“This is certainly a three star level of expectation.”
The Minetta Tavern is part of the New York Reservations Corps. Reportedly, it has a reservations list, and then it has a cancellations list, and if you’re lucky then you might get onto the list that will bump you on to the cancellations list.
So how the hell did I, a C-team food blogger from London get in?
Well, it was a series of happy accidents that led to my name getting on to the proper list. An actual table assigned to me with my name on it. And we have Scott to thank for that, so mad props to him for even getting us in the door.
Minetta is understated on the outside. However once you’re past two sets of front doors and an extremely heavy velvet curtain then you’re immediately frisked for your reservation. Then you have to find a square foot or two by the bar before getting shown to your table. The bar is absolutely swarming. The entire restaurant is not particularly big. If you scruffed up an old school Theatreland joint, let’s say J Sheekey, made it a bit smaller and ramshackle, then fill all the wall space with caricature sketches of former famous patrons from Minetta’s heyday. Lots of red leather and dark wood. An older clientele: think of all the coolest dads you’ve known and you’re there. No riff-raff. Plenty of locals who are on first name terms with the bar staff and a slightly sozzled-looking maitre d’.
And it’s tiny. Really small. Even by Manhattan standards (which never feels small to me as a Londoner anyway).
We had a table at the front near the bar looking upon the mass of humanity swigging back exclusively french wines and beautifully prepared cocktails. We couldn’t tell whether they’d eaten, were about to eat, or were just there to drink or in some cases, if they were a member of staff.
But enough about atmosphere. The whole room is bursting with charm, and that’s a happy precursor to the real reason I’m there. The Black Label burger.
This is a very famous burger. The elder statesman of destination burgers. Those who are better travelled and of a superior palate say it’s up there in the top few burgers in the entire United States.
I pretend to look at the rest of the menu while finishing a reassuringly strong Tom Collins.
Ordering it and waiting for it made me think of David Mitchell’s excellent piece about the weight of expectation with Michelin starred restaurants. For me, this is certainly a three star level of expectation. I’ve seen pictures, I’ve read about all the ingredients and how they’re prepared in exhaustive detail. I know about the meat, the bun, the onion confit. I know it doesn’t come with cheese and the garnish is on the side. I know it’s un-sauced.
And I realise all of these things go against the standard B/A playbook - we support saucing, we insist on cheese, we don’t like accessories on the plate. Closed vs. Open. All that jazz.
Then the Black Label arrives, thoughtfully cut in half. Since the whole room is dark and wooden and red, I grab the table candle and take this photograph:
I can’t bring myself to disturb such a beautiful puck of meat by jamming in the tomato, lettuce and pickle garnish. So I just pick up the nearest half and get going. Three bites in and our rulebook has to be torn up. The meat is of such incredible quality, flavour and texture, I can’t even think of a peer to compare it with. The outside has a perfect earthy char to it, but then there’s a good inch of soft, pink steak inside. It doesn’t bite like mince. It doesn’t really even look minced. It’s like they’ve coerced and massaged a beautifully aged hunk of ribeye into a forgiving terrine-like burger. The actual grind is a secret mix of ribeye, skirt steak and brisket from legendary New York butcher Pat La Frieda. All aged for, well, ages. Much longer than any other burger I’ve had before.
It’s totally unique and worth every cent of it’s twenty six dollars. The price is a bone of contention where a standard cheeseburger will give you change from a five dollar bill, but compared to upscale London comparators, it’s arguably pretty reasonable.
It is the standard that all ‘gourmet’ proper restaurant burgers should be measured by, and once again it’s the result of someone who is utterly obsessed with meat and flavour.
Having suffered many bullshit attempts at onion confit back at home, and seeing that it’s the only other ingredient beyond the meat and the brioche bun, it’s worth mentioning. The chefs at Minetta have produced an onion relish that doesn’t mask the beefy flavour with pungency: it’s delicate and a real umami tickler. It brings out the incredible beef flavour and ultimately means the burger just doesn’t need cheese.
I’m really glad I had the opportunity to eat this burger. If you ever get the chance, then go for it. Minetta Tavern is a perfect microcosm of West Village dining.
NB. Mrs D had the pasta. It was very nice.