This is the first of what I hope will be several departures from my usual review of barbecue joints throughout New England and New York. My first love was and always will be the burger, in all its forms. There are some who repel the idea of a $20 burger, but if there's effort and expense put forth in both conception and execution, I'm all for it. The "Burger Xtreme" at Towne has received a good amount of buzz in recent months, so I was eager to test drive the latest creation from one of my favorite chefs.
A collaboration between Boston uber-chefs Lydia Shire and Jasper White, Towne Stove and Spirits is practically an extension of the Hynes Convention Center. Seeming like a side door entry to the Hynes, the only access to Towne is through heavy doors into the main bar area presenting several tables and long bar behind which a stainless steel robot (of whose function I'm not sure) gazes playfully. Further in is the main hostess stand that leads to the first floor dining area. Here, there's another small bar (with two TVs, strangely enough), an assortment of deuces, 4-tops and banquettes, an all below-waist-level wine storage area and an imposing mural homage to gluttony that was once housed in Biba, Shire's long gone Boston landmark restaurant. A second story dining level (closed during my lunch visit) boasts large windows and a glassed-in kitchen.
Although billed as casual and clearly more casual than most Shire enterprises, the digs are a little fancy for a burger. Then again, the burger itself is pretty fancy.
A poppyseed number with a challah-ish (though slightly sturdier) feel and flavor is a unique choice, and one that stands up to the beef. It's served toasted, with the crown inverted and held in place by tooth pick to display a lathering of sweet/hot red pepper jelly (some might call it a relish, but it's a fine line). I really liked all of the bun choices, but did have a few observations:
1. The bun was overtoasted, allowing some areas to become too black and slightly bitter.
2. The toasting didn't quite overcome the fact that the bun wasn't all that fresh. This may be a reflection of the timing of my visit (noon on Black Friday), but they should still get this right.
3. I can see more people disliking the red pepper jelly than liking it, so serving it on the side for optional use, as is done at Bartley's, might be a better way to go.
This is obviously (or should be obviously) the most important aspect of any burger, and this was the area that Towne nailed without a problem. The thickness of the patty, the looseness of the packing and the sheen from sitting in its own juices all caught the eye before the plate even hit the table. The exterior had a light crusting and aggressive seasoning. Doneness was medium rare as ordered (rare is recommended but not enforced), with some parts possibly a little past that. The shortrib and skirtsteak blend gave the meat a strong, pleasantly beefy flavor; its 70/30 fat content lended a moistness that exploded full juice gush from first bite to last. And somehow the seasoning managed to penetrate all the way to the interior, elevating the flavor without hijacking the flight. Meatwise, I'd put the Towne burger in the same class as my Craigie On Main and Eastern Standard, my two favorite Boston burgers. The tandem of taste and texture was that impressive.
Here's where Towne lost a little ground. Bacon and cheese (choice of Cheddar or Muenster) are optional. Fully melted Cheddar was lightly applied, again elevating without dominating. There wasn't anything special about the cheese, but at least there was nothing wrong with it.
The bacon, on the other hand, disappointed. Having enjoyed Lydia Shire's porcine goodness at previous ventures, I came in expecting an over-the-top expression of bacony excess. Of crispy crusts and chewy, fat-dripping decadence. Alas, the bacon on my burger was more like something from Friday's or any typical chain: thin cut, undercooked, not enough patty coverage, flaccid to the bite and lackluster in flavor.
Other accompaniments impressed. Two pickle spears that looked like dills half sours delivered a lot more punch. A scooped and thinly sliced half avocado was ready to add more silkiness if needed. Below that lay very thinly sliced fresh onion.
Though plentiful, hot and very crisp, the fries struck me as merely ordinary. Maybe my expectation was too high. Maybe I have a bias against the thin-cut "potato stick" preparation. I would have liked seeing some skin or some darker color.
The Bottom Line
I'm guessing the bun toasting/freshness will be better next time. The bacon I'm hoping will be better next time, because there will definitely be a next time. And I'm hoping the beef doesn't change a bit. The superior beef alone is a compelling enough reason to try the Towne burger a next time and many more times. Right now it's a very good burger. With a little tweaking and a better execution on the details, it could be one for the ages.
Boston Globe review of Towne Stove and Spirits
Boston Herald review of Towne Stove and Spirits
Yelp reviews of Towne Stove and Spirits
Urban Spoon reviews of Towne Stove and Spirits