800 W Randolph Street, Chicago IL 60607 (map); 312-929-4580; aucheval.tumblr.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Simply one of the best classic griddled burgers in Chicago
Want Fries With That? Twice-fried in lard? Absolutely
Price: Burger, $9.95; double, $11.95; fries, $6.50, $9 w/mornay sauce and fried egg
Notes: The single cheeseburger is actually a double and the double is a triple
Though it surely seems so to a casual trend-spotting public, Brendan Sodikoff did not come out of nowhere to become one of the hottest commodities in the Chicago restaurant world. Sure, most people, even those highly aware of Chicago's culinary scene, had never heard of the dude just two years ago. But when someone learns how to cook and run a kitchen from legends like Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, and how to manage a restaurant from James Beard Award-winning restaurateur Rich Melman, he's going to be ready to make some noise.
After finding success with Gilt Bar, which opened just over two years ago, Sodikoff embarked on a remarkably ambitious and successful run that has no end in sight. Maude's Liquor Bar has been a huge success and The Doughnut Vault is rightly credited as leading the charge as Chicago attempts to develop a decent doughnut culture. But with all his success, the man had no burger cred. Thanks to what he's doing at Au Cheval, he can emphatically check that off his bucket list.
Au Cheval bills itself as a high-end diner, and in some instances that means seriously upping the ante on traditional dishes with twists that border on the absurd (scrambled eggs with foie gras, anyone?). But when it comes to the burger, Sodikoff and executive chef Jason Vaughan employ no bells and whistles. And as the picturesque—nay, statuesque burger hints, and the first bite confirms, absolutely nothing fancy is needed here.
The simple griddled burgers at Au Cheval are outstanding in every way. Eschewing the trend of house-ground custom blends, the kitchen takes pre-formed four-ounce patties of prime beef, cooks them to medium, and delivers one of the best examples of this style of burger in Chicago. The intensity of the beef flavor shines through thanks in large part to the beautiful crust that blankets the exterior. The crispness from the crust finds textural balance with the soft toasted bun from Z Baking.
Rounding out this picture-perfect specimen are slices of processed cheddar that melt so well it looks like they were painted on, a mild dijonnaise, and a few thin slices of housemade dill pickle.
There's not too much to say about the double (really, triple) cheeseburger other than it's like the single burger (actually a double) but with an extra patty. Same great toppings, same great bun, and, most importantly, same magnificent beef. I've never complained about too much beef in a burger and I'm not going to start now, but I did think the single was a more balanced effort. If I were to try the double again, which is a distinct possibility despite it being three-quarters of a pound of meat, I'd spring for the extra $2 to throw an egg on top to mellow out the intense beefiness.
When walking into the small 1,400-square-foot restaurant, you'll notice a shelf above the fryer covered with containers of fries that have been fried one time. These hand-cut Kennebec potatoes get one more bath in lard before they are delivered to soon-to-be-happy diners. Like the burgers, these fries are blessed with a particularly crisp exterior. The regular order of fries comes with a creamy garlic aioli that was not needed for such flavorful potatoes, but impossible to resist. The accoutrements on the so-called "crispy fries"—an egg and a side of mornay sauce along with another little tub of the aioli—are a bit too much for my tastes, but in fairness, I had already eaten half of each burger, some fries, and half of their excellent bologna sandwich before I got to the more gluttonous plate of potatoes.
The only problem with the burgers at Au Cheval, recently named the 10th best new restaurant in town, is that the restaurant is only open for dinner. And unfortunately, for those of us who wish they could stop in for lunch, there are no plans for daytime hours in the foreseeable future. In fact, the next step will likely be to move back closing time later than the current 2 a.m. But all is not lost! Sodikoff, who is showing no signs of slowing down, has plans to open Bavette's Bar & Boeuf, a steak and beer-type place that's going to have a hamburger stand attached to it.