Restaurant Review: Superiority Burger Has the Courage of Its Quirks

The new Superiority Burger on Avenue A is about 10 times larger than the original, a 240-square-foot below-grade box on East Ninth Street that was outgrown “on the first day,” according to Brooks Headley, the chef and an owner.

The second location finally has room for tables, chairs and other stuff like that. It has space, too, for things that you will not find in any other all-vegetarian and frequently vegan burger restaurant, things that seem to be there only because Mr. Headley and his co-conspirators asked a lot of questions that started, “Wouldn’t it be cool … ”

Like: Wouldn’t it be cool if we hung a small marquee over the sidewalk, like a small club, but instead of announcing a Bambi Kino reunion the sign would advertise our rhubarb pandowdy?

Wouldn’t it be cool if we made a bar-snack mix that everybody would want, and sold it for a quarter — an actual quarter — out of a turn-the-crank vending machine, like Chiclets or kibble at a petting zoo?

Wouldn’t it be cool if the paper place mats had ads for businesses that sound like they belong on Main Street in a one-stoplight hamlet in the Adirondacks but are actually operating today in the East Village (a sewing-machine repair shop, a rubber-stamp supplier, a 138-year-old drugstore and more)?

And yes, it is kind of cool, all of it, especially when you consider other directions Superiority Burger could have taken. Given its runaway popularity, I’m sure people advised Mr. Headley to make it the Shake Shack of vegetarianism. Instead of moving it into bigger quarters, he could have leased many more tiny spaces to sell fast-casual veggie burgers, tofu sloppy Joes, burnt-broccoli salads, the city’s greatest gelato, and other items that I eagerly inhaled before writing my two-star review of the original, in 2015. It would have been the obvious thing to do.

Mr. Headley has never seemed interested in the obvious, though. He is a partner in a Superiority Burger in Tokyo, but says he sees it as a one-off, not the start of a chain. And the new, relocated Superiority Burger is far more rewarding and fun than any fast-casual outlet will ever be. To turn the restaurant into a chain would have meant simplifying and standardizing it, so it could run on a glide path. Instead Mr. Headley complicated it, populating it with odd details, semiprivate jokes and idiosyncratic characters. Few restaurants would be harder to clone.

Sitting in a booth at Superiority Burger for an hour or so gives you a stronger sense of place than reading some novels. Before Mr. Headley took over the lease, 119 Avenue A was the site of Odessa Restaurant, a Greek-owned coffee shop that descended from a Ukrainian-owned coffee shop next door. The neighborhood’s past bubbles up throughout the menu. (And not just the menu — I’d swear my bartender, Fowzy Butt, has poured drinks for me at half a dozen other places around Tompkins Square, some of which have been closed for 20 years.)

Most obviously, there is stuffed cabbage, once available at a dozen Ukrainian and Polish kitchens in the East Village, though it was rarely filled with such a savory blend of mushrooms and sticky rice, or covered with a tomato-ginger gravy darkened with fresh blackberries. Are the vinegared beets with fresh dill, fried hard-pretzel shards and dense schmears of jalapeño cream cheese a sideways glance at borscht?

What about the collards sandwiched between triangles of the airy, sesame-crusted focaccia that, at the old Superiority Burger, became appointment eating — Focaccia Fridays? (The sign over the door on Avenue A now promises, cautiously, “Focaccia Sometimes.”) Is it my imagination, or are the wrung-out, lightly soured greens a homage to spanakopita, which used to be on Odessa’s menu? Or maybe not — the cheese is Cheddar, not feta. In any case, it’s a spectacular sandwich.

The carrot-ginger dressing on the house salad is clearly a shout-out to the one that used to intrigue punks and college students at Dojo on St. Marks. What about the bowl of lentils with wilted greens and a griddled slice of cornbread on top — does it remind anyone else of eating a Wee Dragon Bargain at the communal table of Angelica Kitchen, that lost shrine to mildly punitive first-wave vegetarianism on East Ninth Street? But Angelica’s cornbread was a brick heavy enough to anchor a tugboat; Superiority Burger’s is graceful, and the lentils under it aren’t punitive at all. They’re soothing and energizing, like dal, and seasoned with spices that radiate warmth.

At first glance, Superiority Burger might strike you as just another hipster retro joint infatuated with the visual style of diners and coffee shops. One thing that might give you that idea is the paper hat that Mr. Headley wears.

But I suspect it’s more than a style to him, having watched him dash around the tables, bussing plates, delivering tofu-skin subs and telling a table of new regulars how he made a pot of beans first thing each morning. I don’t think he wants Superiority Burger to imitate a local coffee shop; he wants it to be one.

And at the same time, he wants it to be the most original coffee shop you’ve ever seen.

The glass dessert case behind the counter, inherited from Odessa, is once again stocked with cakes and pies. Mr. Headley has turned over the desserts to Darcy Spence, who seems to come up with some new use for sugar and flour every time she breathes. Coconut cake is a fixture, but there are other erudite excursions into the American baking repertoire, like rhubarb tarts on flaky doilies made of puff pastry. Ropy squiggles of orange-blossom funnel cake with labneh gelato and blueberry preserves are virtually a note-for-note cover of a vintage Nancy Silverton dessert, except that she used huckleberries.

There’s a small heated case at the end of the counter that comes into its own after midnight, when it’s stocked with vegan Cornish pasties and pre-wrapped Night Burgers, which are regular Superiority Burgers minus the lettuce.

So, the burger. It seems better now than it was in 2015, though I can’t say whether the improvement is in the slow-roasted tomatoes, the eggless mayonnaise, the griddled buns or the thick and improbably moist patties, shaped from ground chickpeas, red quinoa, roasted carrots and walnuts, among other ingredients. It also hits different today, when Kim Kardashian and others are paid to endorse ground-beef substitutes made by well-capitalized entrepreneurs whose formulas are protected by multiple patents. Mr. Headley, on the other hand, has published his Superiority Burger recipe.

Will the after-hours menu, which also includes Utz crab chips, supernaturally crisp “tofu fried tofu” (like chicken fried steak, but more delicious and made without animals) and a few other goodies, be enough to bring late-night dining back to New York? Boy, do I hope so.

At times Superiority Burger can seem to be composed entirely of unnecessary grace notes, arbitrary ambitions and whispered messages that may or may not be understood. (Why, when you go to the restroom, do you hear the jingles that play when the doors close on the Tokyo subway?)

Cementing all this willful oddity together, though, are solid, mainstream restaurant values. The servers, who seem to be having as much fun as anybody, are serious about helping you get the most out of your meal. You get real answers to your questions, not the rote recitations you get at expensive Michelin-bait tasting rooms, where the servers’ eyes flash with panic when they have to ad lib.

Superiority Burger isn’t just more enjoyable than fast-casual chains, which isn’t hard. It’s also more engaging and alive than some restaurants that cost many times as much. Maybe a few chefs will drop by after midnight for crab chips and a pasty, and realize how dull fine dining has become. Wouldn’t that be cool?

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