(01/28/12) (02/01/12) (02/04/12)
I have no idea what Firebrand Saints means, and, frankly, I really don't care. I'd heard rumblings about this Kendall Square newbie a few months before my visit, and my BS detector was instantly on overrange—especially after reading a few reviews that talked more about the high tech video installations and avant garde artwork than the food itself. But curiosity led me to the Firebrand Saints menu that features three different burgers made with some interesting blends. Sirloin-chuck-brisket. Veal-pork. Lamb-sirloin. Promising.
A lunch visit seemed the perfect way to experience Firebrand Saints at its most subdued, so in I went, solo. The artwork lived up to the billing, working images of Marilyn Monroe into a colorful street art mural. On the high tech front, a series of four monitors next to the TV over the bar streams reinterpretations of both the video and audio content, quickly flashing images and text. On the adjacent wall, more video, as changing images of Cambridge streetscapes are projected from on high. The architecture is minimalist, with concrete, steel and glass. The seating is equally minimalist and equally metallic, featuring stools against the bar, more against the exhibition kitchen bar (where rotisserie-fresh porchetta is sliced), and a few more at communal high-tops. There's traditional tables as well.
Despite the trendiness, Firebrand Saints is a relaxed and welcoming environment that's neither hifalutin nor pretentious. Heck, it's not even loud, even at night. It's the kind of place where friends can gather after school or work and grab simple food with some admittedly ambitious ingredients and preparations. So I gathered some friends on two subsequent visits and found the service to be helpful and down-to-earth all three times (though a little rushed on one visit).
Parking can be tough around this area, but there's a lot just south of Firebrand Saints (accessible on the way in from Boston, not Cambridge) that's free when you get your ticket validated.
Everything's a la carte, with the basic burgers (three varieties of meat, each dressed differently) weighing in at $9; add-ons like bacon and cheese are an extra $1 to $2. Fries and other sides are $3.
The bun on all three burger varieties is a buttered, toasted brioche that's light as a feather and tastes like brioche, not the white bread imitators. It's been fresh on every visit, and pliable enough to perfectly hug the burger and its toppings. A big plus.
The Meat and Toppings
I usually discuss these separately, but for Firebrand Saints it makes more sense to go burger by burger, meat and toppings.
Aside from not having much of a crust, my first burger at Firebrand Saints was superb. Cooked to dead-on medium rare, it was extremely juicy and exuded flavor that was downright intense; it was funky in a good way. The harissa aioli condiment was fairly mild, as were the supposedly spicy pickles, but that's minor quibbling—they and the frisée made a great supporting cast that didn't need any additions. This was without a doubt one of the best burgers I've ever had, and one that completely obliterated my initial hunch that Firebrand Saints was all style and no substance.
The lamb-sirloin reprise on the second visit was a bit of a letdown due to extra doneness and dryer texture. Disaster? No, but it was definitely a steep drop.
The second visit with two other burger
mavens presented a good opportunity to try all three varieties, and the mathematics of splitting presented the additional opportunity to order two of the beef burgers: one with toppings (bacon, cheddar) and the other as is. One was moist and neither was juicy, but both had a pleasing beefy flavor. As with the lamb-sirloin burger on the earlier visit, outer crusting was minimal. Seasoning was also minimal. The topped burger succeeded in the cheese department (decent sharpness, excellent melt, excellent coverage) but failed in the bacon department (unexceptional flavor, no crispness, inadequate coverage). Overall, these were some good burgers that had the potential to be great but fell a little short. At the time I felt like the flavor was there but holding back a little.
So a few days later I returned for my third visit in an 8-day span, hoping to duplicate the success of the lamb-sirloin burger, only with the sirloin-chuck-brisket variety. Seasoning improved, bacon did not. Cheese blanketed the patty beautifully. Once again, moistness delivered but the juiciness so common in a brisket burger just hung around in the background, never stepping forward. Another good burger that could have been great.
For days I wondered how a burger with brisket in its blend could not be gushing with juiciness, and then it hit me: brisket is only the third item down in the pecking order. On the third visit, I learned that the burgers are prepared using a revolutionary method that's as high tech as the environs: they're steamed (or cooked sous vide style, according to a few online sources) at low temperatures for 45 minutes or so, then seared on the grill as ordered to bring them to the right warmth and texture.
This one sounds better on paper than the resulting burger delivered. A
very loosely packed patty had a consistency closer to a croquette than a
burger. Cooked well past pink, it still satisfied moisturewise, but
lacked the expected flavor punch. The cole slaw topping on the veal-pork
burger mimicked a pulled pork treatment, adding some crunchiness and
creaminess that served as a nice accent. I like the creativity and the effort, but I'd rank the veal-pork third among the current offerings.
Aside from the undercooked bacon, I've been happy with the toppings I've tried. Others include mushrooms, balsamic red onions, fried egg and poblano relish. I went with cheddar, but cheese choices also include American and blue.
The FbS ketchup is a cut above the standard bottled red Heinz and Hunt's (also available), bringing a salsa-like texture and refreshing light smokiness. Other free condiments abound, and I recommend getting these on the side, where they can be used as both a fry dip and as a burger topping. With a tannic quality from red grapes, the purple mustard may be the most interesting, but some of the others are far more adventurous. I like the peach barbecue sauce, which would probably pair best with the veal-pork burger. And I love the recently unveiled habanero hot sauce that also includes pineapple, tarragon and mint. Other choices include caper tartar, garlic aioli, tequila hot sauce (thin liquid with as much alcohol kick as heat), fiery mustard and thousand island and ranch sauces.
The Fries (and such)
Fries aren't included with the burgers, but $3 seems more than reasonable for a ramekin stuffed with vertically arranged wedges. They're dark and crisp, with skins on, giving them more of a baked potato quality than your typical fries. Salting is very light. They come with standard issue ketchup, but the myriad free condiments present a laboratory for culinary experimentation. All things considered, the fries are a huge plus.
Battered and fried onions:
Notice how they're not called onion rings or onion strings; that's because the platter ($10) includes a mix of classic onions (some rings, some not, some red, some white), leeks and scallions. The beer batter is light and has a lot of nuance and a more generous seasoning touch than the fries. Accompanying the onions is a large bowl of a creamy, fiercely scalliony dip.
Another $3 side and another bargain, this might go better with some of the non-beef burger and sandwich options. Enjoyed with the initial lamb-sirloin burger, mine was very lightly dressed and topped with shaved Parmesan cheese. Sometimes you just gotta skip the fries.
Crème fraîche cole slaw with chervil and dill:
Crunchy, creamy (or crèmey), refreshing and a little different from the slaw your mom used to make.
Loyal readers of this site know I'm a huge fan of Boylan's sodas. Until now they've only been available by the bottle, but Firebrand Saints has them on tap with unlimited refills.
The Bottom Line
I'm high on the bun, the condiments, the sides and the vibe, but the key element of the burger—the meat—hit a stratospheric level only once and merely flirted on the follow-ups. Maybe I like Firebrand Saints more for what it can be than for what it already is, but what it is right now ain't bad.
Other Opinion/ Info
Yelp reviews of Firebrand Saints
Urbanspoon reviews of Firebrand Saints
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