Modern Burgers in the Modern Wing at Terzo Piano in Chicago

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[Photographs: Kelly Daily]

Terzo Piano

159 E. Monroe, Chicago IL 60603 (map); 312-443-8650‎; terzopianochicago.com
Cooking Method: Beef and lamb are griddled, shrimp is pan-fried.
Short Order: Outstanding trio of mini-burgers served in an incredible setting.
Want Fries With That? Absolutely. The hand-cut fries are cooked in pure corn oil and are irresistible.
Price: Set of 3 mini-burgers, $19

I initially decided to review Terzo Piano for Slice, but when I looked over the menu and saw that chef Tony Mantuano's newest venture also offered burgers, it seemed silly to go and not do some important research for AHT. By doing so, not only did I get to eat more food, but I got to spend more time in one of the nicest settings I have eaten. As I noted in the Slice review, Terzo Piano sits in the Modern Wing of Art Institute of Chicago. The new wing, which opened less than five months ago, was designed by Renzo Piano and is an absolutely stunning example of modern architecture from someone who grew up as an architect thinking of Chicago as a magical place.

Terzo Piano itself was designed by a local firm, Dirk Denison Architects. There is indoor and outdoor seating, both of which are bathed in natural light and have fantastic views. On the recent clear 70 degree day that I visited, I opted to sit outside with a view of the north end of Millennium Park and the wall of skyscrapers behind it. Anyone can draw a building, but few can do so like Renzo Piano or Dirk Denison. Similarly, anyone can (and these days does) make a burger, but the question remained whether Mantauro could. The answer? To paraphrase one of Mantauro's fans, "Yes He Can."

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Burger lovers only have one choice at Terzo Piano, a restaurant that prides itself on primarily using local ingredients, and that is the Uno, Due, Tre Burgers: an assortment of piccolo burgers. The three mini burgers, which I'd guess were about 3/4-inch thick and 2 1/2 inches across, are served beautifully on a plate with a generous pile of picture-perfect fries and housemade ketchup made from McWethy Farms tomatoes and a creamy cilantro dip. The ketchup and dip are intended for use with the fries. The expectation seems to be that the burgers are not to be tinkered with.

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I started out with the traditional hamburger, which is made from Midwestern Piemontese beef and served with Colby cheese from Wisconsin. Right after we ordered, I realized our server had not asked us how we wanted the beef cooked. After my experience at Erwin's, I was eager to make sure my burger was cooked rare so my guest tracked down our server to follow up. It turns out that I had little worry about as medium rare is the standard temperature, though thanks to our request, the chef took the burger off the griddle a little earlier than usual.

The cheeseburger was excellent. The meat was a little lean, but was so rich that it did not matter. There were thinly sliced pickles underneath that were good when tasted separate from the burger, but were too mild to have an impact on the well-seasoned meat. The relatively thick slice of Colby cheese on top of the burger, however, was another story altogether. Normally, I find Colby to be too mild for my tastes and I don't think I've ever had it on a burger before. Although I'm still not totally in love with the concept, this particular version of Colby was close enough to its vastly superior older cousin cheddar that it worked. There was not quite enough crispness on the outside of the burger, but that was a forgivable flaw given the burger's girth and internal temperature.

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The next ground animal in my trio was the lamb, which, like the lamb at Mantauro's more famous restaurant, Spiaggia, comes from Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms in Wisconsin. Like the cheeseburger, the lamb burger was cooked to a perfect temperature for my tastes, though it too suffered from a lack of crunch on outer edges. And even more so than the beef, the meat in this burger was remarkably full of flavor. Taking into account that it had a nice dollop of soft goat cheese from Indiana's Capriole and we are talking about a truly decadent burger. The brown mustard that came underneath the burger added a nice spice when I noticed it, but there wasn't quite enough of it to be a real factor.

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The final burger of the trio was the one I was least excited about, the shrimp burger. I had two fears: that it would be underseasoned and that the texture would be too soft. Fortunately, neither fear was close to realized. This pan-fried shrimp patty was packed withlarge, almost crunchy pieces of shrimp that were incredibly flavorful. The calabrian pepper spread that was spread on the bottom bun added a shade of kick, but if the menu hadn't said it was calabrian, I would have guessed a much more mild pepper.

The bun on the shrimp burger, like the buns on the other two burgers (all three buns were different), was a decidedly hearty bread that added fantastic texture and good flavor to each patty. While each bun was rather thick, all of the patties stood out well and all three were excellent.

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The relatively large pile of fries in the middle of the plate was even better than it appeared, and it looked sensational. Hand-cut and with skin on, the fries are cut and blanched the night before serving. When a customer orders them, the fries go swimming in a bubbling bath of pure corn oil, which imparts a flavor so good that I actually asked if they were cooked in beef tallow. The fries come with a generous sprinkling of salt and serve as a reminder of how good fried potatoes can be.

The homemade ketchup was interesting, but more a light tomato sauce than anything else. It had neither the vinegar tint that I want in a good ketchup nor the corn syrup sweetness that I never want. I cannot report on the creamy cilantro dip because, frankly, I forgot to try it. These fries were so good plain that they were gone before I realized my oversight.

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After a trio of burgers, outstanding fries, and two thin pizzas, I was sure my guest and I were done. But after putting up token resistance, I relented and agreed to partake in a dessert of chocolate semifreddo with Spanish peanut nougat and salted caramel. It was a wise decision as this cool, creamy concoction was sensational. With a texture somewhere between mousse and gelato and served at a lightly chilled temperature, the remarkably flavored dessert was somehow both rich and light at the same time. Our server described it as a really good version of a Snickers ice cream bar, which was an apt, albeit grossly understated, description. The semifreddo was an absolute treat and a great ending to a fantastic meal.