Wearing his whites and discussing the “flavor profiles” of his food, John McLean proves that once a chef, always a chef – even when that chef’s specialties are now burgers, fries and milkshakes. McLean, the former corporate chef for Chicago’s Levy Restaurants, has brought along an haute cuisine sensibility to Burger Bar Chicago, the lively Lincoln Park eatery that he opened in July.
Sure, the industrial warehouse decor is informal, the prices are reasonable, and there’s no dress code. McLean wanted his first solo ventures to “play along with today’s economy.” (He also simultaneously opened a casual Italian eatery, Sono Wood Fired, next door.)
But the menu has gourmet written all over it – from the wasabi ginger aioli that accompanies fresh green bean fries ($7) to the foie gras ($23) McLean suggests adding to his already upscale Le Urbain burger ($11) with brie, onion jam and dijonnaise sauce.
“There’s a lot of thought that goes into it. We don’t just throw stuff on top and call it a burger,” McLean says.
As is the trend in many fine dining establishments, McLean showcases local, seasonal and natural foods. “I focus a lot on the ingredients,” he says. The restaurant’s basic Tall Grass burger ($12), for example, features grass fed, all natural, antibiotic- free beef. And McLean often shops the city’s farmers’ markets for inspiration and fresh produce.
Immense burger-centric sandwiches, or stackers, comprise the heart of McLean’s menu. On a recent visit, I brought along a capable crew – my husband and my three teenagers – to help me eat my way through a stack of stackers and a heap of sides, including sweet potato, truffle and regular fresh-cut fries. We gobbled up one of McLean’s personal favorites, the Wild Bill ($13), a lean bison patty topped with fresh arugula, tangy goat cheese, and homemade tomato chutney on a bulky pretzel roll.
We also tried the High Hog ($12), whose “flavor profile” McLean describes as “a backyard barbeque on a bun.” For the hardcore pig lover, this barbequed pork burger comes stacked with bacon, ham, white cheddar and a crispy apple-cabbage slaw. On the seasonal Belly Up ($14), a beef burger arrives topped with cider-braised pork belly, apple-pear slaw and sweet butternut squash aioli.
Other stackers feature short ribs, Thuringer sausage and venison.
“Coming from a culinary background and loving different proteins, I decided to focus on different animals,” says McLean, who will add fish and shrimp burgers to the menu when the weather warms up. So far, McLean’s only flop was a kangaroo burger, he says. “It was a texture and flavor thing. I couldn’t wrap my arms around it.”
Diners can also create their own flavor profiles, as McLean offers a plethora of cheeses, toppings and sauces. There’s everything from the mundane (American, lettuce, tomato, ketchup) to the sublime (pepper jack, fried eggs, house pickled jalapenos, lime crema, pesto aioli) and much in between.
The menu also shows consideration for vegetarians and those seeking lighter options. There are chicken, turkey and veggie burgers. Always a sucker for a house-made veggie burger, I tried the Powerhouse ($9) a blend of brown rice, garbanzo beans, grilled cremini mushrooms and more. The patty, which McLean’s vegetarian daughter helped create, comes topped with arugula, avocado, goat cheese and chipotle mayo. I wound up dousing mine in the restaurant’s spicy urban sauce, a simple but addictive blend of mustard, ketchup, mayo, and cayenne pepper.
There are also a handful of gourmet salads on the menu. “Obviously, burgers are the deal here, but we wanted to offer something above and beyond burgers, fries and beer,” McLean says. The spinach arugula salad ($10), which I sampled on a later visit, included cherry tomatoes, oranges, ricotta salata and more, tossed in a lightly sweet wildflower honey vinaigrette.
The mother in me normally would advise diners to skip over Burger Bar’s appetizer list. Even my normally insatiable teens declared themselves “stuffed.” But I would be remiss if I did. Otherwise, one might miss those totally munchable green bean fries or McLean’s crave-inducing spin on the Memphis snack, deep-fried pickles ($6), which he also serves with my beloved urban sauce.
The restaurant’s dessert list is limited to a selection of McLean’s creative and delicious milkshakes. But I’ll leave that story for Friday. I’m too full to think about dessert right now.
Burger Bar Chicago
1578 North Clybourn Avenue
Chicago, IL 60642