NOTE: Before I begin my review, I want to apologize for the sub-standard photo quality. My Nikon D5000 is currently on loan to a family member. Plus, even if I had it with me, I think I’d feel weird about hauling it into a restaurant. For the time being, I’ve resorted to using my iPhone 3g to snap photos, and the results leave much to be desired. I considered publishing this review without images, but doing so felt strange and wrong, and worse than having lousy pictures. Anyway, with this batch I’ve done some color and contrast correction, and something that I’ve heard referred to as the “mashed potato” effect in Photoshop but, at the end of the day, a 2 megapixel camera (without a flash, no less) is only going to yield so-so results. I’ll be investing in a small point-and-shoot in the near future (suggestions welcome). Now, on to the review…
It may be the sign of a true foodie that when a guy like me gets wind of a stand-out dish at a local establishment, trying it for myself becomes something of a
priority obsession. Or maybe that’s just gluttony.
In either case, my spur-of-the-moment mid-week visit to the East Ender is the product of a couple of recommendations which were posted as comments to my previous BurgerWatch entry. I’ve been hoping to visit the East Ender ever since it was opened in January (it is in the spot formerly occupied by Norm’s East End Grill), and the recommendation of the “Eastburger” (as it is referred to on the web site’s sample menu) was enough to push me over the edge.
Now, it would be unfair of me to write any more without mentioning a few extenuating circumstances that may be coloring my review slightly for the worse. First, I made my visit to the East Ender at 4:30 in the afternoon in the middle of the week. In other words, not exactly peak dining time. I was in a bit of a hurry because I had to be at a movie screening in New Hampshire by 7pm and knew that my next opportunity to visit would not be until mid-week next week. Rushed visits are rarely satisfying ones. It is also worth noting that my visit occurred during Maine Restaurant Week and that the staff was offering both their normal menu and the special Restaurant Week menu. While I’ll confess to not knowing how much, if any, added pressure this puts on the kitchen staff, I feel that it is worth mentioning.
I arrived to find the East Ender seemingly deserted. Even though the lights were all turned on, I did wonder, for a moment, if they might be closed on Wednesdays. (A call earlier in the day to confirm their hours went directly to voicemail, and my message went unreturned.) But my fear was for naught. Hearing the door, a man—presumably, one of the chefs—popped his head out of the kitchen and assured me that they were open and that I could seat myself on the second floor, which I had completely forgotten existed.
I walked upstairs and was greeted by someone who—after perusing the East Ender’s Facebook page—I now understand to be Meg, one of the owners. She provided me with water and menus, and gave me some time to make my choices. Many of the offerings on both menus looked good, though I’ll admit that I never considered ordering anything but the burger.
Upon inspecting the menu—which goes into much greater detail than the spartan web site version (Meg should consider replacing that Word document, even if it is with just quick scanned version of the menu which appears at the restaurant)—I was surprised to discover that the burger is not just a burger, but rather, a beef cheek burger. I’ve had beef cheek just once before in my life, just down the street at Krista Kern Desjarlais’ restaurant, Bresca. The braised beef cheeks that Krista served to me on a chilly November evening some three years ago continues to rein as the best meal I’ve had in my entire time in Maine (five years).My enthusiasm now doubled by the prospect of enjoying beef cheek again, I gave my order to Meg. In spite of the time crunch, I decided to splurge on an appetizer. The potato skins sounded great, but since I was already having french fries with my burger, I went with Meg’s suggestion of the trout fritters. Paired with a caper and mayo dipping sauce, they had a great flavor and texture to them. (The menu also mentioned lemon, but I’m not sure if it was intended to be in the form of a wedge of lemon or part of the mayo itself… there was no lemon on the plate and I could not taste it in the sauce.). Though they were not at all greasy, I did slightly regret ordering them, only because the combination of the fritters, the burger and the fries was probably a bit of an overindulgence. Still, they were a wonderful surprise and I won’t hesitate to order them again.
Shortly after I finished my appetizer, the much-anticipated burger arrived. My first impression was that it looked good, but was getting a little bit lost amidst a few other elements. Namely, the brioche bun, which had a light, fluffy texture and contained the burger—juices and all—rather nicely. But the problem with the bun was that there was just way too much of it, relative to the burger itself. As I ate my way through the burger, I discarded a number of large pieces of the bun. When everything was said and done, I had removed enough bread to make almost another half of a bun. Also, it was topped with caraway seeds, which struck me as an odd and unfortunate choice.
The burger, topped with bacon, cheddar, lettuce, mayo and—supposedly—mustard (once again, if it was there, I could not tell) had a nice flavor. My concern was that even ground beef cheek might be tough, but this was not the case at all. While I enjoyed the taste and texture, it did have a little bit of a “one note” feel to me. I wonder if Meg & company might experiment with combining the beef cheek with something like fatback, brisket or oxtail at some point in the future. After all, if you’re going to be innovative enough to use something like beef cheek in a hamburger, why not go a step further and see if you can come up with something really special?
One other note (less of a criticism than a question) on the burger component: I ordered mine medium (I typically go medium-rare to medium with my burgers) and the color seemed more suggestive of something that was cooked just this side of well-done. That said, it was as juicy and flavorful as I would expect a medium-cooked burger to be. I wonder if the color difference might be attributed to the color of the protein itself. Can anyone with more beef cheek experience than me confirm or deny my suspicions about the coloring?
Aside from the bun, I had a bit of a problem with the bacon. It struck me as being rather tough… like knife and fork tough. While it wasn’t the most pleasant mouthful in the world, I can chalk a tough piece of bacon up as something that everyone who eats or cooks it has had to deal with at one time or another (and I’m talking REAL bacon here, not that over-processed, additive-laden crap you find on the supermarket shelves). In other words, it happens and its forgivable. Not to mention the fact that it’s still bacon. Complaining about tough bacon on your burger is like complaining about a night of wild sex.
The fries looked and tasted good. I liked that they were not over-salted, especially since they are listed on the menu as “french fries, sea salt, vinegar, mayo.” I’m finding more and more that the mention of the phrase “sea salt” on a restaurant menu translates to “WE HAVE SALTED THE SHIT OUT OF YOUR FOOD. WE DID THIS BECAUSE WE WROTE ‘SEA SALT’ ON THE MENU AND HOW ARE YOU GOING TO KNOW YOU GOT SEA SALT IF WE DON’T PUT ENOUGH ON TO KILL A HORSE?” Anyway, it was a non-issue at the East Ender and for that I am grateful. I was offered ketchup, but the absence of the vinegar and mayo was noteworthy.
So where does the East Ender “Eastburger” stand in the pantheon of great burgers? Well, it wasn’t a home run. At least, not for me. But it was certainly a good burger and one which I’m inclined to try again sometime soon. I liked the innovation behind it, and the flavor was good. I do think the bacon is likely to be better the next time around, and I’d love to see the bun get a little smaller (and the caraway seeds nixed altogether).
As for the East Ender itself, I do think they have some issues with smaller details. As you saw in this review, there were a lot of elements (the lemon, the vinegar, the mayo, the mustard on the burger) that were either missing from my meal, or not spelled out clearly enough on the menu so as to cause me to think I was missing something. It is relatively minor stuff, and I certainly could have inquired about it if it was a big concern for me. Meg and her staff seemed to be nothing if not accommodating and I have no reason to believe that they wouldn’t bend over backward to make right any complaints. As I mentioned previously, I think it would be beneficial to the East Ender if they can get the “sample menu” on the web site replaced by the version I saw in the restaurant. Posting the restaurant’s hours on the web site would be a smart move, too.
MY RATING: 3.5 MOONS OUT OF 5