Tuesday 18 June, 2013

What To Order: Top Round Roast Beef & Frozen Custard


How many gourmet restaurateurs does it take to make a decent roast beef sandwich? It sounds like a lame joke, but apparently the answer is four, at least in respect to Top Round, a simple concept with a complex background.

Anyone who grew up in almost any suburban or semi-rural area of the US in the mid-to-late years of the last century probably has fond summertime memories of some place like Top Round, a stand-alone counter spot with a limited, quirky, but (hopefully) beloved menu. For some, it might even be one of the original Arby’s, the hat-shaped spots that had their addictive qualities (horsey sauce!) before the chain became too processed.

Jane & Michael Stern—two of my favorite and most inspirational food writers on any level—have made a lifetime out of celebrating the surprisingly vast variations, nuances and innovations in such places. American foodies spend so much time celebrating other cuisines that we rarely celebrate our own.

And thus, inspired by the building itself (a mini-googie that previously housed a donut shop and a burger joint), Anthony Carron (800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria), Noah Ellis (Red Medicine), Steven Fretz (XIV, Curtis Stone), and Jamie Tiampo (NYC's dell’anima, L’artusi) decided to try to recreate such a place, archetypically, from the bottom-up. Top Round’s signage and iconography is distinctly reminiscent of the post-war early ‘50s era when wholesome and hearty were the buzzwords of good eating and “healthy appetite” meant you ate more than enough.

The concept took some two years to produce, although they somehow managed to keep it quiet until not long before opening this weekend. I can tell what Carron brought to the concept, just seeing the connection to 800 degrees: efficiency and simplicity (there isn’t even any eat-in or take-out option: you’re getting everything wrapped in that classic foil paper and delivered in a cardboard tray. Let’s hope they sort for recycling). And seeing Ellis behind the line, he is a machine of expediting. So I suppose it’s the other two who are responsible for the roast beef.

Yes, to answer the title question, if you’re coming to Top Round, you’re ordering the roast beef, because that’s pretty much what they serve, in a number of regionally-inspired variations. Even if you want to avoid the beef, hate to tell you, they cook the fries in beef tallow too. And guess where the custard came from?

(I’m not going to say ‘yay’ or ‘boo’ to this—it is what it is, and luckily we live in an era where vegans and other alternative eaters have plenty of choices)

As much as the food is evocative of 60 years ago, the execution of it is certainly much improved, the beef rubbed with ten spices, slow-cooked for nine hours (then held) in a computer-assisted oven, and sliced by a robot-armed machine (not kidding) even if the curly fries are cut by man. The beef is, frankly, amazing—savory, velvety, succulent, umami-tastic--everything that makes beef wonderful, served on soft doughy classic burger buns that predictably doesn’t stand a chance, but you won’t care. No, this is no tidy eating, nor is it balanced, nor is it subtle. This is stuff-your-face eating, but any mess you make will be worth the damage.

Five regionally-inspired variations are offered, and this is where it’s good to be in my shoes, and be able to try all of them in a sitting (lordhelpus). Beef on Weck, an Upstate New York specialty, gets a good rendition here—though it’s not really a Weck roll (they’re drier in my experience), the bun is toasted with caraway and sea salt and those elements along with “Atomic” horseradish—not as deadly as it sounds—really accents the beef flavor nicely. Black & Blue is a somewhat mature combo of plentiful caramelized onion, just a bit of bleu cheese and black pepper on a sesame bun. Enjoyable, but I wanted it to be bolder. I felt similarly about the Horse & Hole (provel cheese, mild horseradish cream, roasted mushrooms, sesame bun).

Most problematic might be the Bar-B-Cue, because it’s so different from what you’ll likely expect. It isn’t barbecued beef, and the barbecue sauce is a bit non-committal, and there needs to be more fried onions and jalapeno straws. Or something. Something gutsy.

Probably the most satisfying is the straight-ahead Beef & Cheese (‘wizz’ and round sauce—which I think is  just gravy—on an onion bun). This is everything you want in a roast beef sandwich. Every single thing. It also seemed like it might be a bit more generous portion, though that could be an accident.

Fries are curled shoestrings (not to be confused by the springs you get at Jack In The Box), cooked crispy. You can get them covered in the homemade “wizz,”the homemade gravy (with ends and bits) or whole-hog with caramelized onions and provel cheese, “dirty” style. You know you want to get dirty, so just do it—it’s an intense, rich experience.

Because they informed me that they don’t actually have their “proprietary” custard blend yet—they’re using a standard one—I’m going to reserve judgement on the frozen stuff. They have some fun concrete recipes (e.g. Hawaiian with tropical fruits and macadamias, German Chocolate Cake or Blueberry Pie), but the consistency didn’t seem right to me. I’ll come back in a couple weeks.

They have two Coca-Cola “Freestyle” machines (the computerized ones with a bunch of flavor-adds built in), so they can make you a float in 127 different ways. However if all they served was Orangeade, root beer and ice tea, I’d probably be happier. #justsayin

I don’t know if I’d put Top Round quite on the evolved-fast-food level of Eagle Rock’s Oinkster or Gott’s Roadside in Napa quite yet, and I’m not even sure they want to be on that plane. But I do know that I have a short list of friends I’m going to send there, who will love it just for what it is. And I’m pretty sure that was the point.

Prices are very reasonable: nothing’s above $6.50.

Top Round Roast Beef