500 N. Clark Street, Chicago IL 60654 (map); 312-321-6242; naha-chicago.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: An absolutely stellar burger with no flaws whatsoever, but more expensive than is reasonable
Want Fries With That? Only if you like fries with a crisp exterior, a soft interior and bursting with potato flavor
Price:Half-pound burger, $17; w/cheese, +$3
After the hamburger nightmare described in my last review, I knew I had to bring the delicious this time around to appease the burger gods. I was determined to pick a place where an outstanding burger was all but guaranteed. And so it was that I ended up at Naha, where chef Carrie Nahabedian has been putting out some of the city's best food for 10 years and was just awarded a Michelin star.
Nahabedian, a Chicago native, stated cooking professionally when she entered the kitchen at Chicago's Ritz Carlton Hotel at the age of 17. From there she embarked on a whirlwind career that included stops at the legendary Sinclair's where she worked alongside future superchefs Charlie Trotter and Suzy Crofton and years in Southern California where she was Executive Chef at two different Four Seasons properties. Ten years ago, she returned home to open Naha with her brother, successful restaurateur Michael Nahabedian (Café Absinthe and Green Dolphin Street).
The cuisine at Naha reflects a blend of French, Mediterranean, and American culinary traditions that are touched by the Armenian cooking of Nahabedian's childhood. All of that is brought together with an ethos that heavily emphasizes locally sourced ingredients. The food at Naha is exquisite, and the burger, far from being an afterthought, is one of the jewels on the menu. At $17 without cheese, it's among the priciest burgers in town, but in a classic tale of "you get what you pay for," it's also one of the best.
The patty, an 80/20 blend of prime beef, is about as good as ground cow gets. The meat was well salted and cooked perfectly on the wood-burning grill. There are three or four options for cheese and I opted for my personal standby, blue cheese. In this case, that meant Valdeon, a soft, tangy blue that I would present as Exhibit A in the debate over which cheese goes best on a burger.
I ordered my burger rare and got exactly what I was hoping for. When beef this good is being served, I want as little flavor as possible cooked out of it. The only downside was that the crust on the burger was quite a bit too soft, but that was a very minor flaw. All of the burgers come with a leaf of fresh lettuce and a juicy roasted tomato that was remarkably flavorful for a December fruit. On the side are three small dishes of ketchup, caramelized onions, and a mixture of stone ground mustard and mayonnaise. I left the ketchup alone, but the other two optional add-ons both complemented my burger exceptionally. Equally good was the bun, a housemade sea salt ciabatta that was crisp and chewy and on par with the restaurant's outstanding bread service.
The fries, which are included in the price of the burger, could be used as teaching aids in fry college. These hand-cut, skin-on golden beauties feature a crisp exterior and smooth interior and are positively bursting with a potato flavor that is made all the better by the large grains of sea salt that are sprinkled about. Feeling a bit under the weather on this visit, I was well past full by the time I finished my burger, but these fries were simply too good to not finish, especially when dipped in my remaining mustard/mayonnaise mixture.
The entire menu at Naha is packed with mouth-watering options that every serious eater in Chicago should sample. But sometimes, no matter how creative some entrées may be, there is nothing more appealing than a simple burger. And at Naha, that option will always treat you very well.