BLT Burger: A Perfect Burger in New York City, and a Great Dinner at the Rock House, Harbour Island, Bahamas
Even after almost 25 years in Paris, they're few things that gladden my heart more than a perfect cheese burger, something I've never been able to find anywhere outside of the United States. So everytime I return to America, I can't wait to sink my fangs into a really good one.
For years, my fail-safe burger has been the one served at noon at the Union Square Cafe in New York City, but after a real wipe-out of a dinner there the other night, I decided it was time to shop around, and so I quizzed a group of the most exigent food-lovers in Manhattan at a Christmas party and three out of seven recommended BLT Burger in Greenwich Village.
On this arctic but sunny day in Manhattan, I set out early to do a flock of errands, including a stop at Trader Joe's on West 14th Street to stock the larder of the house where I'll be spending the holidays on Harbour Island in the Bahamas. This delightful little island has several outstanding restaurants, a good bakery (Arthur's) and a very pricey diminutive version of Dean & DeLucca, so I thought long and hard about some of the things I could bring to make our quartet happy, including Trader Joe's excellent California olive oil. Afterwards, I was starved and made a hopeful bee-line for BLT Burger on Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) a few blocks away.
I liked it right off the bat, too, since the lighting was low, but not too, and it offered a choice of seating--bar, booth or table, plus a relaxing decor of old Americana, including a Gulf Oil sign and a Coca-Cola clock that were both bona fide vintage. The friendly bar-keep poured a big glass of ice water, poured me a glass of Jaboulet Parallele 45, a terrific all-purpose food red, and brought me a little saucer of spicy, salty pop corn, and I was as happy as a clam. Having toyed with the idea of Japanese lunch--I'll be on the beach tomorrow with any luck, I wondered at the wisdom of a fat fest, but decided to go whole hog (or cow, as it were), with a BLF burger with Vermont Cheddar and a side of Vidalia onion rings.
Ten minutes later, the perfect burger arrived, a juicy flavorful beauty made of sirloin, short rib, chuck and brisket, with crispy bacon, trimmed iceberg lettuce and a slice of tangy melted cheddar. The only thing that prevented this beauty from getting an A was a wan slice of tomato, but otherwise it was sublime. The onion rings were superb, too, and while chowing down, it occurred to me that this place was the ideal combination of American generosity and gutsy eating and French savoir faire, since it belongs to New York based French chef Laurent Tourandel. Bravo, donc, for one of the best burgers I've ever eaten.
Several years ago, I did a madcap assignment for an American travel magazine that involved visiting almost every island in the Caribbean. It was a fascinating, if challenging trip, and I discovered some spectacularly beautiful places and was intrigued by how these tiny islands have such distinctively different cultures.
One thing I rarely did during this month-long safari, however, was eat well. To be sure, I did have the occasional memorable meal, especially in Martinique and Saint Barth's, but otherwise, the impact of the American economic imprint on the Caribbean has been pretty dire. Tourists show up wanting Cesaer salads, cheesecake, cheeseburgers and pizza, and the big American food companies have filled the shelves in local groceries with noxious ready-made salad dressings, canned goods and junk food like instant macaroni-and-cheese or stuffing mixes.
The reality, then, is that it takes a lot of work to run a good restaurant in the islands. Sourcing is a challenge, since so few of them grow much of their own food anymore, and it's tough to stray to far beyond those tourist standards if you're going to remain a going business.
This is why I really like the Rock House on Harbour Island in the Bahamas. They make a real effort to source as locally as possible, dare dishes that challenge priveleged palettes, and have one of the best wine lists in the islands. Last night's meal was a perfect example. My friend Kato joined me and we began our meal with an excellent salad of baby beets and pinenuts for Kato and a beautifully fried panko-crusted crabcake in a light bearnaise for me. Made with a generous helping of fresh crab meat, this cake was beautifully and very delicately seasoned and served on a bed of salad.
Next, Kato had pan-seared locally caught hog fish filet on basmati rice with a gentle curry sauce and I couldn't stay away from one of their hour classics and a favorite of mine, the cappellini with locally caught white rock shrimp in a light tomato sauce spiked with red pepper flakes and brightened by tiny cubes of preserved lemon. Service was absolutely charming, and with a fine bottle of Viognier from California's Russian River, this was a terrific meal right down to a finale of Bahamian rum cake with vanilla ice cream.
Now if only hoteliers on other islands would take the intelligent culinary risks that the kitchen does at the Rock House, the Caribbean might be a much more enticing destination for people who love good food and who also feel strongly about the importance of local sourcing and culinary diversity.
BLT Burger, 470 6th Avenue, New York, NY 10011-8400, Tel. 212-243-8226. Avg lunch for one $30.
The Rock House, Harbour Island, Bahamas, Tel. 1-242-333-2053. Avg $100.