Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Burger Mondays

Name: Burger Mondays
Location: 23 Henry St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 722-7777
Cuisine: American
Price: $30+ for two

Burger Mondays is one of the latest restaurant additions to Downtown Binghamton, joining pizza-pub Amici, the River Bistro located inside the Riverwalk Hotel, and Remlik’s as new places I have been excited to try out. Burger Mondays, taking over the former location of Zazou and D.C. Dunster’s on the corner of Henry and State, specializes in gourmet burgers and milkshakes, both of which come in various interesting-sounding forms.

The restaurant is fairly pleasing aesthetically, with a spacious dining room with about 25-30 tables and booths toward the front, and a large, separate bar in back. Tables are adorned with black linens and fancy centerpieces. On looks alone, Burger Mondays is a little on the stark side, but generally makes a good first impression.

This review’s been a long time in the making. I’ve actually had the pleasure to try Burger Mondays three times, with three different dining companions. The first time, I decided to try it out the weekend right after they opened in March with my friend Tom. What I hadn’t remembered before I got there was that it was Binghamton’s Parade Day. The restaurant was packed and they had limited the menu to only two of their burger options, the Original and the Classic. Hoping to try something a little more exotic, I was disappointed, but given how busy they were in both the restaurant and the bar area, their decision was probably for the best. On the first visit, I tried out the Classic Burger, featuring white cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a house-made aioli. The first thing that struck me upon ordering was that I was not asked how I wanted the burger. I’m a medium-rare guy myself, so I was worried that it would come out overcooked. As it turned out, it was more unevenly cooked than overcooked. Part of the burger was pink, the other half was well-done. On top of that, I didn’t think it was anything to get too excited about. It was a fine burger—nothing more, nothing less. Tom echoed the same sentiment. In lieu of writing a review at that time, I decided to pay Burger Mondays another visit during a less-busy time, where I would be able to order from the full menu.

On the second visit, Megan and I came for a late-lunch on a Friday afternoon. This time around, Megan ordered the aforementioned Classic Burger, while I went with Chef Matt Jones’ namesake item, a double-stacked burger called The Jonesy, which features pork and beef patties with a chili pepper salad, pancetta, asiago cheese, and a Worcestershire reduction. I decided to be adventurous and went with the Mondays Original milkshake to complement the burger. This milkshake is made with chocolate, caramel, peanut butter, banana, and pretzel: the waitress assured me it was a good choice and I was excited to give it a try. I also ordered a bowl of the Guinness Chili as a starter.

The Chili and milkshake were the first items to arrive. The chili was pretty excellent, a thick, meaty chili (chunks of beef rather than ground beef) with robust flavor. The milkshake was a little less successful, but not bad. It was perhaps a little too thick, but the flavors came together pretty nicely. The combination of peanut butter and banana was particularly winning.

Next came the burgers. To my surprise, I did not care too much for The Jonesy. I really expected to like this one. All the advertised ingredients were there, but in my opinion, I didn’t think they went together very well; a definite case of too much going on. In particular, I felt the chili pepper flavor dominated the rest of the burger and made it difficult to discern the other flavors. Again, we were not asked how we wanted the burgers, and mine was definitely overcooked. The patties themselves were a little bland and tiny. The toasted bun had a somewhat tough, chewy consistency that I didn’t care for. For a $14 burger, I was expecting much more than this.

Megan thought her burger was pretty good, but HATED the French fries. These fries are the small, thin variety that might be sliced a little too thin for their own good. To quote Megan: “There is no chance I will ever like those fries.” As for me, I don’t find the fries to be quite as offensive as she does (they are well-fried and well-seasoned), but I’ve had better. In the end, my second trip to Burger Mondays was just OK. I believe the phrase "It's better than Tully's" crossed my lips at that juncture, but that isn't exactly high praise.

