Serious Eats: Chicago
Chicago: A Very Good Burger is Not Worthy of a Kitchen as Great as Nightwood's
2119 South Halsted Street, Chicago IL 60608 (map); 312-526-3385; nightwoodrestaurant.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Excellent burger but perhaps worth skipping in favor of some of this excellent restaurant's more creative offerings
Want Fries With That? Yes I do. These hand-cut fries are soft on the inside and crisp and well-salted on the outside
Price: Half-pound burger (w/fries), $13
I love that "cheffy burgers" are popping up on menus at contemporary American restaurants that typically aim higher than traditional backyard fare. When I was on the fence about a proposed trip to Nightwood in Pilsen to check out what Steve Dolinsky called the best roast chicken in Chicago, I was won over by the presence of a burger on the menu. But while I ended up with a very good, straightforward burger, it was unworthy of a restaurant as good as Nightwood.
Most of the menu changes regularly at Nightwood but the burger is a mainstay. On the night of my visit, the burger was their typical offering: a cheeseburger topped with white cheddar and some dark greens, and a Thousand Island-like dressing. From time to time, fresh seasonal ingredients inspire the kitchen to get a bit more creative. A couple of weeks ago, for example, the restaurant offered the The Steely Ram, a burger topped with grilled ramps, blue cheese, soppressata, and an over easy duck egg, and also included a malt vinegar mayonnaise.
When Nightwood buys beef, they order up an entire cow from Slagel Family Farm. The burger is made from various trimmings as well as the shoulder. Shoulder is among the more lean parts of the cow, so it might have been to blame for the burger not delivering a home run of beefiness. But that's being too nit-picky; this was an excellent, well-salted hunk of juicy ground beef that got a really nice crust from the wood-burning grill.
The ciabatta buns are delivered daily from Fox & Obel, one of Chicago's finest bread producers. They have the typical heavy crust and all the flavor of traditional ciabatta, including the bit of sourdough tang, but the interior of the bread is as soft as a traditional hamburger bun.
I ordered it rare, but the challenges of the wood-burning grill proved too much for the otherwise flawless kitchen that night and I got a patty somewhere between medium and medium rare. Overcooking aside, there was no problem at all with this burger. The bun looks a little big, but its airiness rendered its size moot; this was a very well-balanced burger.
The fries were excellent. The hand-cut, skin-on beauties had a soft interior and a crisp exterior. The golden sticks were packed with potato flavor and covered with a healthy dose of salt.
In addition to the fries, which come with the burger, I tried an appetizer of fried Meyer lemons that blew me away. These thinly sliced pieces of sweet and sour citrus were extra flavorful thanks to a quick bath in hot oil. They were served with a pickle aioli that was delicious, but the fruit was so good no condiments were required
If this review comes off as less than enthusiastic, that should not be taken as a condemnation of Nightwood's very good burger. But as I thought about what I ate, I realized the bun was the only thing out of the ordinary. Because that's the component that has stayed with me, I can't help wondering whether there's any point to buying a burger at a restaurant like this when the kitchen does so much more with other dishes. Of course, if I'd had The Steely Ram, I'd probably be singing an altogether different tune.