Village Whiskey: Return of the Whiskey King
A little backstory: a year ago, Laurence told me he had eaten the most amazing burger at Village Whiskey. He insisted it was the best burger in the Philadelphia and I immediately disagreed with him, mostly because agreeing with people is boring. After arguing about burgers and whose dad could beat up the other's, we went to Village Whiskey to put his claim to the test. While it was quite good, eating the Village Burger only solidified my stance that Philadelphia must offer something better, and I knew I would need to find it because there is nothing more satisfying in life than proving Laurence wrong. A few months later, we had Burgerdelphia.
Nearly a year after that first excursion and six months after our second visit and review, we revisited Village Whiskey to sample their epic, be-all-end-all, directed by Peter Jackson burger, the Whiskey King. Much ink was spilled at the time of the King's unveiling, and it looks like more is to come. Before the restaurant opened I salivated at photos of the sandwich, and with Iron Man's burger track record now firmly established, we knew it was time to throw the rest of our money away and ask a king to settle our debate once and for all. Hopefully without cutting the burger in half.
Do you remember how Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers were snubbed for best picture, and everyone knew Return of the King was guaranteed a win? Yeah. It's called foreshadowing.
The Burger: Take the standard 8 oz. Village Burger, slather it with maple bourbon-glazed ciollini, melt Rogue bleu cheese all over it, give it an applewood-smoked bacon coat of arms and top it with a foie gras crown, and you have the Whiskey King. Throw some lobster on there and you have a surfdom. Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all night.
Kyle: The Whiskey King contains no whiskey or king meat. Rating: 0/10.
Kyle: Oh... how can I stay mad at you?
It takes a lot of audacity to name a burger king. One needs to be supremely confident in his or her food to claim such at title, and in an already stacked field you're setting yourself up for failure.
I wish I could say the Whiskey King is such a failure, because it's a lot easier to write mean things.
The bun, fries and meat are as they were in our previous review: delicious and perfectly prepared. My medium order was bloody by normal standards, and at this point I think we can accept that the normal standard of medium as a barely pink hockey puck is wrong. One bite of the Whiskey King saw the most flavorful pool of blood, grease and fat form on my plate, and I used every bit of bun, french fry and Laurence's face (it's highly absorbent) to soak up every ounce.
The toppings are what set the Whiskey King apart from the crowd, and no part is more distinct than the foie gras. Foie gras is good for adding a rich, buttery texture and flavor to food, but what it's best for is pissing off animal rights activists. This alone warrants accolades, but as it stands, Village Whiskey's foie gras is absolutely the finest I've ever consumed. Fried with the most delicate searing, it had a consistency almost like bread pudding, solid but offering the slightest resistance. Laurence has spoken about umami before, and while I've read a great deal about it, it's not a sense I was ever able to identify until I ate this burger. More a sensation than a taste, each bite of the beef and liver filled my mouth with a flavor as well as a feeling I could perceive from the back of my tongue up through my sinuses, welling my mouth with water and filling me with increased craving with each bite. It was the most savory thing I've ever eaten, and in a way the most sensual. (In the "heightended senses" sense. And also the sexual sense.) The only thing more savory than foie gras are the tears of vegetarians, which should really come au jus.
While not the same caliber you'll find at Amada, the bacon here is still top tier. Long, dark red and thick, it's like eating crispy maple syrup: buttery and sweet, but with the added bonus of pig. The ciollini onions were so soft you could swallow them without chewing, and were sweeter than any other onions I can recall. Continuing the trend of intense experience, the bleu cheese was as stinky as you'd expect. Salty, aromatic and gooey, I cannot imagine a better balance for the other flavors. Between the cheese, the bacon, the foie gras, the onions and the meat itself, it's the perfect combination of sweet, salty and savory, like a chocolate-covered pretzel but more offensive to PETA. And therefore better.
My only complaint about the normal burger at Village Whiskey was the price: no toppings are included, and adding anything to the meat quickly turns an affordable meal into an expensive one. So why does the $26 receive a higher rating? For one thing, you know what you're getting into: the Whiskey King is a special occasion kind of burger, and you expect to pay more. The other, more important consideration, is it's simply a better burger. You could argue that it's a psychological trick, where paying more causes the diner to think the experience is superior, but if someone takes holistic medicine and is cured do you find fault with the results?
The answer is yes, because holistic medicine is bullshit. But burgers are not bullshit, and the experience of the Whiskey King is in all aspects superior to the Village Burger. More than that, the Whiskey King is in all aspects superior to every other burger we've had.
It seemed so obvious, so stereotypical, to give this sandwich such high marks. Everyone raved about it, everyone loved it, and it's part of the reason I avoided it for so long. It's the teenage (or, if you live in Fishtown, mid-30s) music snob thing: you've never heard of my favorite band, and if you have I liked them before they were popular, and now that they're popular I hate them. Part of me wanted the burger to be a bust, so I could thumb my nose at everyone (see: Laurence). But it looks like the snobs were right. Pet Sounds is an amazing album, Iron Man is god, and the Whiskey King is, for now, the best burger in Philadelphia. Hail to the king, baby. Rating: 10/10.