Onward to visit #3: a long-awaited meeting of blogging minds. I teamed up with local food blogger Big Hungry Shelby, who covers restaurants all around the Southern Tier, the Finger Lakes, “real” upstate (North Country), and wherever her travels lead her. She releases a new blog entry every Wednesday, and it’s always a fun read. It’s clear Shelby has a real passion for great food, and when she suggested we get together to visit Burger Mondays, I was excited to have the chance to meet her. Megan was supposed to come along, but was sidelined with a migraine headache, so it was just Shelby and me on this occasion.

This time burger-wise, I went for a safe pick: the Southern BBQ burger. This burger consists of ground pork, caramelized onions, and cole slaw, all covered in their homemade BBQ sauce. It sounded like something totally up my alley, so I was stoked to give it a try. Shelby went for the Classic on her initial visit. As a starter, I ordered a bowl of the Thai Beef soup, on special that night, while Shelby elected to try another special, mini bacon steak tacos. A root beer float for myself and a chocolate milkshake for my companion, and we were ready to feast.

The soup came first, and was pretty good. Basically, it reminded me of a combination of standard vegetable (sliced potatoes and carrots) soup combined with the crushed chili and herbal flavors of Tom Yum soup like you’d find in a Thai restaurant. It was good, and I would order it again for sure.

Shelby encouraged me to try one of the pork tacos she ordered, and who am I to turn down food? I’m glad I tried one since it was really tasty. The pork was covered with a citrusy, spicy salsa (we thought we detected grilled pineapple, but would later confirm that mango was the key ingredient). Good stuff no doubt, and a great start to the meal.

The Southern BBQ burger turned out to be a solid choice, becoming the first burger at Burger Mondays that I really liked. I was a little skeptical about the combination of grilled onion and slaw, but this time the flavors came together nicely. It was a juicy, well-cooked burger. It didn’t blow my mind, it wasn’t the best burger I’ve ever had or anything like that, but I enjoyed it and had no complaints this time around. Additionally, the fries were better this time than they were on my previous visits, but still not great.

It was great to get together with Shelby. We had a nice time conversing about all sorts of things but mainly the local restaurants in the area and I’m hopeful that she and Megan and I can get together for another meeting sometime soon. Here’s a short recap that Shelby has provided detailing her view of our experience:

“An appetizer special was ‘bacon steak tacos,’and since I'm Big Hungry Shelby, you know I was getting those. These were mini corn tortillas with braised/roasted pork belly and a potent fruit salsa on top. The salsa was the star of this dish – a punch of grilled pineapple, mango and chilies that kind of blew out my taste buds for the rest of the ingredients. There was white cheese on the bottom, but I couldn’t identify it through the explosion of citrusy heat. I loved these, though, with their savory pulled-pork-like flavor complimented by the shock of heat and tartness. For the sake of a baseline, I chose the classic burger; a bacon cheeseburger offered with an aioli, a side of house-made fries and house-made pickle spears. I was all jazzed up about the homemade pickle, but the spear I received didn’t live up to my expectations – it was a barely pickled cucumber, no more. I am not a mayonnaise fan to begin with, and then it always really bothers me when restaurants flavor up jarred mayo and call it aioli – which is actually a homemade, garlicky, mayonnaise-adjacent concoction that is delicious and unlike gloppy jarred mayo entirely – so I opted for that on the side and didn’t end up even trying it. The burger was tasty – definitely juicy, crowned with lots of sharp, white cheddar cheese on a substantial, toasted roll. It was very hearty, with the medium-thickness burger patty, bacon, generous cheese and bun, but that’s not to say it was particularly beefy, nor did the bacon pack its own punch. The whole shebang was pretty balanced, with none of the players taking the lead. This is not a bad thing; however I do personally like an aggressively beef-centric burger. My hunch is that, with food costs soaring as they are now, the leadership at Burger Mondays is having a tough time sourcing high-end product and still keeping the margins decent and the prices in check. I suspect higher quality meat would elevate this burger to something truly excellent, as all the technique was there, it was just the flavors that were a bit lacking.

