It doesn’t get any more exciting than this: five great burgers, all near-perfect, but each different in its own ethereal way, competing for more than just bragging rights in a contest of epic (or at least eight-ounce) proportions.
And the winner is …
Ah, but the word “winner” is so unfair. In our first annual Burger Bash contest, The Brooklyn Paper received dozens of truly top-shelf recipes for that most noble of home-cooked meals, the hamburger.
We winnowed down the list to just five — and then made the finalists prepare their burgers for our elite tasting panel of Editor Gersh “Good Cholesterol” Kuntzman and Senior Reporter Mike “Rib-eye” McLaughlin, a toothy tandem that has certainly eaten its way through Brooklyn (and the insect kingdom, too).
If anyone could taste victory and snatch it from the jaws of defeat, it was these two.
The five finalists — Sean Vostinar of Brooklyn Heights; Daniel Schermele of Crown Heights; Reggie Taylor of the Water Street Restaurant and Lounge in DUMBO; Cindy Levine of Park Slope and Kyle Huebbe of Crown Heights — also knew what was at steak (misspelling intentional): a slot behind the grill at the New York Wine and Food Festival’s “Burger Bash” this fall in DUMBO, where hostess Rachael Ray will oversee a true celebration of all things burger.
• Vostinar’s featured corned beef spices and a sweet cole slaw on a homemade Irish soda bread roll.
• Schermele presented a veritable symphony — beef mixed with caramelized onions, cayenne pepper, garlic, basil, paprika and brown sugar, and topped with a pancetta-flecked Hollandaise sauce and Cambozola cheese.
• Taylor threw together a thick, Cajun-spiced burger topped with American cheese, an andouille sausage link, an onion ring and sweet barbecue sauce.
• Levine’s burger had a fried egg on top, plus bacon, blue cheese, avocado and a garlic mayonnaise.
But — here it comes, folks — Kyle Huebbe’s was the best.
A former short-order cook with stints at restaurants in Cape Cod, Boston and at Picket Fence in Ditmas Park, Huebbe blew the judges away with an 80-percent ground beef, 20-percent fat patty, seasoned with Kosher salt and pepper and cooked perfectly in a cast-iron pan, topped with a garden tomato (not store-bought!), cheddar and a horseradish sauce, and piled onto a Portuguese muffin.
Its simplicity was its elegance.
“I inhaled it like the perfume of a beautiful woman walking through an art opening,” McLaughlin said, ever poetic.
“I loved it so much, I’m vowing to never wash out the stain on my pant leg,” Kuntzman added, equally poetic.
The judges singled out Huebbe’s burger for the quality of its meat, its juiciness (it’s that cast-iron pan!), the delicious tomato (painstakingly driven in from upstate New York from his father’s garden), the horseradish sauce and the Portuguese muffin, which is like a cross between a Martin’s potato roll and an English muffin.
“I spent all day trying to track them down — they’re that important to this burger,” said Huebbe, who cooked for five years, but is now in real estate (and wants to get back behind the stove, but you know how it is).
But burger judges can not live by bread alone. Huebbe made a special trip to Los Paisanos on Smith Street for his freshly ground, 80-20 ground beef mix.
With the cheese and the sauce, it was a sloppy burger, for certain, but it was a Platonic ideal.
That’s not to take anything away from the other great burgers.
Schermele made a real run at it with his multi-faceted meat mound, but the judges ultimately ruled that he had gilded the lily, crafting burgers that were so fancy that you didn’t know if you should eat them or put them in a museum.
Taylor’s burger was flawless, but the barbecue sauce was too sweet and the sausage link too awkward and unbalanced.
Vostinar’s “corned beef-and-cabbage”-themed burger was a tiny bit too strong on the cloves and allspice and a tiny bit too weak on the char taste of that must-eat burger.
And Levine’s Cal-Prussian patty had just a bit too much breadcrumbs for our taste.
But these are minor, minor flaws, as McLaughlin said.
“I would be delighted to eat all of these burgers again and again,” he said.
“I’m free on Saturday.”
The New York Wine and Food Festival Burger Bash will be at the Tobacco Warehouse [inside Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, enter on Water Street at Dock Street in DUMBO, (866) 969-2933] on Oct. 9, 7 pm. Tickets are $200. For details, visit www.nycwineandfoodfestival.com.