For a long, long time I had wanted to try a burger at Au Cheval in Chicago. The place has garnered dozens of awards and accolades for having the best burger in the greater Chicagoland area - and beyond. Quite actually, I thought - from the name (which means The Horse in French) - that it was a French style bistro/fine dining establishment that happened to also have a good burger. My pre-conception of the place went completely out the window when I walked in one afternoon a few weeks ago.
The driving force behind Au Cheval is Brendan Sodikoff, a young man from California who admittedly wasn't much of a student when he was growing up. Most of his time up to his mid-teens was spent on surfboards or on skateboards or playing soccer. It wasn't until a trip to Seattle with his parents visiting some of the city's finer eating establishments and cafes that he became deeply interested in the intricacies of food preparation. Back home in Del Mar, CA, the young Sodikoff began to experiment in the kitchen trying to recreate the dining experiences he had in Seattle.
Brendan Sodikoff wanted to work in the best restaurant in the area and he was able to get an interview with chef Martin Woesle who was in charge of the kitchen at Mille Fleurs in nearby Rancho Sante Fe. Woesle let him work part-time after school - for free. Woesle remembers Sodikoff as being quiet, yet curious and wanting to do everything perfect - the way that Woesle was taught when he was in culinary school in Germany as a teenager.
After high school, Sodikoff went to culinary school at Ecole Ritz Escoffier, the working kitchen/culinary school at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Sodikoff didn't know the language that well and had no social life while he was in Paris, so he'd arrive early in the day to watch the baker, then he would stay late to watch the butcher.
Pictured right - Brendan Sodikoff (picture courtesy Time Out.com/Chicago)
After training at Ecole Ritz Escoffier, Sodikoff knew that he wanted to continue to work in a "militant" kitchen, Sodikoff went to a bookstore, found a Michelin Guide for Paris, found the nearest 3 star restaurant and went there to ask for a job. That place - Lucas Carton - was headed by chef Alain Senderens. From there, Sodikoff ended up working with Michel Guérard, a long-time Michelin 3 star chef who invented cuisine minceur, a form of healthy French cooking that he developed for the health spa he and his wife were running in Eugénie-les-Bains, a village in the southwest of France near the Spanish border.
Sodikoff worked long hours in the kitchens and was getting to a point of being burned out on cooking. He also had somewhat of a temper and his employment at those places usually ended badly. Just when he thought he could do something else with his life, he got a call from famed chef Alain Ducasse who was looking for someone to help open his eponymous restaurant (now closed) at the Essex House hotel in New York City. Sodikoff's attention to detail in the kitchen overshadowed his tempestuous behavior, however the experience with Ducasse also ended badly. Arguing about plating of a particular dish, Sodikoff had to duck out of the way of a sauce pot of artichoke puree hurled by another line chef.
Sodikoff headed west to his home state of California and hung out at his parents home in the San Diego area contemplating his next move. It wasn't long after that when he received a call from Ducasse's assistant who told him that famed chef Thomas Keller was looking for an experienced line cook at his French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. It turned out that Ducasse, himself, had recommended Sodikoff to Keller. Sodikoff went to Yountville, CA to check things out, found out that he liked Keller and his laid-back and team-oriented approach to working in a kitchen. Sodikoff worked for Keller for five years, starting out as a line cook, then working with Keller testing foods for cookbooks before getting into management at The French Laundry.
While working at the French Laundry, he met two young men - sommelier Bobby Stuckey and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson - who wanted to open a restaurant that was based upon neighborhood frascas the two visited during a trip to Italy. Along with the help Sodikoff, they opened Frasca in Boulder, CO in the summer of 2004.
But, once again, that relationship ended badly for Sodikoff and he ended up moving to Arizona to work for the Fox Restaurant Concepts group helping start the adventurous Olive & Ivy grocery store/restaurant. Sodikoff realized that he enjoyed the planning and testing side of things in a restaurant rather than the tedious nature of cooking day in and day out.
