Chicago: Burgers at Bull & Bear Show Promise, but Fall Flat on Flavor

20110519-bull-and-bear-intro.jpg

[Photographs: Daniel Zemans]

Bull & Bear

431 N. Wells Street, Chicago, IL 60654 (map); 312-527-5973; bullbearbar.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Burgers show promise but were doomed by cooking that missed the mark
Want Fries With That? The hand-cut fries were flavorful but too soft; you're better off with the addictive (pre-cut) sweet potato fries
Price: The Bull & Bear Burger, $18; Blue Chip Burger, $13 (both come with fries)

At first glance, Bull & Bear in Chicago's River North neighborhood doesn't appear to be the kind of place that makes its food a priority. After all, this is a place that had Brody Jenner show up to host a Valentine's Day party and where Jay Cutler hangs out to watch the Playboy Club's 50th Anniversary Bunny Search. But while there's no question the scene is a major focus of this upscale sports bar and the target market is the type of person who actually does keep up with at least some of the Kardashians, executive chef David Blonsky is determined to make food that appeals to everyone.

The brunch, lunch and dinner menus at Bull & Bear all list the same five burgers: three beef, one bison, and one veggie. I left the non-beef options alone and focused my efforts on two of the beef burgers.

20110519-bull-and-bear-kobe-burger-whole.jpg

Up first was the restaurant's signature patty, The Bull & Bear Burger, a thick hunk of American Kobe beef topped with a sweet red onion marmalade and gruyere cheese, all of which is served on a brioche bun with smoked bacon aioli.

20110519-bull-and-bear-kobe-autopsy.jpg

The sweetness from the marmalade works really well with the tangy cheese and salty and smoky aioli, but the burger came up short in the flavor department. A significant part of the problem came from the kitchen's failure to deliver the medium rare patty that was ordered, but the problem went deeper than that. The beef, hand-formed in house but ground in California, did not impart nearly enough flavor for an $18 burger, a flaw enhanced by the density of the tightly packed meat.

20110519-bull-and-bear-blue-cheese-burger-whole.jpg

I had better luck with the Blue Chip Burger, made from "regular" beef served with a healthy dose of Maytag blue cheese, some house smoked bacon, fried shallots, and a piquillo pepper sauce. Like the Bull & Bear burger, this one is served on a brioche that is slightly sweet and loaded with butter. Unlike the Bull & Bear Burger, this one is made from beef ground in-house. The burger is a blend of chuck, short rib, rib eye, and sirloin.

20110519-bull-and-bear-blue-cheese-autopsy.jpg

I've never complained about a burger being undercooked and I'm not going to start now, but I was surprised to see the rare burger come out as nothing more than seared ground beef. My complaint about this burger is that the beef is simply not good enough to pull off this kind of preparation. The other patty might have been overcooked, but it clearly benefited by picking up some seasoning from its extended run on the grill. This apparently unsalted patty was insufficiently seasoned and also failed to explode with beefy flavor.

20110519-bull-and-bear-truffle-fries.jpg

Truffle fries.

All of the burgers at Bull & Bear are served with hand-cut fries made from Idaho potatoes. In the case of the restaurant's eponymous burger, the fries are of the truffle variety. Both sets of fries delivered plenty of quality potato flavor, though the truffle ones were a bit overwhelmed by the seasoning. Unfortunately, both sets of fries were not crisp at all.

20110519-bull-and-bear-sweet-potato-fries.jpg

Even though the restaurant wasn't very full the afternoon I went, the kitchen was having problems getting the food out in a timely manner. Our server handled the wait as well as possible, checking on us and apologizing, and eventually delivering a free plate of sweet potato fries to hold us over until the rest of the food arrived. These fries aren't cut in house, but they were the best of the meal in terms of flavor and texture. Topped with a mix of cinnamon and sugar, these sweet sticks of potato came with the crisp exterior and soft interior that is the hallmark of a perfectly cooked fry.

There's no doubt in my mind that Bull & Bear can put out a better burger meal than the one I had. The food was slow to come out and the kitchen somehow managed to overcook one burger and undercook the other. As a regular diner, I almost never send my food back. But as a reviewer, I'm wondering whether I should send back burgers in cases like this. Given the lack of beefy punch in the extremely rare burger, I don't think there's any chance I would have gotten a great burger, but I could have gotten something a bit better. If you were in my position, would you have sent the rare burger back?