David Burke's Primehouse
616 N. Rush Street, Chicago IL 60611 (map); 312-660-6000; jameshotels.com
Cooking Method: Charbroiled
Short Order: Burke meets his goal of creating a burger that encapsulates a steakhouse, and global civilization is better off because of it.
Want Fries With That? The fresh cut skin-on fries are delicious, but the Asiago truffle potato skins are mind-blowing.
With Robyn Lee joining Ed Levine in Chicago for a few days surrounding the Gold Peak Iced Tea/Serious Eats event at Blackbird, there was no question that I would have to get together with Robyn for a Chicago burger. I let Robyn choose the place and after consulting a couple of people, she settled on David Burke's Primehouse. It was a decision I wholeheartedly embraced as Primehouse serves my current choice for the best burger in Chicago and quite possibly the best I have ever had.
David Burke's three and a half-year-old Chicago outpost is a classic steakhouse with a unique twist: Every piece of beef comes from a descendant of one busy bull named Prime 207L that Burke purchased for a cool quarter million bucks. When the meat arrives at the restaurant, it is butchered and sent downstairs to dry age in a climate-controlled meat locker with walls lined with Himalayan salt. We actually got to tour the room after we finished the meal and I think all four of us (Robyn and I were joined her friend Rose Miller and Chicago cheeseburger maven Kevin Pang) were ready to grab some sleeping bags and move in—the room smelled like truffles and butter.
The ground chuck from the burger comes from pieces of meat that has aged for 40 days. Primehouse sells steaks aged from "lite age" to 75 days, but according to Pang, executive chef Rick Gresh settled on 40 days for the burgers because that's when he finds a subtle blue cheese and mushroom flavor in the meat. Dry aging does two things to beef: First, it allows moisture to evaporate, which increases the concentration of meat flavor; second, the enzymes in the meat have time to break down the connective tissue in the meat, which results in more tender beef.
The combination of Prime 207L's powerful genes and 40 days in the meat locker results in some of the most flavorful beef I have ever eaten. We ordered two burgers to split between the four of us (a degree of restraint my head respects but my heart still hates): one cooked medium rare (pictured above) and one cooked rare. Both burgers were charbroiled at 900°F for the absolute perfect amount of time. The beef is incredibly rich and almost has a lamb-like flavor to it. The burger is incredibly dense, yet not remotely close to being too chewy. There is ample charring on the outside that provides nice textural balance to the soft interior. Of the two, I preferred the rare one, but these things are so good that I think I would be happy eating a well done burger from Primehouse every day for the rest of my life.
If Primehouse burgers were served plain on a plate, they would still make a truly great meal. But the toppings, bun, and sides complement the patty and raise the overall experience by a great deal. The burgers are topped with garlic spinach and a nice pile of crispy shallots. Cheese is offered as an additional topping, but—and this is the only place I have been to where I would say this—it is unnecessary and might even get in the way. Any creaminess that cheese could provide is already there thanks to the savory bacon mayonnaise spread on the lightly toasted potato bun. The flavors work so well together that I would not want to risk throwing anything off by adding an extra element.
Needless to say, none of us added ketchup or mustard to this perfectly balanced burger. Kevin told us that he learned from Gresh that the goal of the burger is to encapsulate a steakhouse experience, hence, the inclusion of spinach, fried onions and bacon, and the exclusion of cheese and traditional burger condiments.
Since we ordered two burgers, we opted to get one with fries and one with the usual accompaniment, Asiago truffle potato skins. I thought the skin-on fries at Primehouse were very good, but I was absolutely blown away by the skins. These small thin shavings of potato skin were soaked in flavor from the cheese and truffle and retained a nice level of crispiness. Part of me still feels bad that Kevin and I hoarded the skins, but I'm pretty sure Robyn and Rose actually preferred the fries. At least that's what I keep telling myself.
Since we were so good at exercising restraint in our burger ordering, we deserved a reward, which came in the form of two root beer floats. The floats had no ice cream, but the combination of root beer sorbet and vanilla cream soda worked really well as a very sweet, but not overpowering concoction. The floats were topped off with a piece of root beer candy tuile, which are so good that it's a shame it is not sold separately in stores.
I think that most people who have had it would agree that the Primehouse burger is a great deal at $12. But there are even better deals available for lunch every day, except on Sunday (the day we went) when the menu is focused on dim sum. There is a three course lunch [PDF] available for $20.09, which can include both the burger and the root beer float (among other offerings) as well as a choice of one of nine different appetizers. Whether you go for three courses or just the burger, you will walk out of Primehouse a very happy person.