While he was helping with Olive & Ivy and working on a restaurant concept of his own with the owners of Fox Restaurants, another fateful phone call came his way. This time it was Chicago restaurateur-supreme Rich Melman - the head of the massive Lettuce Entertain You consortium of restaurants - who asked Sodikoff to come over to his vacation home in Phoenix to cook lunch. Sodikoff thought it was a prank call, but Melman explained that he had heard of the young chef/manager and wanted to get to know him better.
Sodikoff did go over to Melman's and he did cook him lunch - many lunches over a period of time, as a matter of fact. During their time together, Sodikoff confided in Melman his wish to have his own restaurant - a dream that he'd held since he left France over six years before. But Melman was blunt - he didn't think Sodikoff was ready to open his own place. He didn't feel he had the demeanor or the maturity to do his own place.
Sodikoff eventually stormed out of Melman's house, but Melman called him back with an offer. How would Sodikoff like to move to Chicago to work in the test kitchen of Lettuce Entertain You? Sodikoff knew that many chefs who now owned their own restaurants got their start in the test kitchen for LEYE. It was like having a license to do whatever you wanted in any direction. Deciding that maybe HE was the problem with those he worked with in his life, he agreed to move to Chicago. Not long after, Sodikoff - with the help of Melman's two sons - moved to Chicago.
The amazing thing about all this - Sodikoff was not yet 30 years old when he moved to Chicago. He had certainly accomplished a lot in a short amount of time.
While at Lettuce Entertain You, Brendan Sodikoff found that working with Melman gave him the final piece of the puzzle that he never knew he needed to open a restaurant. Melman taught him the core principles that made the restaurants under the LEYE umbrella so successful. After a couple years, Sodikoff - with Melman's blessing - set out to start up his first place in a former restaurant space (Aigre Doux) that was just across the street from the condo in which he was living.
Sodikoff did everything on a shoestring - the build-out and design of the restaurant he did on his own. The previous restaurant left all the equipment behind, so he devised a menu based upon what he had to work with in the kitchen. He had friends with skills come by to help with the build-out. He got some financial help from his parents, and Melman continued to allow him to work at LEYE full time to give him some steady income. In 2010, Sodikoff opened his first restaurant - Gilt Bar
For the first six months, things were tough. There was little to no cash flow and the restaurant was having a hard time making it. Then, once again, some divine intervention popped up for Sodikoff - Gilt Bar was featured in a travel piece in the New York Times. Suddenly the doors burst open and the crowds came. Sodikoff was on his way.
He soon opened up a doughnut place in an unused portion of Gilt Bar - Doughnut Vault. Suddenly lines of dozens of people formed outside the gourmet doughnut establishment. Sodikoff had found another winner.
With the sudden success of Gilt Bar and Doughnut Vault, Sodikoff had investors lined up for his next concept - a diner influenced by M. Wells, a short-lived Bronx diner he'd been to years before. In 2012, Sodikoff opened Au Cheval and it wasn't long after the opening that Bon Appétit named their burgers the best in America. Lines soon began to form outside Au Cheval, even late at night.
From there, Sodikoff started his own restaurant group - Hogsalt - that now oversees 10 unique and diverse restaurants such as California Clipper, Green Street Smoked Meats and Maude's Liquor Bar in addition to the Doughnut Vault, Gilt Bar and Au Cheval. Sodikoff is simultaneously revered and reviled among Chicago culinary circles. He continues to be a bit impetuous and appears to be somewhat stand-offish to his fellow restaurateurs - many of whom harbor a bit of jealousy along with their admiration of the streaking comet that is Brandon Sodikoff. But it turns out that Sodikoff is somewhat of a private person who keeps to himself and tries to keep a low social profile. Even his friend and mentor Rich Melman is worried that he's maybe growing too fast so soon. Sodikoff has had only one flop - Dillman's - which was his take on a Jewish deli that he had to revamp and finally had to close in April of 2014. However, he soon opened Cocello, an Italian eatery in place of Dillman's.
