By Davisha Dadone
Please welcome Davisha Dadone to the table. She will be contributing both words and illustrations to Beef Aficionado. As you will see from her first review below she is a wonderful writer with a true passion for food. I am tremendously proud to feature her here, although as you will also see I am hardly an impartial observer:
I’m on an adventure. I’ve been invited on a dinner date with a food writer, who happens to also be my old friend – Nick Solares, publisher of Beef Aficionado. I’ve been reading his reviews lately, and every single one of them makes me hungry. I’m prepared to order anything he recommends; an unusual state of mind for one who usually takes several minutes more to decide than any waiter prefers.
My date is hoping to impress me, and the Trump Card he’s chosen is Black Market on Avenue A, our old stomping grounds. I’m used to dive bars and sidewalk brawls in this area, and am slowly acclimatizing to the posh lounges and haute attitudes that have prevailed over character and grittiness.
In the Winter months, the doorway to Black Market has a heavy black velvet curtain, making every entrance a Grand one. As we step into a warm, bustling and welcoming room, I feel a sense of anticipation, having put myself almost wholly into the hands of my dining companion, although he doesn’t realize it yet.
Black Market is promising; a decidedly New York City Retro feel that I am fond of, somewhere between Speakeasy and Saloon, with a simple menu that features two of my favorite gastronomic indulgences: Oysters and Hamburgers. Such basic concepts, and so rarely paired well, they must be good if the restaurant is almost solely based on them. My love of the history of New York City gives me a proclivity toward oysters in an almost proprietary manner; I am a New Yorker, therefore I deserve the best oysters, and in abundance.
Black Market is painfully appealing to my aesthetics; a clean white tile backdrop of the walls and floor showcase perfectly the slabs of wood on the bar, the glossy black paneling, and vintage details throughout. Heavy marble tables on pedestal feet, wrought-iron parlor chairs and black wooden benches combine to create an atmosphere that is at once comfortable and austere; interesting and beautiful to look at, but far from cliché or cute. It’s the kind of place where women admire the details and men don’t feel like they’re going to break anything. The restaurant is situated around an open kitchen, with the bar framing the front half and the oyster shucking area forms the back end. The Salamander is in full view above the constant activity; the purple and blue flame draws my eye, but the kitchen keeps it – it’s impossibly functional in a small space, and I admire how clean and efficient it is amidst the chaos of a restaurant running at full capacity. If I wasn’t craving food when I got there, I wouldn’t have gone ten minutes without having an appetite provoked.
My dining partner, in anticipation of bringing me here, has been going on about this damn cheeseburger for days. I now know the history of the meat itself – the original “LaFrieda blend” developed by the celeb butcher Pat LaFrieda’s grandfather, that the grill was replaced with a griddle to improve the sear on this burger, yeah yeah yeah. Give me a burger.
I want to dive headlong into what this place has to offer, so without hesitation I order a glass of Prosecco and a dozen Oysters, all East Coast thank you very much. Not only am I a decidedly East Coast kind of dame, I also find that my affinities run often towards East Coast Oysters, they can be mild or briny, petite or cumbersome, but they’re always a homey flavor of the Ocean I’m familiar with; truth on a half-shell.
As the waitress prepares to leave us a moment to decide the rest of our order, I say “I’m ready to order the rest, please.” I’m not sure that’s ever happened before for me. There’s no question that I’m ordering exactly what Nick proclaims (constantly) is the Best Hamburger in New York City. As the words ‘Cheeseburger, rare, extra pickles’ come out of my mouth, his face lights up like a kid on Christmas morning. This is our first meal together in a date context, and with those few words, I think he’s just fallen in love.
The oysters arrive promptly, perfectly fresh, briny and beautiful, my delicate, dry Prosecco a wonderful accompaniment and counterpoint, the slight variation enhances both flavors. The oysters have a creamy, meaty texture that does well with the least amount of garnish. The vinaigrette is mild and crisp, and the cocktail sauce isn’t too heavy on the horseradish, a brightly spicy complement. A coarse sea salt gives an even deeper sense of indulgence to this dish, and I am enthralled with every bite. Each oyster is clean and precisely cut, and devoid of excess liquor, making it easy to do the highly erotic ‘straight into your mouth’ move. With that, I’m not sure if Nick got even half of the dozen, I don’t think he noticed and I didn’t stop to count. A good meal is an unapologetic battlefield.
Our oysters are finished, glasses drained, and everything is whisked away by the attentive staff. We ask the waitress for a recommendation of red wine to complement my upcoming Black Market Cheeseburger Experience, and she brings an excellent choice to the table – a “velvety cab” that pleases even on its own.
Enter: the Cheeseburger.
It arrives open-faced, and artfully arranged but without artifice, no soaring piles of lacy ‘frites’, nothing more modern than an absolutely iconic meal of meat, potato and fresh produce on a warm plate. This is no diner burger, this is a money shot of color; an assortment of condiments and rough-cut but thin and crispy fries that are crunchy to the last bite, the cheese is just melted enough to be oozy but still thick, the lettuce and tomato are vibrantly colored, and everything is easily assembled, but proudly displayed to you first on the plate.
I generally enjoy my hamburgers appointed in the same way – lettuce, tomato, extra pickles, and a ton of ketchup, maybe mayonnaise. Nick however, insists that a perfect hamburger should be able to stand alone, with a minimum of details, but decidedly without ketchup. I am wary, but willing. I’ve listened carefully to what has been said about the purity of this particular experience so I diligently skip the ketchup, lettuce and tomatoes for the moment, choosing only one caveat, the pickles.
I dive into this aromatic plate of meaty suspense.
I trust that my companion truly is an arbiter of burger style, but until this telling moment, I have to admit that I was reluctant to believe that any one hamburger could justify so much discussion. As I measure the heft, I’m pleased that it’s a manageable size. As much as I relish going face-first into my food, this is after all, a first date and I’m pretty sure that food in my hair is not a good look. Yet. I take the first bite.
The next few moments are a blur.
The overwhelming flavor, the texture, the olfactory headiness…I feel like I’d never had real beef before. I am rendered helpless for a few seconds while my mind catches up to the present, it’s a primal rush that makes the heart beat faster and the mind turn to more carnal pursuits. If this is what raw beef tasted like off the steer, I’d stalk them myself. Luckily, I don’t have to.
The quality of the Pat LaFrieda blend itself is so beyond what you could find in some pedestrian ‘burger joint’ and suddenly everything I know about cheeseburgers is scrapped. The perfect char on the outside, the most amazing red and pink hues of flesh on the inside, an undeniably ‘meaty’ texture that I’d never known before, this really is the Best Burger in New York City; a statement to that effect is written on the front door and it is no lie. It may indeed be the best Hamburger I’ve ever had.
I just close my eyes for a moment and nod. Yes.
It needs no ketchup, no bacon, in fact, anything that obscured the taste might be an insult.
The respect for this singular creation is clear in the preparation, everything about this plate and this restaurant seems to be orchestrated to bring me this Perfect Cheeseburger Experience.
I actually get a little teary, as I will do when I’ve been given a gift this profound. I will admit that I fell a little in love with Nick at that moment, and so from the adventure of trusting one person to deliver on the promise of a hamburger, begins a journey of possibly epic proportions. The question “How about Black Market tonight?” is and will remain his Trump Card; the one siren call that will make me re-prioritize almost anything to get there, and it’s a guaranteed mood-changer if I’m singing the blues.
Black Market 110 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009