Mortar & Pestle Patty Melt

Michael Nagrant / 01.11.16

They don’t do diners these days, at least not like they used to. No one really opens that Edward Hopper-esque “Nighthawks” ideal, the late-night boutique trimmed with more chrome than something off the Ford assembly line in the 1950s and fueled by bottomless cups of sludgy coffee and two-egg specials.

The diner as we know it has been replaced by the hip brunch cafe, lined with reclaimed wood and studded with industrial metal chairs, communal tables and funky pendant lamps. Pastries are made by hand in the back, and the coffee is probably fair trade and local. There are eggs on offer, but they’re not beaten with a spatula by a grizzled grill-tender; they’re coddled by a group of chefs who idolize Alice Waters or once worked in four-star, prix-fixe restaurants. Baker Miller and Cellar Door Provisions, two of my favorite spots in recent memory, are fine examples of this trend.

Mortar & Pestle, a new restaurant in Lakeview, also falls into this category. While it doesn’t have the same local sustainability commitment (there’s some) as Baker Miller and Cellar Door Provisions, partners Stephen Ross and Stephen Paul are serious cooks with serious experience and a like-minded commitment to “handmade well-executed food,” Ross explained.

They met while opening Art Smith’s Table Fifty-Two, which recently closed to make way for Smith’s new concept Blue Door Kitchen & Garden. Ross started his career under Bruce Sherman at North Pond and spent time at Old Town Social and Park Hyatt Chicago; he even did a stint as an assistant winemaker at Clinton Vineyards in upstate New York.

Ross’s wife is Syrian, and you’ll find that influence in coriander-spiced beignets ($5), an offering of merguez sausage ($5) and a spicy cumin-spiked bean dish called Middle Eastern ($11) with a side of pita. Beyond the international influence, there are also French toast and eggs plates ($15 each), both larded with foie gras.

But the thing that really gets me at Mortar & Pestle is the old-fashioned patty melt ($15). Though it trends a little fancy, it’s still the very essence of old-school diner carbohydrate comfort. The medium-rare juicy patty, made from local beef (a heart-stopping mix of 70 percent meat to 30 percent fat), drips with funky, nutty gruyere. The beef is weighted down on the grill with a diner-style press and develops a lacy, crispy edge. The rye toast used to complete this masterpiece is golden, crackling and dripping in butter, while a topping of caramelized onions is jammy and has a hint of brown sugar. All this richness is foiled by a slightly acidic bright mayo- and ketchup-based “special sauce.”

Ross calls it an ode to his childhood. I concur. A bite of this sandwich transported me to the 8-year-old version of myself, bellied up to the gold-flecked Formica island in my childhood kitchen, where one night my mother stuffed seared American cheese-swaddled ground chuck topped with grilled white onion confetti—all doused in ketchup—between two slices of hearty rye bread. Before that moment, I had never met a burger without an enriched white pillowy bun. I wasn’t sure I could ever go back after that.

Worth the trip: Patty melt ($15) at Mortar & Pestle
3108 N. Broadway 773-857-2087

This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.