Chicago: Burger Night at Inovasi is Worth the Trip to Lake Bluff
28 East Center Avenue, Lake Bluff IL 60044(map); 847-295-1000; inovasi.us
Cooking Method: Some grilled and some griddled
Short Order: Lake Bluff is about 35 miles from downtown Chicago; these burgers are worth the trip
Want Fries With That? Yes, you certainly do
Price: $11-13 (includes fries)
Notes: Burgers only available Tuesdays
Chef John des Rosiers, owner of Inovasi, does not hold very much back. That's true in the public sphere, where the Trotter alum has offered biting commentary directed at people ranging from ardent fans of molecular gastronomy to Graham Elliot, to his recent public shots at some very strident Yelpers. But des Rosiers really shows his aggression in the kitchen, where he has built one of the most well-received restaurants on the North Shore and is in the midst of rapidly building a small culinary empire that includes another restaurant and multiple prepared food outlets. At Inovasi (Indonesian for innovation), des Rosiers oversees a constantly-changing menu and seems to delight in offering diners dishes that he makes up on the fly either as part of the tasting menu or in response to challenges that diners dare to throw at him.
I'd heard enough positive reports on Inovasi to make me want to take the trip out there for some time. But despite the fact that it's surprisingly easy for careless city dwellers to get to (Metra stops just a couple of blocks away), I wasn't pushed over the edge until learning that on Tuesdays, the restaurant puts out not just a burger special, but a separate burger menu. Two things that jump out upon viewing the burger menu [PDF] are that some of Inovasi's toppings combinations are ones you won't find anywhere else, and that there's a section for grilled burgers and one for griddled burgers. Other than the stellar Edzo's (reviewed here), I can't think of another place that even attempts to offer both styles. That Inovasi is able to pull it off even though burgers are only on the menu one night a week is particularly impressive.
All of Inovasi's burgers are made out of grass-fed beef from Q7 Ranch in Marengo, Illinois. The meat is a blend of brisket, chuck, flank steak, and short rib that is aged for 25 days and ground at Eickman's in Seward before being delivered to the restaurant where it is hand-formed into patties. The grilled patties are seven ounces apiece. There were five choices in that category on the night I visited, but my choice was an easy one.
The Hobo ($13) comes with whatever the kitchen feels like putting on it. If two people at a table order it, they're almost definitely going to get two different burgers. According to des Rosiers, one night saw 18 different versions of The Hobo come out of the kitchen. My version came topped with pea shoots, chorizo, white cheddar, and a sauce made from pasilla de Oaxaca, the pepper commonly used in black mole.
There was unquestionably a lot going atop the patty, but the potent, high quality beef had no problem standing up to the extra zip in the toppings. I ordered this burger medium rare and got precisely what I was looking for. The juicy beef was warm and dark pink on the inside but surrounded by a nice thick crust. Even without the toppings, this beautiful burger would have been irresistible, but with the added flavors dancing in the background, this was really something special.
Among the griddled burgers, which weigh in slightly less at five ounces apiece, the choice was once again an easy one. Kallie's burger ($12) comes topped with "loads of homemade bacon" as well as d'affinois cheese, crème frâiche, and mixed greens. I really loved this burger. Fromager d'Affinois is a brie-like cheese that maintains an earthy funk—at least it does at Inovasi where the rind is also put on the burger. The housemade bacon was great both in terms of the salty pork and the chewy texture it added to the burger.
Like all of the burgers at Inovasi, this one came on a toasted soft brioche roll from Labriola Baking Company. The bun was far from overly sweet, but the slight bit of sugar played well with the salt from the bacon and the funk from the cheese.
Diners have no say in the doneness of the griddled burgers, which are cooked to medium. That did take a little more juice out of the meat than I would've liked, but the crème frâiche more than picked up the slack on the moisture front. Thanks especially to the cheese and the thinness of the burger, this one, while absolutely delicious, was a little unbalanced. But put these toppings on the thicker burger and you're looking at something truly special.
You don't think a restaurant of this caliber that sets aside a night for burgers is going to mess up on the french fry front, do you? I didn't think so. These organic Kennebec potatoes are cut in-house and fried to crisp perfection in soybean oil before they're sprinkled with Maldon sea salt and Tellicherry pepper.
Since opening his doors nearly three years ago, des Rosiers has aggressively courted Chicagoans, eager to have them confirm his belief that in Lake Bluff, a suburb not known as a culinary hotbed by any stretch, he's putting out food that stands up against most anything in Chicago. In the past he's done things like tell bloggers to come eat, review, and then send in their receipts so he could reimburse them no matter what they wrote, and offered lotteries for free limo rides and dinners for groups coming up from Chicago. These days, des Rosiers is letting the food at Inovasi do the talking while he rapidly builds up an empire—one that already includes three prepared food shops called Wisma—with an upcoming Italian restaurant and plans to establish a presence at area colleges. As busy as he is, I do hope that he continues to engage the public in the type of spirited debate he's become known for. And, if he can find the time, I'd love to see him open a burger joint.
About the author: Daniel Zemans writes for Slice, A Hamburger Today, people who have been wronged by their employers. He thinks Yelp is an incredibly useful website for getting phone numbers and addresses of restaurants he's read about from credible sources.