Burger au Poivre at Raoul’s

My burger craving returned about mid-August. Always mild at first, I had some time to suss things out, make a plan, and avoid the quick, but less satisfying, fix. In the spring, I tried the burger at Fritzl’s Lunch Box and fell pretty hard for it. I thought about returning, but then the burger from Emily has been celebrated left, right, and centre, so that became the serious contender. But it looked a bit too messy and saucy. I’m getting better at eating with dirty fingers, but I’m still not wild about it. And the Emily burger had me fearing sauce on my chin, chest, lap. Too much. About a year ago, the late food writer Josh Ozersky declared that the burger at much-loved and classic Soho institution Raoul’s was the best burger in America. I’d never made the effort to try it because only a dozen are made every night, they are served only at the bar, and the bar opens at 5 o’clock. This is an hour of the day that is closer to lunch time than dinner for me, and it is also a time when I am still sitting in my office on weekdays. But during the week leading up to Labor Day, Eater burger critic Nick Solares came out with his review. As our office usually gets early dismissal on the Friday before a long weekend, I had the ideal set up to have a late lunch at Raoul’s.

The bar at Raoul’s had been living in my mind as an ultimate solo dining destination even before I moved here. The friend who promoted Il Buco’s bar did the same for Raoul’s. A small, dark, busy bistro along the cobbles of Soho fulfills many romantic notions of dining in New York and many about dining solo as well. The first time I ate there was, unfortunately, not at the bar as my friend suggested, but, fortunately, with my friend and his wife when they visited this past winter. A late dinner on a frozen night was the perfect introduction. The tight space encourages you to get close and steal some of your neighbour’s body heat, the candle lighting helps you forget the dreariness of short days, and the rich bistro fare is necessary for surviving all manner of vortexes. So ordinary from the outside, there are none of the area’s shopping-bag-toting tourists inside looking for a cosmopolitan. But it has enough of a reputation that you would be foolish not to have a reservation. We had such a wonderful time that night that the restaurant became an instant and forever favourite. The fact that I saw Steve Earle and some friends in the bar’s corner booth as we walked out helped, too. Not because I’m really a fan of his music. But because, The Wire.

So, it was easy to come back to try the burger if it was supposed to be good. And I thought, hey, it’s a holiday weekend, everyone will be heading out of town because of the weather, and it will be a breeze to get one of the precious 12. I was mistaken. When I walked in at 5:20 p.m., all nine seats at the bar were taken, and there were a few people with drinks standing nearby. There was one other patron at a bar table. Everyone else was staff waiting for the restaurant’s opening at 5:30. Only one person sitting at the bar did not have a place setting set before him. Meaning everyone else was probably getting a burger. I walked toward the host stand and inquired about what to do if I was here to try the burger. He yelled over to the bartender to ask if there were any left. After some counting out loud and on fingers…YES, there was one left. All mine. He had already turned away groups of 2+ that did not want to split the last one. The benefits of solo dining often come unexpectedly. I waited almost an hour until a seat opened up. I stood among a few who had come in purely for a drink, many clearly who might live around the corner, rolling their eyes at the foodie interlopers.

The burger was delicious. And while I would not go out of my way to eat it at 5 p.m. again, I have no regrets in going after it this time. Ordered medium rare, it was so picture-perfect in this regard that the bartender even commented on it when I separated the two halves. The watercress, slivered red onions, and pickles add a lot of greenery, but I wanted them all to stay put, unlike the often unnecessary leaf of lettuce and slice of tomato. Their flavours were all integral against the peppery crust and creamy cheese. Their acidity and brightness was especially critical if you did as instructed and dipped the burger in the accompanying au poivre sauce. Which was okay, but a bit too rich for me. The wrong ratio and all you tasted was pepper and cream. The sauce was much better used as a dip for the crispy duck fat fries. The burger was sufficiently juicy, so much so that it was pointless for someone like me to wipe her fingers in between bites. I had to embrace the mess. The bun held everything together, but if you set the burger down on the tray, you were going to set it down in the juice puddles, risking too much bottom bun soakage.  I may have reached for my beer glass with bloody fingers, but my chin, chest, and lap were completely clean.


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