It was just before the noon hour when I got into Au Cheval. The place was packed already. The hostess at the door - next to the vintage Teac reel-to-reel tape machine playing modern pop and neo soul from the likes of Gnarls Barkley, Beach House and the Mint Chicks - asked if I'd like to have a seat at the bar.
The place is not very big. Comfortably padded booths line the east wall opposite the bar while a handful of tables and chair fill out the rest of the dining area. A line of beer spigots stood at the end of the bar area. My server Erika came over to greet me and dropped off a menu. She asked me what I'd like to drink and I ordered up a Union Jack IPA from the Firestone Walker Brewery in California from the eclectic beer list Au Cheval had.
Behind the bar was the grill. It was a flurry of activity going on with all the orders flying in from a coordinator who was standing near me making sure they had everything correct. The gas flat-top grill was filled with 4 ounce prime beef burgers - they're pre-formed because of the volume of burgers they sell - along with some of their thick cut bacon.
At Au Cheval, it's all about the bacon. This stuff is thick, peppery, natural and absolutely mouth watering. When I saw the bacon on the grill there was no way that I was going to order anything but a burger with the bacon on it.
But there's other things on Au Cheval's menu other than burgers - you'll find honey-fried chicken with chili, sesame seeds and cilantro; a 32 ounce porterhouse steak; chopped chicken liver on toast; as well as a number of egg dishes including a eggs and potato hash with duck fat gravy; scrambled eggs with foie gras; and an oyster mushroom, kale and jack cheese omelet. For diners after midnight, Au Cheval also features authentic Mexican chilaquiles with eggs.
But I wanted the burger - and I got it. I ordered a double with cheese and the thick cut bacon. I didn't get fries with the burger because I knew this would be more than enough for me. The burger came with a knife stuck through the top of the lightly toasted Z Baking Co. bun that are made daily for Au Cheval. I know that drives Jeni from the Jeni Eats blog site crazy when they do that, but in this case the knife was warranted to keep everything together.
After cutting the burger in half, I had to get this picture of the inside. The burger patties had a bit of pink in the middle, but the bacon slabs were almost as thick as one of the patties alone. The cheese was melting off the burger and the juices were quickly escaping from the freshly grilled meat.
One bite and it told me why Au Cheval has one of the best burgers in Chicago - heck, one of the best burgers I've ever had. The meat was flavorful, juicy, and hearty. Combined with the cheese oozing out with every bite, it made for a multiple napkin burger. The bun was light with a bit of a crunch outside. The burger patties - on their own - were excellent. The bun - as I've always said - really made the burger even better.
But the bacon - Oh, my god - the bacon! I had to pull one of the small pieces of bacon off the top of the top burger patty just to give it a try. It was almost like a bacon overload. I'd never had bacon this thick of a cut before, but the natural taste was also a surprise. The taste is almost like it was too rich, as in very filling. The pepper - I like cracked black pepper on nearly any type of meat - was a great addition to the already exquisite taste of the bacon.
As I was finishing up my burger, a lady sat down next to me and ordered a Bloody Mary and a beer back - exactly how I like my Bloody Mary's. When they brought the drink to her, I couldn't resist to comment, "Holy crap! Now THAT'S a Bloody Mary!"
She said, "I know. I have to have one of these with a beer back every time I come here."
There was a lot of stuff going on with the Bloody Mary and I told her that I had to take a picture of it. I said, "Man, next time I come here, I'm getting the Bloody Mary!" She told me it was worth every penny.
All right - I've finally tried Au Cheval. Don't let the name fool you like it initially fooled me. It's far from a snooty and pretentious French restaurant. The atmosphere is laid back and the service was very good. The burger was world class and I enjoyed the eclectic selection of beers they had to offer. The next time I may just get a side of bacon (available for $8.95) to go along with the burger that I get - along with a Bloody Mary. Do yourself a favor and give Au Cheval a try if you get to Chicago.