This is another of what I hope will be frequent departures from my usual review of barbecue joints throughout New England and New York. My first love was and always will be the burger, in all its forms.
Located on Huntington Avenue to the rear of the Prudential Center shops, Five Napkin Burger is a New York City import that takes burger joints to a new level. While there are several upscale restaurants around town with upscale burgers on their menu, Five Napkin Burger is Boston's first burger restaurant with fine dining touches.
The space is impressive, with minimalist lighting, comfortable seating and an overhead conveyor system of meat hooks that delivers slaughterhouse kitsch. The white porcelain tiles on every wall are a nod to historical burger joints like White Castle. The two TVs at the bar blend in without detracting from the pristine slaughterhouse vibe.
That brings us to the five napkins, which wind up being a single white linen napkin. The implication is that the burgers will be so juicy, you'll need five napkins. On two visits I tried to find out if that was the case.
The "soft white bun" featured with most of the burger offerings is an excellent choice. Each time I had it (including a NYC trial before Boston opened), the bun was very soft, very fresh, very powdery on top and very pliable throughout. It's just sturdy enough to support the 10 ounces of beef, but not so sturdy that it becomes more than a supporting player. Lightly toasted and unbuttered, it's the perfect foil for a big, juicy burger.
But is that burger big and juicy, much less fivenapkinworthy? Yes, no and no. The gargantuan 10-ounce patty in theory gives the beef enough leeway to finish crusty outside, juicy inside. In practice—on all three visits, including New York—the signature Original Five Napkin Burger ($10.95) was cooked to the requested medium rare inside, but the juices managed only a trickle and not the expected (if not implicitly promised) flow. I'm chalking that up to the extreme leanness of the beef, which also came up dry in the flavor department. The patty might have been six times as voluminous as a standard McDonald's disc, but the blend is just as ordinary and has less marbling. As for the surface crusting I seek, that was absent too: none of the Maillard reaction magic (a fancy name for what happens chemically when the surface meets high heat) and not much (if any) seasoning. From the meat perspective, this is a throwback burger with a pleasant if unjuicy inner texture, an unexotic sirloininess and little else.
Unquestionably exotic Gruyere cheese was thick, melty and drippy every time, trying its darnedest to bridge the flavor and moisture gaps. Compounding the velvety mouthfeel was a wobbly dollop (and then some) of rosemary aioli. Its slight sourness presented a nice foil, but there was so much of it and such intensity of rosemary that instead of standing up to the beef, it just stood out. I felt like I was eating a breakfast sandwich, with sausage instead of burger. Caramelized onions were there, but in name only. For those who love a lot of meat, and who love toppings as much as the meat, this burger is right up their alley. You can be sure there'll be slow motion dripping footage and "ooey gooey" accolades ad nauseum as soon as Five Napkin Burger is featured on the Phantom Gourmet.
The Fries (and such)
Fries ($3.25) were long, pale, thin and hot—sort of a McDonald's approach but a little fresher, with no bells or whistles. A more interesting choice is the tater tots ($4.25), an easily shareable side with a nice crunchy exterior, a soft, mashed potatoey interior and some attention grabbing herbs inside. If 5NB followed that same formula with the burgers, I might have enjoyed mine more. Onion rings ($4.25 as a side; $6.50 as an appetizer) took the texture thing a little too far, with a hard shell finish and a slight chemical aftertaste. The dipping sauces for the rings were basically bleu cheese and thousand island dressings.
The Bottom Line
Five Napkin Burger is okay, but gimme less mayo and more Maillard. Gimme more seasoning, more fat, more different cuts of beef in that blend and gimme a burger that really needs five napkins because of the meat, not the excess of gloppy aioli, no matter how much rosemary's in there to foodie things up.
To its credit, Five Napkin Burger is an upbeat and comfy middle ground burger den that avoids the screaming kids at one end of the restaurant spectrum and a potentially intimidating highbrow factor at the other. And its Original Five Napkin Burger delivers a substantial mound of beef, a great bun, a good ratio between the two and some toppings that are admittedly adventurous. But for just a little more than the cost of that namesake burger and fries, you can get a much better tandem at Back Bay Social Club or Towne, both within steps of the Pru.
Wikipedia article on Maillard reaction
Boston Burger Blog's review of Five Napkin Burger
Yelp reviews of Five Napkin Burger
Urbanspoon reviews of Five Napkin Burger