When a Spectacular Burger Plays Best Supporting Actor
Houseman is good at a lot of things, but it’s the consistent, careful deployment of cheese that makes my knees wobble. A snow-white slice of liquified Melville—a buttery cow’s milk cheese from Connecticut—holds together charred broccoli, gritty with breadcrumbs and chilies. Let it cool a bit, so the cheese strings way out like a loose bungee cord, and it’s even more fun to twirl and eat. Flutters of briny goat cheese sweeten and season a pile of bitter purple chicory leaves dressed with lemon and olive oil. And though you can only find it at lunchtime, described as a French onion sandwich, Houseman makes an extraordinary grilled cheese with caramelized onions and big, squeaky, half-melted cheddar curds.
The burger is something, too. It involves two thin, crisp-edged patties with a faint line of pink running through each center, fused together with melted swiss cheese and a sweet, delicious black mass of deeply caramelized onion and mushroom. This is all contained in a Martin’s potato roll, the ideal vehicle for a burger because while it’s pleasingly squishy, it knows how to hold itself together under the duress of dripping cheese and beef juice. There’s no cheese in sight on the fries, and I’d be inclined to complain about them costing an extra $2, but I do believe they are perfect. (Which is to say, the way I like them: thick, salty, and super crisp).
Owner Ned Baldwin worked at Prune before opening Houseman last summer in Manhattan’s Hudson Square. The restaurant seats 50 at spare wooden tables in a simple dining room of painted white brick, along with an additional 10 at the bar. The kitchen, which Baldwin runs with co-chef Adam Baumgart, turns out excellent, unfussy food that is generous in spirit as well as portion.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that some of New York’s most vibrant and dependably delicious restaurants are run by duos, rather than a single superstar. Ann Redding and Matt Danzer turn out excellent Thai food at Uncle Boon’s, and Pam Yung and José Ramirez-Ruiz are constantly improving and experimenting at their Brooklyn tasting counter Semilla. Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone share responsibility for the excitement at Wildair. Collaboration can be good for creativity, the way that a double-patty burger can add up to more than the sum of its parts. And though Houseman doesn’t bother too much with exact replicas of all-star American comfort food, many dishes manage to feel friendly and familiar, even when they’re not. On a recent evening, the warm salad of turnips with fried prunes and almonds had all the balance and heft of a winterized prosciutto-melone, but with candy-sweet turnips swathed in sliced speck.
The meatballs at Houseman aren’t the ultra-smooth, bread-inflated variety you know and love, but something more dark and intense, coarsely ground so you know just what you’re eating: meat. Baldwin buys whole lambs from a farmer in Vermont and pulls more threads of braised meat from the necks and breasts to make the surrounding tomato sauce sing. With the fat slices of charred bread on the side, plus a glass of Maker’s and maple, it’s enough for dinner.
Houseman’s menu is pleasingly concise, unpredictable, and printed daily with line drawings that wouldn’t look out of place in a Victorian children’s book. They often involve elaborate anthropomorphized vegetables, or rotund, web-footed men in suits, and though it's possible they'd give me nightmares, I wouldn't hesitate to buy them and put them up on my walls if it were option.
Dessert doesn’t rotate quite as much as the rest of the menu, even though it’s smudged on a tiny chalkboard. You can almost always count on the peanut tart, a fine, low-to-the-ground number with a crisp pastry, plenty of actual peanuts, and very little of anything else. The malt ice cream with chocolate sauce is wonderful, with crunchy pieces of bread fried in brown butter. I love a bloomy-rind wedge for dessert, but the one Houseman served on a recent evening came with tasteless apple slices that did nothing for it. For a kitchen that's so deft with cheese-dealing elsewhere, this felt like betrayal.
Still, when the candlelit dining room fills up in the evening, and you’re clinking frozen glasses of aquavit, Houseman is the kind of place you might dream about coming to as a regular. Service is easygoing and friendly. Though the staff doesn’t get too hung up on the details, sometimes you wish they would: The food might arrive in no particular order—or all at once. Who knows? The crowd changes, too. Men in distressed-leather boots and denim come here, and women in vintage sequined jackets. Two twentysomethings meet straight from the office at 10 p.m. to run bread through a salty puree of Italian beans while gossiping loudly about their boss. There are always friends catching up over wine and roast chicken.
“Oh, God! My chicken!” One woman cries, pointing to the brown carton of leftovers she’d very nearly forgotten on the ledge by her table. “My chicken! I can’t leave without my chicken!” I’m not sure which one she was referring to; sometimes the bird is roasted and served plain with grilled bread and parsley salad, and sometimes it’s swimming in a thin, tart tomato gravy with roast carrots. Both are simple and superb. The only thing that doesn’t change at Houseman is the leftovers. They are too good to leave behind.
Houseman is at 508 Greenwich Street (Hudson Square); +1 (212) 641-0654 or housemanrestaurant.com
Rating: Two Stars (Very Good)
What to Order: French onion sandwich ($15); Houseman burger ($17); Any of the constantly changing vegetable dishes ($10-$15); Malt ice cream with chocolate sauce ($9); Peanut tart ($9)