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IMG: Gersh Kuntzman
The Burger Wars  
A fancy schmancy New York restaurant now charges $50 for a hamburger. What’s next a $15 slice of pizza?  

    Jan. 21 —  And you thought North Korea and the United States were involved in the bitterest arms race in the world. Turns out, that nuclear-tipped confrontation is nothing compared to an ongoing current standoff between two of New York’s top restaurateurs.  

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  I’m talking, of course, about The Burger War.
       Perhaps you don’t need more evidence that Manhattan Island is not merely literally cut off from the rest of America, but here’s another example anyway: The owner of a fancy restaurant in Midtown (how fancy? Well, he named it after himself — but only using his initials. And in small letters, too!) has just unveiled a hamburger that costs $50.
       The $50 hamburger at Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne is crafted from ground sirloin, stuffed with foie gras and braised short ribs and topped with shaved black truffles (because, let’s face it, an unshaven black truffle is so uncouth). Calling it a burger is like saying Dolly Parton has nice features.
       It’s anything but a burger—in fact, it’s a bovine parody of that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials where a guy walking down the street with a chocolate bar crashes into a guy carrying an open jar of peanut butter and a new taste sensation is born.
       “You got foie gras, truffles and sirloin in my hamburger!”
       “Well, you got hamburger all over my foie gras, truffles and sirloin!”
       What makes this latest salvo in The Burger War even crazier is that even in New York City, $50 is a lot of money. I mean, with $50, you could buy a few hours of parking in a Midtown garage. You could buy part of a ticket to a Knicks game. You could even buy enough ground beef to make 60 plump, juicy half-pound hamburgers.
       It’s bad enough that Boulud is peddling high-end steak as a hamburger just because he puts it on a roll (sorry, a Parmesan bun)—but the motivation behind his moo-clear proliferation is suspect.
       The only reason Boulud is hawking this $50 black-truffle sirloinburger is because one of his competitors- Marc Sherry, the owner of a 135-year-old steakhouse called The Old Homestead—had dethroned his $28 burger last week by unveiling the city’s first $41 burger, a 20-ounce mound crafted from American Kobe beef.
       In a prior era, these two men would’ve tested each other’s manly mettle by racing to build the tallest building or break the sound barrier. Now, they create overpriced hamburgers.
       As a child of the 1970s, I can recognize the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction when I see it in action. We are at the brink of utter madness. And I say that having eaten The Old Homestead’s Kobe burger.
       It is not so much a burger as a warning shot—a mound of roughly formed Kobe beef, which is prized in Japan because of its high fat content. It arrives covered with a mixture of Shiitake, Portobello, Oyster, Crimini and Lobster mushrooms. The bun—sorry, the Reggiano focaccia—is covered with 13 different baby greens.
       “You don’t put Iceburg lettuce on a $41 hamburger,” Sherry said.
       Like bodyguards, the burger is accompanied to the table by three unmarked dishes of familiar red, yellow and white condiments. But lest one worry that he is adulterating the burger with mere Heinz, Gulden’s or Hellmann’s, the restaurant has fashioned homemade versions: a chipotle ketchup, a stone-ground Champagne mustard and a horseradish aioli (which is a fancy French word for “that’ll be $7, please”).
       Is it good? Does it matter? There are no atheists in foxholes, so why should there be aesthetes in a Burger War? The novelty of the $41 burger has been filling Sherry’s dining room all week.
       If that surprises you, you are probably the kind of person who thinks that these lean economic times would deter people from paying $41 for a fatty hamburger. But this is New York, where people are incapable of being satisfied by an experience unless they feel like they have been overcharged for it.
       “We had to make a burger that went further than everyone else,” Sherry told me. “And the only way to do that was with Kobe beef. And $41 is not that expensive. People pay $50 for a steak, so it’s not hard to find $41 for a Kobe hamburger. And if you want it with cheese, there’s no charge.”
       Late last week, all of New York (OK, some of New York) were waiting to see what Sherry’s next move would be. Would he inflate the price of his $41 burger to redethrone Boulud? Or would he invent an even fancier burger to push the $50 barrier?
       Fortunately for all of us, Sherry—like Khrushchev during the missile crisis—told me has taken a step back from the edge of the abyss. The Burger War is back down to Defcon 5.
       “We will not up the ante,” Sherry told this reporter in an exclusive interview on Thursday. “Daniel is a friend of mine and last night we sat down and hashed it all out. I wish him the best.”
       So then what was Boulud doing on the Today show Friday morning crowing about his $50 burger? Temporarily surrendering his role as the Burger War’s UN peacekeeper, Today show host Matt Lauer (who should be hiding that lousy hair under a blue helmet!) clearly favored the craftsmanship of Boulud’s Reese’s hamburger cup to Sherry’s caveman-like Kobe burger.
       And despite his “hash-out” with Sherry the night before, Boulud went ballistic. “Look at my burger,” he said, showing off the foie-gras/short-rib stuffing. “It takes a real chef to make a burger like that.”
       Even if the Burger War is over without a Sherry counter-attack, I still couldn’t get the bad taste out of my mouth (it must have been the Lobster mushroom). Truffles on ground sirloin? Champagne mustard on mushed-up Kobe steak? Those aren’t hamburgers. Those are insults. Next thing you know, someone will broil up a Porterhouse steak, put it on a bun and charge $75 for it.
       The burger is one of New York’s stables, matching slice pizza for ubiquity, the bagel for international renown and the pastrami sandwich for sheer artery-clogging comfort. But if a $15 slice is unthinkable, why would anyone willingly pay $50 for a burger?
       “Your argument is good, but you’re on the wrong side of it,” Jim Leff, the pre-eminent New York foodie, told me. “Say you eat that $50 burger and it’s the best thing in the world. That would be a small price to pay for such bliss.”
       Leff, whose Web site is the cultural center of New York’s ever-growing food cult, is always in search of that life-changing experience. But most of the time, he finds it in a $1 taco or a $2 Cuban sandwich in some no-name places in the outer boroughs.
       But he has no problem emptying his wallet for a truly life-affirming moment, he said. “I will spend and spend as long as I am still moving up what I call ‘the curve of declining results.’ If someone baked a brownie that could put me in a good mood for a week and make me dance around in the rain like I was Gene Kelly, I’d pay $100. Think about how lucky I am that I can get that feeling from a $6 brownie!”
       Wait a second. A $6 brownie? Who the hell can afford a $6 brownie?

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His Web site is at
       © 2003 Newsweek, Inc.
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