Basically, I think what you’re tasting at Burger Mondays is potential. It’s new, just having opened about a month ago, and the feeling I’m getting is that Matt is back there training his people with fervor that just isn’t quite permeating the entire staff as yet. This guy was the head chef at Number 5, for pity’s sake – he knows his way around a kitchen, and clearly has a passion for food if he’s trotting a bacon steak recipe around in his back pocket to every kitchen he graces. But there are some issues at Burger Mondays that are undeniable, and I’m going to wait a bit before going back. Dan and I agreed to award a 6.5 on the BHS scale, with room for improvement that I know is achievable.”

Please be sure to check out Big Hungry Shelby’s full review here, and make sure to check out her weekly column every Wednesday!

I reckon this has been a lengthy read, but I have a lot to say about Burger Mondays. Overall, I think it’s a restaurant that has great potential, but it’s not quite there yet. It’s my belief that if the restaurant has “Burger” in the name and they are going to charge the prices they do, the burgers and fries should be out of this world. At this point, they simply aren’t. I don’t know if the issue is just general inconsistency due to being a new restaurant, ingredient quality, or something else, but my three visits have proven that the restaurant is not yet where they need to be to be considered a true dining destination. Don’t get me wrong, Burger Mondays is worth checking out. It’s a comfortable space, a fine addition to Downtown Binghamton, and the food is generally good (particularly the non-burger items, as fate would have it). My hope is that they will continue to improve, and if my most recent visit is any indication, they are well on their way to doing so.

Grade: B

Burger Mondays Bar&Grille on Urbanspoon

But wait...that's not all!

A friend and reader of the blog, Michael, also wrote a review of Burger Mondays that he'd like for us to share here. I am impressed with his review and I'm hopeful that he'll contribute to our effort more in the future. He seems to share some of the same concerns that Shelby and I had, and would rate the restaurant 2 stars on a 4-star scale. Here is Michael's review:

The moment I walked into Burger Mondays I heaved a sigh of relief. When I learned that someone had added an upscale burger-concept restaurant to downtown Binghamton’s notoriously bleak dining landscape, I resolved to give it a try, but expected the sort of schizophrenic décor one associates with an Applebee’s or Friday’s. Instead, the dining room is sparsely, even severely, decorated, leading one to believe that the brain trust responsible was reluctant to have anything distract the diner from what should always be the star of any restaurant’s show—the food.

Now, I’m not exactly a huge fan of stark black walls—the color is neither warm, nor inviting—and the overall impression is less of a dining room than of a large retail space into which a restaurant has been shoe-horned, but I was encouraged nonetheless. Binghamton is sorely lacking in restaurants that fill the gap between corporate family eateries (like the aforementioned Applebee's) and our few high-end establishments (most notably P.S. and Moxie Grill), and it seemed like someone had resolved to challenge the Lost Dog’s seventeen year run as the undisputed champion of this category. The dining room (and the tastefully-appointed bar) give the clear impression that here, at last, was a serious attempt to provide another option for those of us looking for a nice place to take a date without first undergoing a credit check.

One glance at the menu confirmed that impression. With an array of eclectic, arguably ambitious, appetizers, and a burger menu that ranges in price from seven (the “Mondays Original) to fourteen dollars (an Ahi tuna burger, and “The Jonesy”), Burger Mondays seems determined to distance itself from more traditional purveyors of ground beef on a bun. A closer look, though, raised some concerns; of the ten burgers on the menu, only two (the Original and the “Classic”) are priced at less than eleven dollars, and of the remaining eight, many boast so many ingredients that one is left wondering what they might be hiding under drifts of seasonings and showers of sauces. The presence of other options than ground beef (the Ahi, an Italian Beef sandwich that tempted this former Chicago resident, a mushroom “burger” for vegetarians, and a pulled pork offering) demonstrate a willingness to cater to more than burger lovers, a diversity essential for a restaurant’s survival in this day and age.