Laurence: The King demands respect. Much like the royalty of old, The Whiskey King will end your life if you do not bow before its majesty. It is something of a beast, and fulfills the umami atomic bomb blast in the mouth I so often hoped would be unleashed by other burgers.
Upon his majesty gracing your table, you will first notice his crown, a fat slab of semi-solid fois gras, fried and placed lovingly on his cheese-covered pate. It may be a bit off-putting particularly if you are not a fan of pâté. If you find the concept of fois gras to send a shiver up your spine, I can tell you, you are among friends in this review. Here's why you should ignore your inner picky eater and go for the glory with this burger anyway: It's a topping. Toppings aren't meant to be a meal, they are meant to be an enhancement. You might not eat a spoon full of cream cheese either, but you're perfectly happy to but it on a bagel. The same applies with the King and his minion, fois gras. The buttery fat, richness and untold caloric content of this topping skyrocket the meal into a realm seldom visited by those this side of bypass surgery. The flavor imparted by the pâté is more subtle than I expected, but it is part of the puzzle created by these phenomenal ingredients. When combined with the thick smokey bacon and pungent cheese, and of course 8 oz. of some of the best meat that's ever been ground, you are creating a mental time warp. With your first bite you somehow commune with the brain of your neanderthal ancestors and you understand on a deep level that this meal ensures your survival and that you would cudgel to death anyone standing between you and it. If you think I'm exaggerating, you haven't eaten it yet.
We've commented on the bacon here before, but to summarize, it is some of the best on any burger in the city with the only obvious exception being the bacon at Amada, which is also part of Iron Man's plot to take all the money you have. At Village Whiskey the bacon is thick and has a deep red color, and none of the white gristle and fat you find in lower-quality bacon. It is marbled and when cooked becomes a perfect consistency and texture, rich in flavor, salt and raw protein.
The other big standout among the King's legion of advisors is the spread of maple bourbon-glazed cipollini onions. Cipollinis are a white onion and on the sweet side. In their configuration, serving as a bed for the king, they are an explosion of flavor. They have been cooked to the point just before loosing all recognizable form. But while they have lost structural integrity they have gained the wisdom of a bourbon-filled crucible. Now if anything, these onions came out a touch too sweet for me. I enjoy savory and salty flavors but rarely any sweetness, and the concoction surpassed my threshold for simple carbohydrates.
If you are a longtime reader you may be pondering to yourself how I respond to the cheese, because close observers will note that I don't like strong cheese. If you are a longtime reader, my first question to you is, “Have you found a job yet?” followed by “Have you considered any hobbies?” and “Grandma, can you loan me some money for research for my very important writing?” Well, the cheese was a bit overwhelming for me. But the strong flavor did blend well with the others. The sweetness of the maple and the onions played off of the pungent cheese. It really is a thought-out flavor experience, much more thought out than Cornell's new admission policy. The cheese is another block on the teetering savory tower that is this meal, and unlike Jack Black's recent career choices, it doesn't disappoint in quality or quantity even for those who tend to shy away from such strong flavors.
Halfway through my visit with royalty I noticed my plate was a disaster area, covered in greasy drippings. This was a wonderful sight. Too often we are left with clean, dry plates after a meal, but the King wouldn't have that on his watch. A burger is not meant to be a clean neat little meal. It is supposed to require three napkins and leave your hands moisturized by steak oils. It is a sign of triumph to see such messy ceramic and I was vocal to this effect in between grunts of enjoyment.
A visit with the King is going to set you back. Surely as he passes and sees your fruitful land he will decide to increase your tax and then probably sleep with your wife. Yet you swear allegiance to this opulent meal. Is it worth it, though? Yes. If you've joined the quest for the holy cow, you must heed the visit with the King at least once because it is a burger without equal in the city. But whether you should order it again depends on your taste. I for one found no fault in Village Whiskey's lesser burger, and in a way I prefer it because it is customizable. Even with an increase in prices (a burger starts at $11 now) for less money than the King I can deck out Village Whiskey's standard offering with avocado, caramelized onions, a fried egg, truffled mushrooms and bacon, or get the more practical and my personal favorite onion/egg/bacon combination, which will only run $16.50. I do love an egg on my burger...
Throw a Manhattan from the newly update drink list (which you should do, because Manhattans 1. get you drunk, and 2. taste like they were made by someone who loves you) and you've got a night that can really only be enjoyed on special occasions. That's fine though, because we all have special occasions occur a few times during a year and Village Whiskey gives a lot more at a better price than an upscale restaurant specializing in molecular gastronomy. At Village Whiskey you're going to get something you like and hard cocktails, mixed to perfection to match in a setting that is both classy and relaxed. The menu is small but they just do everything so damn well. Rating: 9/10.
You need to eat this burger once in your life. If you survive, eat it again. If you die, convert to Buddhism, reincarnate and eat it again. It's that good.