123 N. Jefferson Avenue, Chicago IL 60661(map); 312- 441-1920; sepiachicago.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Chef Andrew Zimmerman was just nominated for a James Beard Award and I'm guessing his burger played a role
Want Fries With That? Nice flavor from the duck fat, but ultimately too thick and not crisp at all
Price: Burger (w/bacon & cheese, and fries), $14
Notes: Burger is only available for lunch
The James Beard Foundation recently announced the nominees (PDF) for all of this year's awards, including the one for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region. Of the five nominees, for AHT purposes, four of them are irrelevant. That's not to say Michael Carlson, Stephanie Izard, Anne Kearney or Bruce Sherman are bad chefs, but Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia is a big deal in this corner of the interwebs because he's the only one who dares risk his culinary reputation on a mere hamburger.
I'll go ahead and ruin the surprise: Zimmerman—who has earned raves since taking over the kitchen at Sepia in 2009, including a star from the good people at Michelin—makes one fantastic cheeseburger.
The second this burger was put down in front of me, I was pretty sure I was in for something special. One bite in, I discovered my hunch could not have been more right. Every single part of this thing worked well together. The visual standout atop the eight-ounce patty is the mound of lightly battered, thin pieces of onion. But while the crisp, fried veggies were nice, they were very much in a complementary role. Standing out a bit more were the three meaty strips of Gunthorp Farms bacon and Red Dragon, a remarkably buttery Welsh cheddar cheese made with whole grain mustard and brown ale that give it an addictive tangy boost.
As good as the toppings were, they had nothing on the blend of short rib, sirloin, and skirt steak, ground and formed into patties in-house. The beef, which comes from Slagel Family Farm and at least one other source, was nicely salted and simply bursting with fresh beef flavor. I requested my burger rare and got something close enough that had a truly magnificent crust on it. All of that was served on a very good, lightly toasted buttery brioche from Bennison's Bakery in Evanston that had no problem standing up to the juicy beef.
The fries were not nearly as successful as the burger, but I confess part of that is due to my preference for fried potatoes that are thinner than these thick steak fries. The fries are cooked in duck fat, which gave them a nice boost of flavor, but they were somewhat undersalted and not crispy. They weren't bad—my dining companion ate all of his and a hefty portion of mine—but they're not good enough to be served with this burger. That said, with a burger this good, a large part of me could care less about any of the non-burger details.