Our server was attentive and personable, though, after she delivered our drinks and started taking our order, we received our second warning that all was not quite right at Burger Mondays. When I inquired as to how I should order my burger if I wanted it to arrive according to my notion of “medium rare” (a cool to warm red center) I was cautioned that I should order it “rare,” and that even then it might come out more on the “well” side. While I was grateful for this admission, I was also a little frustrated; I am fed-up with chain restaurants (and others) who refuse to cook a burger to order (unless that order is medium-well or well), hiding behind the false statement that it is “illegal” to do so. Such claims are patently untrue, and just reflect an unwillingness by restaurants to stand behind the quality of their ground beef, and a lack of faith in the ability of their kitchens to handle and store said beef properly. I want to be perfectly clear that I am making no such accusation against Burger Mondays, but one of the reasons I was so eager to dine there at all was so I could avoid such wrangling and disappointments.

We began with a calamari salad, something I was eager to sample since few local places offer much more than fried, previously-frozen calamari and marinara. I was a little put off by the numerous zesty and savory ingredients (aged balsamic, cherry peppers, roasted red peppers, feta cheese) as properly prepared calamari has a delicate flavor that can be easily overwhelmed by more robust accompaniments. As it turned out, the bold flavors of the salad were a god-send, since the calamari itself was overcooked to the point of rubbery tastelessness (imagine batter-dipped pencil erasers). It is hard to guess how the salad might have been had the calamari been rescued from the deep-fryer in time, but the balsamic was applied so liberally, and the other ingredients so bold on the palate, I suspect that, even with properly-prepared calamari, the dish would have come up short.

For our entrees my companion ordered the risotto appetizer as an entrée (from which the kitchen was gracious enough to remove the dried cranberries at her request), and I ordered the “Mediterranean,” a feta, spinach, and oregano stuffed burger, topped with olive salad and sundried tomato aioli (see what I mean about an excess of ingredients?). Of the two, the risotto proved the better, a nice creamy dish, the starch of the rice balanced nicely against pine nuts, bleu cheese, and a port reduction. Sadly, my burger lived up to my fears rather than my desires, and the caveats about temperature were well-deserved. One bite in I knew that this was nowhere close to medium rare, and that even medium was a memory dwindling in its rear-view mirror. Once I had resolved myself to that disappointment, I then had to contend with the welter of flavors competing with the beef for my attention. Much like with the calamari salad, there was just too much going on—in addition to the previously described ingredients, the meat itself was so over-seasoned as to utterly mask any taste of beef. The best thing about the entire meal turned out to be the fresh cut fries, which were hot, nicely seasoned, and delicious.

And this, ultimately, is the biggest problem with Burger Mondays. So what if the décor isn’t exactly what I might want it to be, or if they fell short on a calamari salad? After all, this is a BURGER joint, and if they get the burger right, they’ve done their job. But they didn’t do that, and, in fact, fell far short of the mark. To have the audacity to charge twelve dollars for a burger, and then fail to deliver something extraordinary, something cooked to the customer’s specifications, is a clear sign that they’ve allowed the concept to get in the way of the burger. Better they should offer the best beef, with the fewest frills, and allow the quality of the meat to speak for itself. Binghamton already has a place that does just that, a little spot on Leroy called, simply, “The Beef.”

Dinner for two (with one appetizer as an entrée, please note), with an appetizer, one drink apiece, and tip, topped fifty dollars, and for that price I should have left happy, but instead I just left full. Burger Mondays definitely deserves a second chance; they’re the new kids on the block, and should have a chance to iron out any problems, but in the process they should remind themselves that the star of any burger joint, high concept or road-side stand, is the meat.

Many thanks to Shelby and Michael for their contributions to this post, and happy dining to all you readers out there!
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