Prairie Grass Cafe
601 Skokie Boulevard, Northbrook IL 60062 (map); 847-205-4433; prairiegrasscafe.com
Cooking Method: Top Sirloin Burger, broiled; Stack Burgers, grilled
Short Order: The Top Sirloin Burger, billed by Chicago Magazine as the best in Chicago, is very good, but not even the best burger in the restaurant.
Want Fries With That? Sure, but neither the steak fries nor the regular fries are on the same level as the burgers
Price: Top Sirloin Burger, $15; Stack Burgers, $6, $8, or $11 depending on the number of patties.
When Chicago Magazine named Prairie Grass Café, a contemporary American restaurant in the northern suburbs of Chicago, as the home of Chicagoland's best burger, I knew I was duty-bound to check it out.
Prairie Grass is powered by two chefs, Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris, who worked together for years at the Ritz-Carlton (he was the Executive Chef for thirteen years). Rounding out the executive team at Prairie Grass is Stegner's husband, Rohit Nambiar, who is the General Manager, and her mother, Elizabeth Stegner, who makes the restaurant's popular pies.
Prairie Grass is decidedly not a burger joint; it is an upscale (in quality and style, not price) restaurant featuring American cuisine with a heavy emphasis on utilizing local farms and sustainable agriculture. Located in the northern suburb of Northbrook right off of I-94, Prairie Grass is not inconveniently located, but it's far enough out of the way that city dwellers have to go out of their way to eat there. Judging from the crowds that have routinely showed up at Prairie Grass since it opened five years ago, the location has not been a hindrance in the least.
The Top Sirloin Burger is 10 ounces of ground sirloin with a crust of soft mild blue cheese. My burger was cooked to a perfect medium rare as requested. The burger is charbroiled for most of the cooking time and then finished off in a broiler, resulting in one delicious, juicy delight. The blue cheese was a little light for my tastes, particularly on a burger of this size, but it was still very good. While the flavor of the burger was great, texturally, it left something to be desired as it was far too mushy.
One interesting and mildly disappointing note about the meat is that, despite the restaurant's focus on sustainability and longtime relationship with Tallgrass Beef, the meat from the burgers comes from L & L Packing Company, a local family-owned company whose website does not mention sustainability. Ordinarily, I wouldn't bother mentioning the issue, but since Prairie Grass does such a good job supporting sustainable farming, the choice of meat suppliers stood out as odd.
Served along side the burger were exceptional tomato and red onion and uneventful steak fries. The half of a tomato and two thick slices of onion were grilled to the point that they were exploding with flavor that was great on their own, but even better when eaten with the balsamic vinaigrette that was drizzled over them. I tried putting the vegetables on my burger, but the size and juiciness of the tomato made that difficult.
The bun from Highland Baking Co. was a very good choice. The bread offered a shade of kaiser-esque chew that balanced the overly soft patty very well. I say good choice because ordinarily the burger comes without a bun as the people at Prairie Grass think the burger stands well enough on its own. Along those lines, the Top Sirloin Burger is also served without condiments. That said, the restaurant is certainly happy to supply both a bun and condiments upon request.
Prairie Grass Café's Top Sirloin Burger is a great burger. But the best in Chicago? It's not even the best burger in the restaurant.
On Prairie Grass Café's lunch menu sits the single, double, or triple stack burgers featuring quarter-pound patties of ground chuck. These thin grilled patties have every bit as much flavor as their fancy sirloin cousins even though they are cooked to medium. And that, burger lovers, is lesson number one in the value of fat in a burger. The stack burgers also have a couple of advantages over the sirloin burger due to the fact that they are grilled. Each patty gets a nice touch of smoky flavor and, texturally, each has a little crispness around the edges that make chewing any burger that much more enjoyable. I would have liked a little more charring, but that's nitpicking. There was cheddar on top of each two patty that really brought everything together, figurative and literally—the patties almost seemed to melt into each other.
Like the sirloin burger, the stack burgers also come with a generous amount of grilled red onions. The tomato, however, is not grilled, but fresh, locally grown, and quite good. I was happy to eat the fries, but they were nothing to write home about. While they do have the skin on, they are not cut in-house, and although cooked perfectly well in canola oil, they were not on par with the burgers.
Ordinarily, the stack burgers, which do come with a bun and condiments, are only available at lunch, but I had good luck asking for them for dinner and I find it hard to imagine they'd ever turn people down so long as they ordered other items off the menu as well.
For a restaurant with the quality of food that Prairie Grass Café turns out, the place is surprisingly relaxed in atmosphere and price. The décor, with the exception of flat screen televisions that show nothing but rotating scenes of tranquil prairies, is very simple, featuring heavy wood tables and simple chairs in a large open room. The experience is remarkably pleasant and well worth the trip out to Northbrook.
That said, the folks behind Prairie Grass are (hopefully) weeks away from opening a new restaurant in downtown Chicago called Prairie Fire. They are still waiting for their liquor license and working out the menu. There will be some sort of burger on the menu, but exactly what it will look like remains an open question. Count me as an adamant vote for the Double Stack.
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