My new job sent me to Chicago twice this summer for training opportunities, and I did everything I could to explore and eat my way around the beautiful Windy City as much as I could. I already regaled my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos with my epic excursion to Eataly, and the next really terrific meal I enjoyed in Chicago was at Au Cheval (http://auchevaldiner.com/chicago/). It sounds like a fancy French restaurant, which is really not my thing, but instead it is a really nice, “elevated” diner. Well, that’s how Au Cheval describes itself, anyway.
It was a tight, crowded space with a handful of booths along the windows, and a bustling open kitchen with several barstools open for diners to sit facing the bar. The dining room is relatively dark and full of dark leather and dark wood for a “macho,” masculine feel. I got there in time for an early lunch, and I still waited about 20 minutes for a solo seat to open up at the farthest left corner of the busy kitchen/bar area. I don’t drink, but I was watching expert bartenders slinging some really nice-looking cocktails the whole time I was there.
I fully admit Au Cheval wasn’t on my original dining agenda, but the first two restaurants I attempted to go to in Chicago’s West Loop (an incredible dining destination I strongly recommend to all) were closed for various reasons, so I’m really glad I wandered in there. They don’t accept reservations for lunch or dinner, so I got lucky, all things considered.
The menu isn’t huge, but it consists of pure comfort food, of the delicious, heavy, hearty, and unhealthy variety. They do have two salads and several egg dishes, but I was torn between two different dishes, and since I had no idea when I would be back in Chicago, I ordered both.
First up was seared, chilled, and chopped chicken liver ($14.95), one of the classic foods of my people. It was served with rich, salted butter (almost overkill, given the fatty, savory richness of the liver) and the absolute finest toast I’ve ever had. The bread was thick Texas toast, the kind you can get at my beloved Waffle House and so many other diners, ideal for patty melts and barbecue sandwiches. Rather than being “toasted” in the traditional sense, it was cooked on the flattop griddle and beautifully buttered.
As for the chopped liver, as my students used to say, IYKYK (if you know, you know). It might look like cat food, but it is so rich and savory and tasty, I love it so much as a very rare treat. Most of the chopped liver I’ve had from Jewish delicatessens and appetizing stores is a smooth, creamy, uniform consistency, but Au Cheval’s version was more roughly chopped for a more interesting texture. It still spread so smoothly on the best toast ever, the butter was really kind of unnecessary… but ultimately too good to ignore.
After that, I was watching burger after beguiling burger come out of that open kitchen while I waited for my seat at the bar, so I couldn’t leave without one. I ended up springing for the double cheeseburger ($16.95), since it was only two dollars more than the single, and this string of good decisions continued. Constant readers, I have to tell you that this was the #1 absolute all-time best burger I’ve ever eaten in my damn life, here at Au Cheval in Chicago. I’ve eaten burgers all around the state of Florida and elsewhere along the highways and byways of America, and this left them all in the dust. Perfect in every way, ten out of ten, nothing comes close.It was like an ideal, iconic version of a “smash-style” diner burger, like a burger out of a Tom Waits song, but so much better than that fictional burger would have been in his sad world of late-night, lonely meals wolfed down in Edward Hopper environs. While the menu said “double cheeseburger,” it sure looked like it had three patties to me. What do you think, folks?
Traditionally, I have preferred thick, juicy burgers, but between Au Cheval and two restaurants here in Orlando that I haven’t had a chance to review yet, that smash style is definitely winning me over. It had so much flavor and wasn’t overdone or dry at all — quite the opposite, in fact. It was dressed simply, with a creamy sauce, a few scant pickle slices, and wonderfully melty American cheese between the patties, and I did put some ketchup on it. The bun was grilled like the toast that came with my chopped liver, which is the best/only way to serve a hamburger bun.
Now I made two mistakes here: I did not order bacon on the burger, because that would have been an extra $6.95, and I felt like I was being decadent enough, with these two heavy, greasy dishes. But Au Cheval serves really thick-cut bacon like some steakhouses do, and I bet it would have been totally worth it. Sometimes bacon on burgers is undercooked, so you can’t get a good bite without pulling out the whole strip, and sometimes it is burnt to a crisp and doesn’t end up adding much to the experience. I’m sure this would have made the best burger of my life even better, but then again, how can you possibly improve on perfection?
Also, I did not order fries or hash browns ($8.95 each), simply because I got plenty of carbs from the perfect toast and the bun from the perfect burger, and that would be a bit insane, even for me. But I bet they would have been spectacular from a restaurant like this. If they had onion rings, I would have been all about those, but they didn’t, so it was a moot point. Regardless, I give my strongest possible recommendation to Au Cheval, and if you ever find yourself in Chicago, I would encourage you to ease up on the pizza casserole and overloaded Vienna Beef hot dogs to indulge here instead.