Martiniburger. It’s a great name for a restaurant. Even before you arrive you can picture it in your mind: As sleek as a cocktail lounge, with subtle lighting, cool music and even cooler people tucking into prime patties of best beef. And you wouldn’t be far wrong.
Except for one detail: You visualize it in one of Tokyo’s ritzier districts — behind the boutiques of Omotesando perhaps, or in upwardly mobile Azabu-Juban. Instead you find yourself trudging away from the bright lights of Kagurazaka, down to the unfashionable, unheralded slope known as Watanabezaka.
The short stroll is absolutely worth it, though, if only for the double-take when you get there, the frisson of disbelief when you spot Martiniburger for the first time. If you arrive in the evening, as we did, you see it gleaming like a beacon, as if it had been beamed down into this modest, traditional neighborhood not from another part of town but all the way from the hippest heart of New York City.
Through the full-frontal expanse of window glass you gaze in on the dining room, with its precise layout; modern furniture; widescreen footage of classic soul, funk and blues artists; and, at the back, the bar, decked out with comfy, chunky stools, beautifully illuminated by a glowing band of indigo. The look is sharp and spare, decorated only by a gleaming row of vodka bottles and a shelf of backlit cocktail glasses.
And behind that bar is where you’ll find Eliot Bergman, Martiniburger’s owner and creator. A transplanted New Yorker (Washington Heights was his ‘hood), long-term Tokyo resident and burger aficionado, he left his career — as a graphic designer, how did you guess? — to bring Tokyo the kind of restaurant that he himself was craving. A place that would serve the kind of food he grew up on, but with taste, poise and panache.
It is Bergman who will pull your first glass of beer. He only offers one option but it’s good: Brooklyn Lager, a flavorful amber brew that’s hard to find on tap in Japan. Or perhaps you want to go straight to one of those double martinis you’ve been thinking about on the way (admit it). Bergman makes sure they’re nice and dry — and strong.
Likewise, when it comes to the food, it’s obviously the burgers you’re already salivating for. But the evening menu offers a lot more to divert your attention. From the starters, we were sorry to find that the house-cured salmon was unavailable, but the chicken quesadillas kept us happy while we browsed the list of main dishes and specials.
So what was it to be? The spicy chili served with fresh tortilla slices? Meat loaf and gravy? Or a Cuban sandwich with plenty of yellow mustard (Bergman says only blue-collar mustard will do for this Nuyorican favorite)? Or maybe a grilled meat dish?
Be warned, though: Portions are ample, closer to what you’d expect in the Big Apple than we’re used to here in Tokyo. Order the meat loaf, for example, and you get two very hefty slices of melt-in-the-mouth meat moistened with a savory mushroom gravy, and salad and good mash on the side. It was some of the best American-style comfort food we’ve been served in a long time — and a proper plateful too.
Vegetarians need not feel entirely left out. Having tried the Mac ‘n’ Cheese as a side dish, we can equally recommend it as a main. The pasta (strictly speaking it’s not macaroni) is cooked in a rich, creamy bechamel-base sauce, scattered on top with sage-accented french bread crumbs and nicely browned in the oven.
At lunch the menu is much more compact; burgers are just about all you can order. Where to start? The eponymous Martiniburger, naturally.
The first thing that strikes you is the way it’s served. Each of the elements — patty, sauce (we second Bergman’s recommendation of blue cheese), tomato and pickle — is laid out separately on the plate. You assemble them yourself; that way the buns don’t get too soggy.
And that’s the second thing: The exterior of the patty (200 grams, all Aussie beef) is beautifully browned and seared. But inside it’s a lovely shade of rare red and dripping with juices. Go ahead and devour it with your hands. That’s what the napkins are for. You’ll need at least three.
Third: That burger may look simple and unadorned — don’t ask for ketchup; there are no fries either — but in terms of flavor, it hits the bull’s eye. And for that we must tip our hat to Bergman’s chef, Jason. Also a native New Yorker (Flushing, in the borough of Queens), he really seems to have the city’s DNA in his cooking.
Those with a long memory may remember Jason as the chef who started up Suji’s in Roppongi (and before that in Seoul). That may be a dubious recommendation for some people, but here at Martiniburger he is working with quality ingredients and producing quality food: There’s no comparison. If you need any more convincing, just finish up your meal with one of his dense, lingering chocolate brownies, or better yet a slice of his cheesecake, which is moist and substantial in true Yankee style.
Right now, there is no one else in Tokyo capturing that depth of New York food and flavor. And in terms of look, too, nowhere comes close. This is no eat-and-run burger joint; it’s also more than just a local hangout. Martiniburger is a destination restaurant and definitely worth leaving the standard dining comfort zone for.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5