[ review ]
The shadow of the Rouge burger looms tall. So tall that for the six years chef Matt Zagorski spent finessing the menu at the bijoux clubhouse of the Rittenhouse elite, you were likelier to hear and read more about the signature sandwich than the man making it.
I'm sure Zagorski, like any serious, talented chef, would like to be known for more than burgers. So what did he do, after leaving Rouge in 2010, when it was time to debut Hickory Lane, a cozy, bronze-and-burlap BYOB in the shadow of Eastern State Penitentiary? He put a burger on the menu.
"It fit our American-bistro concept, and it's become a staple of mine even though I never necessarily wanted it to be," explains Zagorski, who's partnered with manager Jack Henderson on the project. "Before [Hickory Lane] even opened, there were posts saying that the burger was our signature item."
The pre-opening buzz may have proved prophetic. Hickory's rich 10-ouncer starts with the "Exclusive MPZ Burger Grind." The monogram is an autograph writ in beef — Zagorski's middle name is Phillip — and a personal brand on this blend of brisket, filet tips and fat-rippled deckle. This is not the blend used for Rouge's burger or any of its offspring at the associated 500 Degrees. This is better, and best when cooked to Zagorski's preferred temperature. "Medium-rare," our server responded without pause when I asked how the kitchen likes to cook the meat. "Definitely medium-rare."
Shaped into corpulent patties, seared in cast-iron and draped with reserve Cabot cheddar, the beef rode to the table on a shiny challah roll. My guest and I were splitting the burger, and in a fit of Phyllis-Stein-Novack-ness, asked to have it halved, if only for mess-prevention purposes. (Though a jeans-and-T-shirt BYOB in theory, Hickory Lane's good looks, poised service and well-heeled clientele project the persona of somewhere fancier, where sucking beefy juices from one's fingers might be frowned upon.) The kitchen plated the halves separately, each with its own cache of slender, salt-and-peppery fries, a thoughtful touch.
Clearly well rested before its bisection, the dusk-pink core of the patty glistened, a telltale prophecy of the flood of meaty nectar my first bite unleashed. The beef exploded with flavor, full-frontal umami I could taste in my nose. Cool, quenching Bibb lettuce (the best choice for a burger, in my opinion) and sliced tomato derailed an imminent meat delirium, a refreshing intermezzo in each bite, while a lick of piquant garlic aioli also had a tempering effect on the challah's eggy sweetness. The half-burger disappeared in six or so bites, and I wound up sucking beef juices off my fingers anyway. Apologies to Dr. and Mrs. Westinghouse at Table 12.
If the burger is my favorite item at Hickory Lane, my second favorite is just as Rouge-like: onion soup. "I put the onions on at nine this morning," Zagorski told me when we spoke on the phone one Sunday at noon, "and they're just about ready for the garlic and butter." The alliums would go on to cook an additional three to four hours that day, sweeter every minute, eventually combined with veal stock, hardy herbs and white wine before being portioned, brioche-topped, gratinéed with Gruyère and provolone and presented before a dining room full of Sunday supper diners. I hung up the phone wishing I was one of them.
The burger and the onion soup, birds of a bistro feather. What does it say about Hickory Lane that both are praiseworthy? That Zagorski is a master technician who recognizes what his customers want? Or that he's risk-averse and content to operate within his comfort zone?
You could make the case either way. On the one hand, I haven't had a finer burger in a long time, and the balanced soup is at the level of Parc's, my gold standard. On the other hand, Hickory Lane's menu can feel a little square. Nothing wrong with tuna tartare and Roquefort-creamed ribeye, but they're hardly the most memorable crayons in the box, and less than you'd expect from a chef of Zagorski's skill.
I prefer when he reaches, stretching and taking advantage of the malleable definition of "American bistro." Even if the results aren't always all the way there, like the out-of-whack ratio of giant caraway crouton to exquisite foie gras in one appetizer, the efforts are memorable — especially when an Amarena cherry sauerkraut as personable as this plate's is involved. Elegant, sweet-and-savory tomato-anise jam mentally bookmarked a beet carpaccio I'd have forgotten the next morning. (Well, the jam and the fact that the dish featured four slices of humble root for $13.) The current menu features a beef (not beet) carpaccio at the same price, and I had a suave risotto with goat cheese, chive confetti and dove-gray oyster mushrooms for a buck less.
Clever-sounding calamari Bolognese was the only flat-out failure, doomed by tough squid and a bland, cream-thinned sauce that tasted as if it had cooked all of 15 minutes. Zagorski put dairy to far better use during dessert, in both a caramel-y "milk jam" for cinnamon-scented brioche/challah bread pudding and an ethereal crème fraîche cheesecake with sugared Granny Smith apples and port gastrique. I loved the tang in the subtly sweet cake, which could almost qualify for Hickory Lane's breakfast or brunch menu. Aside from a short break between lunch and dinner, Zagorski serves all day, seven days a week. All day? "All day," he replies. "Bistro, baby!"
I'll take a burger with my coffee.
Hickory Lane | 2025 Fairmount Ave., 215-769-2420, hickorylanebistro.com. Breakfast and lunch served Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner served nightly, 4:30-10:30 p.m.; brunch served Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Appetizers, $6-$15; entrées, $14-$29; dessert, $7-$9.