You know Malort has outlived its usefulness as a tool of civic subversion when little old ladies in Lakeview start drinking it with soda. While that’s about as proper as sipping a first-growth Bordeaux on the rocks, it’s the way they pour it at Spritz Burger, the restaurant Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, aka the Hearty Boys, came back with after shuttering their half-eponymous comfort-food spot Hearty. This time around they’ve pooled their semicelebrity with gal pal Gale Gand (ex-Tru) to open a burger joint, the conceptual fallback of choice for recessionary restaurateurs. How have they set it apart from others on the upscale-burger bandwagon of the last half decade? McDonagh contributed a list of seltzer-spiked cocktails (hence the spritzed Malort), and Gand contributed her considerable clout as pastry chef, offering a half-dozen twists on nostalgic desserts.
The 13 beef (and other) burgers seem almost ancillary in light of those and the selection of salads and often deep-fried American comfort-food appetizers and entrees that makes up the balance of the menu. Thick grass-fed beef patties, piled high with frequently unstable toppings, follow the familiar template pioneered by Kuma’s, the most extreme example (apart from a poutine burger) being the Madron, an open-face patty resting on a slab of savory bread pudding, topped with Havarti, onion jam, a fried egg, red-pepper hollandaise, and two leathery slices of Spam. It’s a landslide waiting to happen, disguising a simple shortcoming that plagues most of the beef burgers—they’re undersalted, a flaw more evident in less overdressed choices like the Justa Burger, topped with lettuce, tomato, and your choice of cheese, or the Pub Crawl, with cheddar, chutney, and roasted tomato. Significantly, the one with the most character is the turkey burger, a finely ground patty that tastes of Thanksgiving under its melted Havarti and apple-ginger chutney.
Certain other dishes tend to be overwhelmed by their accoutrements. Thinly sliced beets almost disappear in deep-fried panko jacketing, while any inherent sweetness in the buffalo shrimp is overpowered by their vinegary hot-sauce coating, and even the organy character of chicken livers, served with an incongruous accompaniment of grilled baguette slices and a head of roasted garlic, disappears under a thick overfried batter.
The fryer acquits itself admirably with lavender-fried chicken, which features a heavy crust with a mild floral note, but other entrees—like dry, tough brisket braised in Gand’s proprietary root beer and served with spongy green-onion latkes, or floury, oversauced mac ‘n’ cheese topped with crumbled Cheetos—indicate pervasively poor execution. In a time when restaurants increasingly strive to cook from scratch, Smith retains the tendency to accent his dishes with iconic processed junk foods such as those cheese puffs. But Spam on a grass-fed burger or truffled factory-made tater tots won’t push the right buttons if the food isn’t prepared well in the first place.
Spritz Burger flirts with redemption when it comes to cocktails and desserts. Gand’s sweets are best enjoyed in the $9 trio option, which allows you to pick three from a list including her signature lemon meringue pie, made with lemon curd frozen to a sorbetlike texture; a cakey, bone-shaped chocolate devil dog; and a mini mug containing a frosty root beer float, all reduced to a couple bites.
House-made syrups like orange with herbes de Provence or dark cherry with coffee-chocolate bitters are nuanced and refreshing, fueled by servers wielding soda siphons tableside, and they taste even better when they’re amped with gin or port and amaro. Other cocktails are similarly balanced; potions like a Tom Collins rounded with grilled-pineapple syrup or a concoction of rum and batavia arrack with Thai curry flavors are effervescent, potent, and sweet but not cloying. Excepting the watered-down attempt to make like the cool kids with the Malort, this is one of the more likably contrarian cocktail programs in the city right now.
Apart from the image of a ferocious giant rodent sipping a soda on the back wall, Spritz Burger feels little different from Hearty, atmospherically speaking. That seems appropriate—both the burgers and the Boys’ dewy-eyed takes on American feel-good food taste like they’ve been phoned in from 2009.