(05/06/11) (05/11/11) (05/18/11)
An unlikely spot for a burger in the heart of Worcester's downtown area, Ritual is a Mediterranean restaurant (and borderline fine dining, no less) amidst a sea of sports bars, pizza joints and fast Chinese. With an equally unlikely combination of red plush drapes, more-Asian-than-Mediterranean statues, 8-foot mirrors, a modern, 3-sided bar with four TVs facing each direction, there's an air of modern elegance. Breaking the illusion slightly is the open kitchen in the back of the room that looks more like something you'd see in a sub shop than a restaurant of this seriousness. But that and the TVs help take the seriousness out of the equation, making for a more comfortable experience where ordering a burger isn't the least bit awkward. Also taken out of the equation is the parking hassles so associated with the area: you can park for free in the $10 lot immediately north and to the rear of the restaurant as long as you take a ticket and get it validated.
Most of the selections are tapas and most of the selections are Mediterranean, with a slight emphasis on Greek. But the menu also has kobe sliders (red peppers, gorgonzola) and a full sized model called the "Freakin' Burger" where you call the shots for toppings. There's no list to choose from; you just make it up and they do it.
I hit Ritual thrice for weekday lunches, going with different permutations of the Freakin' Burger each time. On visit 1, I said, "Cheddar, Bacon and Grilled Onions." On visit 2, I went with red peppers and gorgonzola as is done on the sliders. On visit 3, I crossed the two with bacon, gorgonzola and grilled onions.
You can choose home cut fries, salad or onion strings as your side; I predictably opted for the onion strings on visit 1, switched up to fries on the reprise, then tried the onion strings again.
A fresh ciabatta bun was crusty (in a good way) on the outside, soft and pliable on the inside. It's ever so slightly grilled with just a kiss of butter—enough to elevate without interfering, and an ideal blotter for what was to come. On visit 3, grilled Texas toast filled in admirably as a temporary stand-in for the ciabatta buns, which weren't available from the baker that day.
Usually kobe is juicy and then some, but a little lacking in flavor. This one, a thick, loosely formed patty with decent crust, flowed even more mightily than expected and brought some interesting flavor along for the ride (and believe me, it was a boat ride). On the first try, most of it came from the beef itself—I didn't detect much seasoning—but it had a subdued funkiness with some steaky undertones that I really liked. On the second visit, more generous seasoning built on the same positive attributes to produce an even better follow-up that gushed beef nectar onto my hand through the very last bite. The third visit split the difference as far as seasoning went, but all three times the burger was cooked to the requested medium rare without sacrificing the well developed crust that so rarely goes with it.
On visit 1, the grilled onions were only lightly caramelized, but soft to the bite and slightly sweet to the tongue. Spice-studded bacon was competently crispy and a little thicker than average, allowing some pleasant chewiness. The cheddar came shredded, which some might find cheesy (no pun intended), but I think it's a good way to get the cheese melted quickly and distribute it evenly. Flavorwise, it was ordinary, but it did the job.
The second visit's red peppers offered a hint of zesty sweetness, but it was the cheese that impressed more. Melted to almost liquid, the gorgonzola was as loose as you can get without sliding off the patty. It also packed as much sharpness as you can get without upstaging the now-salty beef.
Visit 3 repeated the high caliber toppings, possibly with even thicker bacon.
Onion strings were super thin, but within each thin ring, the crumb-to-onion ratio was very high, leading to a sandy consistency with only hints of onion. The home made, skin-on fries were a better choice: droopy once and crisp once, they had plenty of skin, a natural potatoey flavor and unrestrained salting.
The Bottom Line
Easily the best burger I've had in Worcester, Ritual's Freakin' Burger is the only one worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as some of Boston's chef-created burgers du jour. It's good enough (and close enough to my day job) to become a weekly ritual.
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