Chicago: Good Burgers, Bad Sliders, and a Stellar Shake at Allium
Four Seasons Hotel, 120 East Delaware Place, Chicago IL 60611 (map); 312-799-4900; alliumchicago.com
Cooking Method: Burger is grilled; sliders are braised
Short Order: Very good burger, but the $19 price tag is problematic; sliders (lunch only) are disappointing
Want Fries With That? Extra crispy beauties are great
Price: Burger w/egg and cheese, and fries, $19; trio of sliders, $15
Notes: The butterscotch miso shake is worth a special trip to Allium
There is no question that chef Kevin Hickey knows how to make a great burger. At the 2010 Hamburger Hop, the burger celebration that kicks off Chicago Gourmet, his bison burger with candied bacon, cheese, and "lobster love" (a delicious mess of lobster, mayo, ketchup and other mystery ingredients) blew me away and won the people's vote for best burger at the event, which was particularly impressive given the stiff competition.
At the time, Hickey was running the show at Seasons, the high-end flagship restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Chicago. The restaurant had burgers on the menu, but they were decidedly less enticing versions like the "Low Carb Sirloin Burger" that seemed out of place on a menu with items like Alaskan halibut cooked in a clay pot with a kaffir lime-scented broth. But earlier this year, recognizing that diners are moving away from the hoighty-toighty, Seasons was reborn as Allium, which features a menu highlighting Hickey's high-end twists on low-brow staples. And while the hot dog (every component is housemade) and the bacon buns are intriguing, I was there to check out the burgers.
The All Natural Beef Burger starts with an eight-ounce pre-formed patty made of ground chuck from Tallgrass. I've had mixed experiences with Tallgrass patties in the past for the simple reason that the more time that passes between meat grinding and burger eating, the more flavor is lost. I'm fairly certain I didn't get this patty on the day it was delivered to the restaurant but, while it was not oozing with beefiness, it was a very good patty made even better by the rest of the components on the burger.
The egg might steal the show visually, but the flavor highlights came from the onions and the "secret sauce." The onions, which are cooked slowly in butter and bacon fat before being fried in lard, are an exquisite burger topping. The secret sauce, a tangy concoction akin to a high-end Big Mac sauce, also added some nice flavor to the burger. The burger purportedly comes with Dunbarton Blue from Wisconsin's Roelli, but mine either had none or had so little that I didn't notice it. That's especially unfortunate because that cheese, a blue-veined cheddar, is pretty much a perfect burger topping.
The grilled patty came medium rare as requested and had a really nice crust around a warm, dark pink center. Like everything else (save the missing cheese), there were no flaws at all in the execution of what was a very solid burger. That said, given the kind of magic I learned Hickey can do with a burger at the Hamburger Hop two years ago, along with the $19 price tag, I couldn't help but be a little disappointed. I got something very good that I'd be happy to eat again, but I was hoping for something I'd crave.
While I enjoyed the burger, the wagyu sliders were a massive disappointment. On paper, these things should be delicious (even if the whole wagyu schtick is a marketing sham). After all, two-ounce patties made from high quality short ribs from Strube Ranch are going to be delicious, right? Especially if they are braised in a veal sauce and coated with melted white cheddar. Sadly, that was not the case.
These thick patties, formed in-house, came across more as hunks of meatloaf than anything resembling a mini-hamburger. The veal sauce went a long way towards salvaging these sliders, but there was just no getting around the mealy texture. I'm not sure whether I got a bad batch or if these are just on the menu to placate Four Seasons' guests who will convince themselves that anything made out of wagyu short rib has to be delicious, but these were disappointing.
The fries at Allium, which come with the burger but not the sliders, are excellent. Made from the increasingly popular Kennebec potatoes, these freshly cut spuds are served extra crispy and loaded with potato flavor. They were outstanding on their own, but I dipped more than a few in the tangy housemade balsamic ketchup.
The real star of the show, and the reason I'm looking forward to returning, is the butterscotch miso shake. Traditionally a flavor combination used in savory dishes, this blend works magnificently as a dessert at Allium. The gloriously thick shake blends housemade butterscotch, yellow miso paste, and housemade vanilla ice cream. The result is basically an umami-loaded caramel shake that is among the best in Chicago. The flavors are a little confusing at first, but by the time you finish it, you'll be eager to book a room at the Four Seasons just so you can be close to this magnificent milkshake.