Located on what is quickly becoming a restaurant row near Fenway Park, Happy's Bar and Kitchen is chef-restaurateur Michael Schlow's foray into comfort food with a casual atmosphere. Some may debate the casual part, but it's more casual than his empire's predecessor restaurants.
The "WOWburger" is essentially the same burger Schlow created as as "The Burger" at Radius, with the same fries included, only in a more casual environment and $13 instead of $19. Sweet.
Yet another example of the breed I call brown bag brioche. At first glance it looks like the classic brioche, but it's a little less shiny, a little less sweet and a little more dense. There's a lot going on with this burger, so I understand the need for a solid bun to keep everything together, but this one is a little on the heavy side.
On my first visit I was told that the WOWburger here is the same as at Radius but with a slightly different beef blend. I actually like this blend better, as it has a stronger beef flavor, maybe with something going on other than basic chuck. It's a good size patty, too, so this won't leave you hungry, even at dinner (unless, of course, you're me). As for the cooking, they nailed my requested medium rare perfectly on the first visit and medium on the second visit. Juiciness was closer to a trickle than a flow, but it was there.
The Boston burger landscape has changed dramatically in the last half dozen years, so while this burger was certainly not lacking flavor, it wasn't in the same stratosphere as, say, Eastern Standard or Russell House Tavern (I'm deliberately confining the comparisons to similarly priced competitors). Like Radius, this burger had nice moisture but not full-on juiciness, and a texture very typical of the oven cook it was for most of the process. Unlike Radius, it didn't bring the same gentleness that the mother ship's burger has courtesy of a 24-hour olive oil bath prior to cooking. Outer crusting here showed the marks of grill contact to finish it up, but not much more. Seasoning was minimal. In short, this beef had all the qualities you'd expect of a good casual restaurant, with no bells or whistles.
Let's face it, this is a topping driven burger from the word go. I'm not a huge fan of onion strings—or anything battered and fried, for that matter—inside my burger, but they do supply the missing crunch and salt to the equation. The cheddar is fine but definitely has a lesser role than the wonderfully silky horseradish cream that supplies moisture, flavor and funkiness to elevate the beef. It all works somehow from a toppings perspective, even if it's a bit much and even if the beef patty—as large as it is—gets a little lost.
The Fries (and such)
Served in a paper cone European style, the fries combined good crunch, good tenderness without wilting and a good salting. No problems here.
This burger takes a while to cook. Probably not the best choice for a weekday lunch when you need to get back to the office. Cooking time aside, this burger needs to be savored.
Fried pickles: This starter from the $5 Snacks menu provided just enough pickle chips to give a test drive but not enough to fill up, which was fine by me. These had a high batter to pickle ratio and very little vinegar tartness remaining in the pickle chips themselves. On the other hand, the compelling lemony aioli it came with more than made up for that. I even used some of it as a dip for the fries.
Petra's mac and cheese: This entree size offering ($9) had tiny elbows, mild cheese, bacon, peas and jalapenos to spice things up. It's obviously trying to be an adult mac and cheese, so the lack of a sharp cheese with bite surprises me.
Southern BLT: Shared on the second visit, this sandwich ($12) was the surprise hero of the meal. Its smoked pork belly delivered a more potent smoke jab than most barbecue joints do, along with some thick, chewy, well-cared-for bacon. Tomatoes included the tart fried variety above the meat and a sweeter jammy mix as condiment below. Surrounded by competently prepared toast and a lively dressing with even more tang in between, this was a winner.
The Bottom Line
The WOWburger may not be wow-worthy, but it is good, especially for someone who places a high value on toppings and condiments. It's also a good way to experience Michael Schlow's take on the burger without having to withstand the stuffier atmosphere and higher price tag of Radius. Overall, Happy's Bar and Kitchen is a little more serious (and takes itself a little more seriously) than they'd like you to believe, but generally speaking, the food is good, the place is fun and the service is attentive. I'll probably return for that SBLT sooner than for the burger.
Other Opinion/ Info
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