Minetta Tavern Black Label Burger vs. Ai Fiori White Label Burger

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Hamburger New York City

Has Minetta Tavern set a new hamburger standard with their black label burger?

The hamburger is a true American original, having arisen out of the unlikely eating Mecca of New Haven, Connecticut, and the well worn broilers at Louis’ Lunch. Minetta Tavern is widely considered the reigning Manhattan champion thanks to their much lauded Black Label Burger. Chef Michael White opened Ai Fiori in November and he rolled out the White Label Burger on December 13, to much ballyhoo. Instead of breaking down the benefits of each burger separately, I decided to pit the burgers against each other over the course of 18 hours. White both burgers had their benefits, only one burger could emerge victorious.

My first stop was Minetta Tavern, which has been a Greenwich Village institution to 1937. The interior is quintessential New York, with black-and-white checkerboard flooring, a dark wood bar, pressed tin ceiling, and framed caricatures on the walls. The dining room houses red leather booths and banquettes, and tables sport white tablecloths. Restaurateur Keith McNally took over Minetta in 2008, once again partnering with chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr (Balthazar, Pastis, etc.).

The Minetta Burger ($16) blends short rib, skirt steak, chuck and brisket from esteemed Pat LaFrieda Wholesale Meat Purveyors. The signature Black Label Burger ($26) features all of the aforementioned cuts of beef, plus 45-day dry-aged ribeye, which accounts for 50% of the juicy, pink meat. The burger is masterful in its simplicity, with only a seared medium-rare patty and sweet caramelized onions, but no cheddar, since that would interfere with the majesty of the super-blend, which was rich to be sure, but avoided the overly buttery trappings of lesser beef. The burger appears on a buttery sesame-studded brioche bun alongside a single leaf of butter lettuce, tomato slices, a tangy pickle spear. French fries are blanched and cooled before frying in peanut oil to a golden sheen. They’re creamy inside and crispy outside.

Zadri was a welcoming bartender who made my friend Jason a spirituous Red Hook cocktail that appeared in a martini glass with Rittenhouse Rye, Punt e Mes vermouth, Luxardo cherry liqueur and a brandied cherry. The previous night, at Clover Club, we encountered the Greenpoint, named for a different Brooklyn neighborhood. I ordered a pint of Sly Fox ESB from Chester County, Pennsylvania, which was a solid pairing, though an IPA may have fared even better.

Restaurant New York City

Ai Fiori feeds a less raucous crowd inside a chic Midtown hotel.

The following day, my burger-lined path led to Ai Fiori, the latest restaurant from Michael White’s Alta Marea Group, which also owns Osteria Morini and Marea. The chic restaurant debuted on November 1 on the second floor of the deluxe Setai hotel.

Hamburger New York City

Ai Fiori’s white label burger is not available at night and only shines during daylight.

Ai Fiori’s White Label Buger ($19) is only available at lunch. Instead of fries, it comes with crispy pomme dauphine potatoes, thin-sheathed mashed potato balls that are fried in soybean oil and served with a dish of tangy aioli.

My first White Label Burger was overcooked, beyond medium, so I sent it back. The second burger was cooked as ordered, medium rare, so eating commenced. This is the second burger, which comes speared with a single cocktail onion and cornichon.

The blend utilizes Pat LaFrieda short rib, brisket and dry-aged ribeye, but eschews skirt steak and chuck. The patty’s seared on a flat-top and rosy at the center. Toppings include Nueske’s slab bacon, thick-cut American cheese, a fat slice of black tomato and crisp lettuce. The toasted Pain D’Avignon roll had more bite than Minetta’s brioche, which wasn’t as appealing, but also did a good job of absorbing residual burger juices, of which there were plenty.

While the White Label Burger was very good, and no doubt ranks with New York City’s finest, the Black Label Burger benefited from greater simplicity and better balance. More of the spotlight was on the meat, which is ultimately the most important aspect of a hamburger. There are plenty of great burgers in the U.S. at this point, and while a handful of burgers have been about as satisfying as the Black Label Burger, not one has been better.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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