When news first broke that Carole Peck, our east coast answer to Alice Waters, would be opening a burger joint adjacent to her popular farm-to-table Good News Café in Woodbury, the first thing I did was clear my calendar.
The second thing I did was ask the obvious question. Was this the same Carole Peck who has been running the Café in Woodbury since 1993, hosting culinary trips to France and espousing local farms?
Burgers? Carole, really?
Actually it makes perfect sense that Peck, who has been committed to sourcing locally and seasonally for Good News Café for almost twenty years, would want to widen her spectrum and open a more accessible establishment using the same approach that has won her accolades and a loyal following. Fueled by an extended financial recession, the inexpensive luxuries of the gourmet burger joint formula has been trending in Connecticut. Staying true to her signature style, Peck has joined this fray by creating the farm stand version of the burger joint.
The nod to farm stand begins upon approach. A series of white signs announces “Zeeburger” and “Sizzle & Shake” as if they were just-picked vegetables for sale at a quaint road-side produce stand. Inside the simple and unadorned pine walls, chalkboards and linoleum floor continue the market feel, culminating in a menu filled with grass-fed beef and house-made condiments. Carole herself was even behind the counter prepping and chopping away despite some opening month hiccups*.
Central to Zee's approach is a grass-fed beef burger on a Whole G Baker’s brioche role. Burgers come in ¼ lb and 6 oz. versions and surprisingly, alternative burger choices outnumber their red meat cousins, with options such as Zee’s Slammin’ Salmon, Zee Shroom Stack, Zee Falafel, Zee Tweety Bird and Zee Cheddar Cheeser (a grilled cheese sandwich). A list of toppings come free, but there are a few including the smoked jalapeno relish you can (I should say, MUST) add for a mere $.60.
The ¼ lb burger is a small imperfectly formed patty of juicy meat, cooked a little beyond ideal temperature on my first visit, yet beyond rewarding in its juicy, full-flavored beefiness. The roll was good, but I found myself tossing it aside to get up close and personal to the patty. I added just a bit of the house-made ketchup but found myself reaching for my husband’s fully-fixed burger, complete with tomato, asian pickles and Carole’s ketsup. The full condiment embrace is the way to go. The latter is a mean combination of mayonnaise and house made ketsup you may find yourself swabbing at with several salty hand-cut french fries, and then when those are polished off, just about anything else you can find at your table.
Although it’s not called Zee Dogs, it could be. Don’t miss the Zee Mean Kobe Beef Dog which comes with jalapeno relish or the Zee Tweety Dog with a cranberry carrot ginger relish, each stuffed into a portugese-style bun. My choice is the Kobe Dog, a thick frankfurter with that same killer relish that will make you break a sweat and chug your beer.
The salads sound intriguing in their own right with a Zee Crunchy Kale and Popeye Spinach and Shroom that, were I a vegetarian, would have seriously threatened to derail operation burger. They failed, but there is always a next time or an unsuspecting vegetarian friend.
A recommended beverage pairing for any Zee burger is a bottle of Narragansett. If you’d prefer not to imbibe, definitely grab a shake. Pricey and hefty, both milk shakes and floats are made with Connecticut’s Arethusa Farm Dairy ice cream and weigh in at 16 oz. and $6.50.
Zee Burger shows us there is plenty of room for interpretation on something as classically American as the burger, and Peck's concept of the farm stand burger joint is one of the most compelling examples yet.
Zee Burger is located in Woodbury, CT and is open from Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Information online at www.zeeburger.com.
* On our first visit, Zee was thick with smoke and backed up with orders. Dissapointed but not deterred we waited more than an hour before making our way back. Our patience was rewarded. We have also since heard, as of May 24, they have upgraded their ventilation system.
[Photography courtesy of Elizabeth Dorney & Amy Kundrat]