Published October 18. 2012 4:00AM
It's a good sign when, after two visits to the same new restaurant, you've got a list of things you want to try next time - things you would've gladly tried during those first two visits, but were simply impossible to fit into a full belly.
One of the first items I'll order next time I hit Haywire Burger Bar in Westbrook is the coffee milkshake spiked with vodka.
Take a second to soak in that stroke of menu-planning genius.
While I did sample a vanilla shake laced with whiskey, my husband had to drink most of it, because I had my eye on the prize: fried pickles to start, with a turkey burger chaser. I'd have been sunk if I filled up on delicious, vanilla-bean dairy-ness, but at the very least, I can hereby recommend it. It's like great eggnog, only lighter. If you prefer the subtleness of vodka, choose from four options (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and coffee) on the creative cocktail list. Note: whiskey shakes are not on the menu, but having seen the option at other restaurants, we inquired with our waitress who was happy to check with the bartender, who obliged immediately.
Now, I've written in this space before about how great a perfected fried pickle can be. Part crispy-crunch, part sour, part refreshing, fried pickles realize to their full potential at Haywire, coated in what tasted like a cornmeal batter and served with a fabulous ranch sauce. They were so tasty the first time we ate at Haywire, we ordered them the second time. It's a great, small dish ($6.50) to start with and serves three (polite eaters) easily.
Speaking of foods prepared to their highest expression, let's discuss Haywire's turkey burger. I think most of us have been disappointed by dry, mealy turkey burgers. Not so at Haywire, where all burger-bound meats are ground on the premises (there's a lamb burger, too). So, when you have a chef who's aware of the importance of meat prep and handling, what you get are fantastic beef burgers and tender, juicy turkey burgers.
Stroke of genius #2: the turkey burger comes with feta cheese, spinach, red wine vinaigrette and red onion on an "eight-grain roll." Amateur hands often render turkey safely bland, but when a versatile base like turkey is paired with salty feta and zesty vinaigrette, the flavors merge well to create palatable harmony. I paired it with waffle fries and was stuffed before I could get through half the pile of the thick, crisp, delicious spuds.
But Haywire is a burger bar, so let's get down to business: beef burgers. From a menu of more than a dozen options, we first narrowed the list of what we wanted down to four. As single-stomached beings, we begrudgingly whittled that list down to two - the Frico and the Aloha ($12) - and placed two more on the to-eat list (the lamb "Mediterraneo" burger and the Sunny Side with an egg on top).
An Aloha is, essentially, the Hawaiian pizza of burger-dom: burger, shaved ham, grilled pineapple, provolone cheese, red onion and lime mayo. It's a tall burger thanks to that slab of pineapple, which, in our sampling, was a toothy, tasty, zesty, never overwhelming complement to the overall burger. It's a rich dish for sure, so take caution when ordering side dishes or apps.
I would have taken that advice on visit number one, when I substituted eggplant fries for the shoestring fries that come with each burger (several sub-ins for the shoestrings are available). Though they taste fairly light (and, in truth, a bit bland), those slim strips of eggplant fill a fried-pickle-occupied belly quickly. Of course, the shoestrings are so delicious, a first-timer to Haywire is bound to fill up on those, too, so maybe cut those burgers in half and save some for later. Somehow the generous portion of onion straws we subbed in with the Aloha were just the right amount of crispy side dish.
Back to the burgers. The Frico ($10.50) impresses on two levels: it's a thing to behold and it's delicious. As the menu describes it, the Frico comes topped with crispy provolone, pickles, onion and spicy ketchup. That crispy provolone cheese doesn't just cover the burger - it expands out, like the universe, to create a halo around the entirety of the burger, bun and all.
Doubly great is how well the layer of pickle adds texture to the whole package and zip to a mild cheese like provolone. As for the "spicy" ketchup, it's more like seasoned ketchup, and it's very nice.
As an equal opportunity taster, I had to try a meat-free dish, too, and I must recommend the Grown-Up Grilled Cheese ($8), listed in the "No Burgers" section of the menu: it's a beautifully balanced sandwich of expertly melted gruyere and cheddar on wonderful sourdough bread. It looks smallish, but it's quite filling, particularly thanks to the tomato soup "shooter" that comes with the dish. A shooter here is equivalent to a generous double-shot glass, and it's really just the right amount of soup to accompany this sandwich. It's fresh, earthy and a clever way to add the preferred accompaniment to one of life's great comfort foods.
Haywire has entered a competitive burger market and holds its own with some of the region's great burger destinations. What's more, the menu states that Haywire's Angus beef comes from animals raised in humane conditions. But still better is Haywire's menu balance, which features salads, lighter sandwiches, some fish dishes and, most important, mac and cheese.
All of that attention to detail amounts to a welcome addition to the shoreline food scene.