“Prepare to be blown away.”
With those five words did Matt de Gruyter, the co-owner and co-founder of Next Level Burger, which just opened up in the Whole Foods 365 complex on Ashland Place in Fort Greene, introduce the eatery’s Classic Beyond Burger ($10.55), a gluten-free, 100 percent plant based burger that — cue the applause — actually tastes like a burger.
Now, I’ve been largely vegetarian for the past eight months or so, and haven’t had a burger made from beef in the interim, so it’s something I actually craved. Biting in, I was dubious, but my taste buds quickly won over my sceptical intellect. I knew I wasn’t eating beef, but, dang, if that burger didn’t taste like I was.
That was perhaps the biggest surprise during my first foray into what Next Level cooks up. That said, even the burgers (and there are 11 of them on the menu) that don’t taste like beef are flavorful, dense and satisfying.
It’s no surprise to me, therefore, that this small west coast dining chain, which debuted in Bend, Oregon in July of 2014, has grown from one to six eateries in three and a half years, forging a connection with Whole Foods, which counts Next Level in its Friends of 365 Program, which also brought a juice joint and Orwasher’s Bagels to the Whole Foods 365 complex.
The Brooklyn Burger ($9.95) — an exclusive to the Fort Greene location — is listed as a special on a poster hanging over the counter. It combines what Next Level calls a “House Made Umami Mushroom and Quinoa Patty” with vegan smoked Gouda cheese, tempeh bacon, caramelized onions and a molasses-based barbecue sauce, hitting both sweet and salty notes, though neither dominated.
Also yummy was the Mexicali Burger ($8.45), this one a patty composed of black beans and vegetables topped with guacamole and jalapeno mayo, for some added zing. It’s also organic and house-made — so it’s not only good, but good for you.
I had another surprise when I tasted the Next Level Dog ($8.45). If I was sceptical about the Beyond Burger, I was doubly sceptical about trying a vegan hot dog garnished with tomatoes, red onion and cucumber. Even if the mention of “Special Sauce” — which topped the hot dog — brought up visions of Mickey D’s, the finishing sprinkle of toasted black sesame seeds immediately put that idea to rest.
Now, don’t get the idea that it tasted like a frankfurter. It didn’t, but it was good — tasty and firm in texture, and the pleasantly spicy sauce waved away any craving I may have had for my hot dog standby, deli mustard. Not on this dog!
I also sampled the soy milk-based Mint Chocolate Chip Shake (small, $5.95; regular, $7.45). It was so dense and sweet and creamy, I completely forgot it was non-dairy.
As de Gruyter — who came up with the restaurant concept with wife Cierra, who developed the recipes — noted, “Our vision was to reinvent the all-American burger joint.”
That they were successful is clear from the reception the eatery has gotten. In Brooklyn, two days after opening, a solid crowd was waiting patiently for their burgers, dogs and shakes.
And, when Next Level opened in Portland in 2015, recalled de Gruyter, “It just lit up. There were lines out the door for days and days.” That brought the restaurant to the attention of the executive chef for Whole Foods, who lived nearby, eventually bringing Next Level into Whole Foods’ at-that-time-nascent Friends concept, which sought like-minded innovators focused on creating food that was both healthful and flavorful.
The two attributes are crucial to the chain’s success thus far — and grew out of the couple’s own life circumstances. As he explained, the de Gruyters had gravitated toward a 100 percent plant-based diet after his mother died at 56 of breast cancer in 2010 and Cierra discovered that she had “a strong gluten sensitivity.”
“She had a lot of books about diet and I began reading them,” de Gruyter went on. The former oilman’s takeaway was that his diet, including plenty of huge steaks, wasn’t particularly healthy.
They were living in California at the time. “We began shifting our diet,” he recalled. However, “There wasn’t a place in Orange County where you could get all plant-based food with all organic produce, that was non-GMO.” That set the couple thinking and just a couple of months later, they put their house on the market, moved to Oregon and opened Next Level Burger.
Looking ahead, de Gruyter said, the company will continue to innovate and improve. “We started with a desire to create a plant-based burger joint. We’ve held true to that. We’ve developed new patties, new toppings and have committed to constant evolution, to get better and better over time.”
NEXT LEVEL BURGER
292 Ashland Place
Brooklyn NY 11217
11 a.m.-11 p.m., daily