The subterranean space that previously housed Casablanca is now the new home to Alden & Harlow, where Michael Scelfo, formerly of Russell House Tavern, is both chef and owner. As a fan of the Russell House burger, I was very much looking forward to trying the chef's new creation. But this is no burger joint, so limiting your interest to only the burger would be a big mistake. The menu offers about two dozen dishes, most priced in the low teens, all designed for sharing.
Described by our server as Alden & Harlow's take on the Parker House roll, it's a bun I think of as a lighter form of brioche, without the sweetness but with a hint of croissant flavor. It has a texture that collapses into itself so that it holds the beef without trying to upstage it. A light buttering and quick grilling give it a little extra flavor and just enough structure to hold the juices while still allowing full pliability. Airy, flexible, tasty and still deferential, it's one of the better buns in the high rent district of the Boston burger landscape.
Brisket, shortrib and beef plate (near the brisket but closer to the belly) make up the blend in the "Secret Burger" that's not so secret. In many high end burger blends, those first two components are there but the more humdrum chuck is the third. Here, it's nothing but the good stuff. Plate got my juices flowing even before there were any juices flowing.
The execution on the two tries varied a bit, so let's start with the commonality. Arranged in a thin patty, this beef looks and feels more chopped than ground, and that's a good thing. It preserves the steakiness in the meat and keeps it soft, bouncy and well lubed. As for flavor, it's among the beefiest presentations around town. There's a sharpness and minerality that suggest aging, though that wasn't mentioned among the many attributes. This is a grilled burger, verified by checking the grill marks, but that grilly flavor was heightened on both visits and as much a part of the experience as the exotic blend.
For the first visit's burger, I went with the server's suggestion of medium even though medium rare is my thing, because he said the burgers tend to come out under. They pretty much hit medium inside, with only token crusting outside. Salting was light to the point of barely being noticeable. Moistness was there for sure; juiciness was not.
On the second visit I went medium rare (looks more medium, ironically) and found the more prominent crusting as dark and crunchy as you can get without it being burned. Salting took a quantum leap as well. The gentleness of the inner meat made a nice contrast to the exterior. Most importantly, the juices flowed very freely this time, weaving their way in and around the chopped meat like a beefy irrigation system. So many textures and flavors, and we haven't even gotten to the toppings yet.
Here's where things get really interesting. The cheese isn't a slice but rather a disc-shaped, patty-diameter cheese crisp, which brings not just sharp cheese flavor (Parmesan?) but also some crunchy textural contrast. It's thick enough to make its presence known, thin enough to not get in the way and crumbly and bendy enough to add even more texture-related fun. Lettuce and pickles are included, but lower in volume and lower still in the pecking order of competing flavors.
Ketchup is not part of the equation (it never occurred to me to ask for any, so it never occurred to me to ask whether you could ask for any). Instead, there's a dressing that's a cross between Russian and Caesar. As in any true Caesar, anchovies are part of the equation, so they're in here and in front (maybe that's the secret to the Secret Burger). The creamy, salty, fishy funk is a definite attention grabber, and a unique one at that. Is it too salty? Is it too fishy? Is it too distracting? I say no, no and a little, respectively, but your mileage may vary. All things considered, I like this ballsy choice. After the first try, I thought it both interesting and good, though more of the former. Now I'm leaning more toward the latter, but time will tell.
The Fries (and Such)
Potato Chips: I'm not going to mince words here; the chips are a step down from fries and the weakest link of this burger ensemble. That said, they're crisp, fresh, slightly warm and invigoratingly potatoey. They're also a little light on the salt, so a dipping sauce to invigorate them even further would be most welcome.
See photo captions.
The Bottom Line
There's a lot going on in this burger. Whether it's top tier, just a hair down or back to the rest of the pack is purely up to personal preference, but whether it's a burger worth trying is beyond question. It's a unique composition that's one of Boston's most creative and well conceived. There'll be more test runs in my future to gauge the execution—doneness, crusting, juiciness and seasoning need to be more consistent—but it's the rest of the exciting menu that demands as much or even more attention. For now I put the Alden & Harlow burger very close to my Boston burger pantheon with a very good shot of winding up in it.
Other Opinion/ Info
Yelp reviews of Alden & Harlow
Urbanspoon reviews of Alden & Harlow
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