(03/07/09) (06/27/09) (04/02/11) (07/06/12) (04/24/13)
Craigie On Main is the relocated Craigie Street Bistrot, now well established on Main Street just south of Central Square. Chef-owner Tony Maws had already established a name for himself before the move; today he's not only a celebrity chef but a James Beard award winner. The cuisine leans slightly toward French and arguably toward gastropub, but it's essentially New American, with much emphasis on tasting menus, nose-to-tail dining and local, seasonal ingredients. Oh yeah: and a nationally recognized burger. Much of the Craigie burger's mystique is built on meticulous design with every component made in house—from bun to grind to ketchup. Much more is a result of its scarcity: burgers are only available in the bar and only 18 get served per night.
Baked right on the premises, this dark tan behemoth with sesame seeds on top and along the sides brings a flavor of its own that's noticeable and pleasant but completely deferential to the beef. I'd like it a little better if there were just a little less of it (both size and density), but the Craigie bun is essentially a good one.
The Craigie burger is the very definition of an ensemble, but it's not an ensemble without a star. Aim those floodlights on the eight ounces of small-farm-supplied, house-ground beef utilizing four different exotic components: beef shortrib, beef suet, flap meat and bone marrow. The proportions are top secret and the components vary slightly depending what is on hand each day. The thick patty routinely arrives cooked exactly to spec (for me, medium rare) and gushing beefy juices at will. My most recent burger started full-on juicy and by final bite was down to merely moist, but gentle texture was every bit the "fluffy cloud" the server described it as. You can tell by the irregularity of the surface that the patty was gently formed and handled with care and respect. Flavor includes a noticeable but not overwhelming minerality that gives the meat much character. There's some gaminess, and that's more than welcome.
If there's any downside to the beef itself, I'd point to the lighter seasoning and much lighter crusting than I usually seek. For my most recent burger only (I've had five over the years, spaced about a year apart), I'd add that the texture, while undeniably cloudlike, was also a little meatloaflike. And the refreshingly gamey, funky aspect is a little inconsistent from visit to visit. Sometimes it grabs you and pulls you in; other times it just pokes you a little, but it's always there.
Despite the high fat content that delights with moisture, bite for bite this isn't an overly heavy burger. I get more of a veal feel than hardcore beef. But this burger is unlike both beef and veal; it's as if it's a whole new category unto itself. Whatever it is, it's memorably delicious—just more delicious on some visits than others.
Just like the bun, the cheese adds an accent without getting in the way. It's fully melted and a little sharp, much like the beef. Tomato is offered in August only, but greenery is an important topping year 'round. I like that the concentrated flavors make themselves known with just a small allocation of volume.
Additional toppings and condiments—fennel slaw, homemade mace ketchup, tart red wine pickles—arrive on the side, ready to be added DIY style.
Bacon is a $3 option worth considering for its salt and crunch contribution (richness is there too but not as needed), and I'd recommend getting it on the side to try the burger with and without. The contrast of the firm bacon and extra soft patty may or may not work for you—I prefer it without the bacon—but at least give it a try. As for the bacon itself, I'd say it's more than solid but nothing truly special.
The Fries (and Such)
Fries: Called "steak fries" by one server, these are more like potato wedges, crisp and accented with tiny scallions. On my second-most recent visit, the texture was perfect, highlighting the contrast between crunchy shell and moist, velvety interior. The most recent batch had dry centers and had to rely on the mace ketchup, but were still very enjoyable.
Salad: Lightly dressed greens led by arugula provide a healthy component and a refreshing foil for the burger's funk.
When's the last time you had a burger that came with an amuse bouche beforehand? (No, the peanuts at Five Guys don't count.)
The only thing stopping me from ordering the burger every time I visit Craigie On Main is my conclusion that the menu's pork and seafood offerings are even more impressive. I recommend splitting the burger as an appetizer, then moving on to more serious fare. Not that the Craigie burger is anything but serious.
If you're turned off by checking out a restaurant's website and seeing no prices on the online menus, boy, are you in for a treat here: there are no prices on the actual menus either. Not only that, but the burger isn't even printed on the menu. But it can't be that much of a secret, since every guest in the bar gets told about it.
If you want this burger, you've got to be in the bar and be there early. You can make reservations for a bar table, which is both good and bad. Good if you have a reservation and bad if you're trying to just grab a seat as a walk-in. The bar fills up faster than a Filene's wedding dress sale on weekends.
Many wonder if any burger is worth $19; I say yes. Think of it as a museum where you get to not only see a great work of art but eat it as well. Yes, it's art. No it's not perfect.
My Craigie burger chronology:
2009: very good
2012: very good
The Bottom Line
Craigie On Main serves one of Boston's most memorable burgers, but is it the best? Maybe when it's at its best. The rest of the time, it's merely one of the best, and that's good enough for me.
Other Opinion/ Info
Boston Burger Blog review of the Craigie On Main burger
Boston Burger Club review of the Craigie On Main burger
Burger Sutra review of the Craigie On Main burger
Yelp reviews of Craigie On Main
Urbanspoon reviews of Craigie On Main
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