t even try to save money by serving one-armed culls as some thrifty merchants do.) Yes, we are both too full. The burger alone was enough for me.

The salad of greens and red onion with powdered cheese, tossed too far ahead, is sadly soggy.

          But feeling the need for some greenery, we’re finishing off all three soggy salads, obviously tossed too far ahead.  It occurs to me now that our server would probably have fetched freshly tossed mesclun if we’d complained. Instead, he brings dessert: one little dish of strawberry cheesecake for us to share, and we’ll be home in time to watch some major gymnastics.

Strawberry cheesecake for two at $6 is just enough dessert if you crave a sweet and discreet finale.

          I’m not suggesting that longtime Insatiable Critic followers need to shadow me here. I can call it research. But maybe it’s not only young’uns who relish not straining the brain at dinner. It could become a trend. There are now 17 Burger & Lobsters worldwide, twelve in London, and one each in Bath, Cardiff, Manchester, Dubai, Kuwait, Stockholm, Saudi Arabia, and this one where Ruby the yellow lobster floats in her own private pool, waiting to move to the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead.

We’ve been here long enough for table turnover on either side of us and the hungry are still piling in. 

          Vladimir Borodin, Ruby’s savior and the Russian journalist local manager, has signed a lease for a second location, to open in April, 2017 above the Stephen Sondheim Theater. Were you worried about Brexit?

39 West 19th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 646 833 7532. Monday 11:30 am to 10 pm.  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 11:30 am to 11pm. Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to midnight.


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