Burger review: Chef's Burger Bistro
164 E. Grand Ave. 312-374-3092
Rating: 2 (out of four)
I, the Great Burgerelli, have eaten burgers here, there and everywhere. I have eaten them in the finest of restaurants, in the northern woods of Wisconsin and from a Styrofoam box sitting on the hood of my ketchup-red 1960 Alfa Romeo Spider. But until my visit to Chef's Burger Bistro in Streeterville, I had never had a burger presided over by a certified master chef. To earn that honor, chef/partner Edward Leonard endured a grueling ten-day cooking trial demonstrating his proficiency across a variety of cuisines for the American Culinary Federation. He is, in fact, the only chef holding this distinction in Chicago. Clearly Leonard is a master, but would his burger be masterful?
The burger: Leonard told me that his beef mix, which is ground fresh in-house daily, was developed with some "German butcher" friends and is a bit of an "old-school" blend, which has roughly an 80 percent beef to 20 percent fat ratio. "I know everyone wants lean nowadays, but you need some of that fat to get a juicy patty," he said. I wholeheartedly agree, but though I requested my patty medium-rare, his cooks had left the patty in the Spanish-style Wood Stone charcoal broiler oven a little too long. In fact, both of the thick patties I tried were bereft of juice and had only a touch of pinkness. The meat had a nice mouth-coating beefiness and an earthy, mineral-rich flavor; however, I did not detect a single grain of salt on this under-seasoned patty. I should also mention that patties are available in two sizes: 115 grams (approximately 4 ounces) and 230 grams (roughly 8 ounces) and noted as "hand-forged" on the menu. Why Leonard insists on these idiosyncratic labeling choices, I cannot fathom. Perhaps he fancies himself a European blacksmith?
The bun: Leonard—who said one of the best burgers he ever had came from a little cafe in Dijon, France where the chef ground the meat fresh, made the pickles in-house and the brioche roll from scratch—said he thinks most hamburger rolls are too soft. As a result, he worked with a baker in San Francisco to develop the harder, glazed brioche-style roll used on many of burgers at Chef's Burger Bistro. I admire Leonard's discipline and agree that some buns out there are too soft; however, I do believe that sometimes great chefs overthink things. Leonard's hefty bun was a good size to stand up to the thick patty, but it was also dry and heavy.
The fixings: The extensive choice of toppings—which includes interesting gems such as crab, mortadella, foie gras and pecorino—is befitting of a master chef. One can even order a slather of peanut butter! As a burger expert, I do often like to build my own burger ($6 for the 4-ounce burger or $8 for the 8-ounce, plus 50 cents for cheese, 75 cents for veggies and $1 for luxury ingredients such as foie or crab) but in the hands of a master chef, I decided to defer to Leonard's expertise and his pre-selected topping combinations. While I have groused about the overcooking and the harder bun, Leonard is a master when it comes to orchestrating flavors. His chicken-fried burger ($7 for 4-ounce; $10 for 8-ounce), a fat patty fried in a tempura-like batter slathered with gravy, sauteed mushroom and onion jam, would harden the arteries and capture the heart of the most jaded Waffle House-loving southerner. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but the rich pepper- and mushroom-filled gravy has since inspired a few illicit dreams involving heaping portions of beef stroganoff.
Likewise, his Paris burger, ($7 for the 4-ounce burger, $10 the 8-ounce), topped with sweet onion jam, fondue-like brie, curly frisee greens and candied tomatoes is a revelation. To make these wondrous tomatoes, the skins are removed and they are then coated with vanilla bean paste, tellicherry black pepper and olive oil, and slow-roasted for hours. The sweet, juicy tomato flavor that results might just be the best invention since bottled ketchup.
The fries: I don't want to give away too many of my secrets, but the fact of the matter is, The Great Burgerelli likes to sit close to the kitchen whenever possible to keep a close watch on the preparation of my burger. Unfortunately, at Chef's Burger Bistro, this also allowed me to watch as my glorious batch of duck fat fries ($4) sat underneath a heat lamp for almost ten minutes waiting for my burgers to be cooked. By the time the mahogany-skinned hand-cut fries had arrived at my table, they were soggy and limp. My friend's regular fries, which were cooked to order, were crisp and perfect.
Everything else: A batch of buttermilk onion rings ($4) spent less time under the heat lamp than the duck-fat fries, but they were also a little gritty and unmemorable. Disappointed with the overall meal, I decided to drown my sorrows in a bloody mary ($9) and some house-made doughnuts. The peppery, fresh tomato juice spiked with bright notes of celery salt and crisp, cold vodka was one of the best bloody marys I have ever had. Unfortunately, there was not enough of the cocktail to block the memory of the heavy, dense doughnuts ($3). The fillings, including a chocolate custard and strawberry jam, were almost nonexistent and could not combat the dryness of the dough. The dining room—with its tall silvery banquettes, Sputnik-like modern chandeliers, melting-red tulip pendant lamps and Warhol-like murals of soup cans—-has a splendid '80s feel. I, the Great Burgerelli, am a child of the '90s, and therefore appreciated the soundtrack punctuated with songs from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana.
Bottom line: I do not doubt the skills of Leonard, and the flavor combinations on his burgers are exquisite. But, in a restaurant of this size, a master chef simply cannot cook all the burgers; he must rely on others. Leonard must find a way to bring his cooks up to speed, so that all the effort he spent developing his burger repertoire doesn't result in overcooked meat.
The Great Burgerelli is a fearless seekers of fine burgers.