1840 W. North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 773-342-1840; chaiseloungechicago.com
Cooking Method: Gas grill
Short Order: Restaurant that specializes in local food and pretty people puts out an outstanding burger.
Want Fries With That? Definitely. The hand cut fries are crisp and delicious, but don't miss out on the mac and cheese.
If you open a restaurant on the Bucktown/Wicker Park border that has a large roof deck and a variety of creative fruity alcoholic beverages—many of which are available by the pitcher—you are guaranteed to have a steady stream of customers who will turn the place into a hot summer night spot. And so it is that Chaise Lounge is routinely filled with pretty party people having a great time. But here's the dirty little secret about Chaise Lounge: The place serves up some outstanding grub with a heavy emphasis on local sustainable foods.
Chef Cary Taylor's impressive culinary background includes stints working for some of Chicago's best chefs—Graham Elliot Bowles, Pual Kahan, and Christian Eckmann—and a pair of three Michelin star restaurants in Spain (Restaurante Arzak and Restaurante Martin Beresategui). At Chaise Lounge, Taylor focuses on contemporary American cuisine and routinely changes his menu with the seasons. Fortunately for us, burgers are never out of season and they have a permanent spot on Taylor's menu.
The centerpiece of the approximately 10-ounce burger at Chaise is, of course the beef. In this case, 100% ground chuck from Dietzler Farms in Wisconsin. Dietzler is a family farm with free range cattle that are fed grains also grown right on the farm. I ordered mine rare and I received the most rare burger I'd had in quite some time; it was still a little cool in the middle. I asked Taylor whether that was intentional since in my experience if a place is going to serve a burger that rare, the server usually warns you. He replied that he thinks people who order burgers rare won't mind because they won't be bothered by the texture and the meat is so good. I think he is absolutely right.
I'm not a sufficiently poetic writer to describe the subtle differences in flavor that separated this meat from some of the other burgers I've eaten, but I can say that even now, about four weeks after eating it, the thought of it still makes me a little giddy. My only complaint is that there was no real crust on the burger, a problem I suspect will remain until Chaise Lounge expands their kitchen and the chef has more than a small gas grill on which to work his burger magic.
Of course, the beef alone is not sufficient to make a burger great. The two-year aged cheddar from Laack Brothers Cheese Company (also in Wisconsin) was outstanding. It had just enough tang that makes cheddar so good without coming close to overpowering the burger. The cheese does not go on the burger at Chaise Lounge until after the cooking is done, which allows it to get warm enough from the heat of the burger while maintaining its identity. There is also a nice piece of bacon from New Hampshire on top of the burger. Taylor used to use the widely beloved Neuske's bacon, but he found it to be a little too smoky. I've never had that complaint about Neuske's, but this was some top quality bacon.
The final touches on the burger are lettuce and tomato, red onion, and some excellent dill pickle slices from a local producer in Chicago. The sesame seed-topped buns are made daily for the restaurant by Highland Baking Company. The bun is a high quality version of a supermarket bun—it does its job and stays out of the way of the rest of the ingredients.
As gourmet burgers go, this one is relatively simple. There are no funky toppings or unique ingredients. But every component of the burger is excellent. In the next month or so, this lone burger on the menu will have a new friend as Taylor is working on a new house ground lamb burger.
The hand cut herb fries are cooked perfectly in a blend of canola and corn oil. They are fresh, crispy on the outside and soft in the inside. The crispy bits at the bottom of the dish were particularly good and made me crave a batch of fresh shoestring potatoes.
As good as the fries were, I liked a couple of the sides even more. Too often, I find garlic spinach to be overcooked and/or overseasoned, as if chefs think people who order it don't actually want to taste the spinach. That was not a problem here—the spinach was cooked but still had a little bit of crunch, and it was perfectly seasoned with Uly's famous garlic butter. (Uly is one of the cooks so his fame is a little limited, but it is very much deserved.) My favorite side was the macaroni and cheese, which featured creamy, lightly smoked gouda from Maple Leaf Cheese, a Wisconsin producer, and some bread crumbs. It was simple and delicious, rich but not overwhelming.
This was my first visit to Chaise Lounge, but it won't be my last. My dining companion, who is usually pretty generous when it comes to sharing, neglected to even offer me a bite of the duck cassoulet, which came with black eyed peas, house made garlic sausage, jamon serrano, and rosemary—it looked and smelled fantastic. There were enough really good looking entrées that I wouldn't mind going back with a large group and eating family-style just so I could try everything. I might even get a pitcher of dragonberry mojitos.