What do you get when you put a four-star chef in a one-star concept?
In the case of Bottlefork, you get a solid two stars.
I thought chef/partner Kevin Hickey (who pulled down four stars as chef at the late Ritz-Carlton Dining Room) was crazy for leaving the Four Seasons Chicago, where he oversaw a multimillion-dollar food-and-beverage operation, to dream up concepts for Rockit Ranch Productions. But it's starting to look as though the chef knew what he was doing.
"I admire so much the great chefs that had the one restaurant — Le Bec-Fin, Charlie Trotter's, Le Bernardin," Hickey says. "But I never wanted to pigeonhole myself into one style. We're going to do a lot of interesting venues in the next few years; I have lots of ideas."
Hickey has started out with a good one. Bottlefork sits in the old Dragon Ranch space, whose dimensions put one in mind of a 2,000-square-foot bowling alley. It is, literally and figuratively, a niche operation, a tiny space vying for attention in perhaps the most restaurant-dense area in the city. Frontera Grill and Bub City are its neighbors to the north and south, Roka Akor and Naha are across the street, and Sunda, another Rockit restaurant, is a few steps farther away.
Given the dining area's 80-something seats (the best are the five front-and-center bar stools looking straight into the kitchen), there's not much room left for cooking and even less for storage. Of necessity, the menu is pretty tightly focused, even more streamlined than Bottlefork's original February menu.
Execution takes this simple, small-plates American restaurant to unexpected heights. A layer of shrimp "cracklins" (ground and fried prawn crackers) adds crunch and extra flavor to tuna crudo with avocado, and bite-sized nuggets of crisped sweetbreads, with a lively pickled-pepper aioli, are absolutely addictive. Even the charcuterie plate, whose components come from other places (but they include the fine nduja spread from Nduja Artisans in Chicago), is brightened by a housemade, authentically spicy giardiniera.
One could question the authenticity of the so-called beef cheek poutine; despite the presence of squeaky-fresh cheese curds, there's far too much meat and the excellent fries far too crispy to be the real thing.
The fun starter is the bag of crisps, and what arrives at the table is a brown bag of housemade, malt vinegar-powdered potato chips, into which your server drops a poached egg, reseals the bag and shakes it as though it were a cocktail-in-progress. The resultant mess is gooey and bizarre and, trust me, you'll eat it all.
Vegetables and salads are lumped together on the menu. Unless your main course already provides them, try the Kennebec-potato fries with malt vinegar aioli. Wild-boar bacon and a sunny-side duck egg lift the creamed kale from utter blandness. I particularly like the Mediterranean salad, a Greektown-on-a-plate assemblage of romaine, olives, oil-glossed tomatoes, eggplant hummus (hummus and baba ghanoush combined) and saganaki-style cheese.
Among the larger plates, the fascinating choice is the spam and octopus, because, really, who doesn't like spam and octopus? The plate holds tender poached octopus with a grilled finish, alongside housemade cubes of ground pork shoulder, belly and ham, crisped in a pan moments before it arrives. Add some kimchi-style Brussels sprouts (more lightly pickled than full-on fermented) and you have a fascinating dish that I'm confident can't be found anywhere else.
Then there's the porchetta "pastor;" it's called pastor because the preparation is more Latin than a true Italian porchetta, and the quote marks are there because it's not a true pastor, either.
The braised pork belly is stuffed with chorizo and seasoned with achiote, and there's a fried disk of masa and some deep-fried chicharron along for the ride. It's terrific.
Also good is the gnocchi, with seasonal mushrooms and goat cheese; orecchiette with rapini, spicy chicken sausage and espelette peppers is a special that I hope returns. The roasted half-chicken, its skin stuffed with nduja, is wonderful, spooned with a black-truffle chicken jus that I would happily eat with a straw.
There are a couple of sandwiches on the dinner menu (repeated on the lunch menu), and one will save you money. The one that won't is the indulgent $25 Rich Man Po' Boy, which combines lobster meat, foie gras and crisped oysters in a toasted lobster-roll bun.
The more modest effort is the $17 bacon burger, made with a 70-30 mix of grass-fed Tallgrass beef and topped with Vermilion blue cheese. It's a good, hefty burger that is every bit as salty as it sounds (and maybe more; approach with caution).
Again, owing to the tiny prep area, desserts are simple. "I had a pastry chef at first," Hickey says, "and after five days, she ran screaming out the back door." There are soft serve sundaes, including a hot fudge version with caramel, pretzel streusel and beer foam, and a strawberry-rhubarb sundae with creme de menthe syrup and sugar cookie crumble.
The day's "hot and gooey" dessert is always a good bet; one visit featured raspberry-blueberry crumble with sweetened whipped cream, and another visit a sensational near-liquid cheesecake with streusel crumble and early season cherries.
There's a brief but well-chosen wine list, augmented by a chef's list of premium wines in the I-got-my-bonus price range. Cocktails are a real strength; I've grown fond of the Satan's Whiskers over the course of my visits, and for a real experience, try the $30 Brandy & Cigars, a premium brandy cocktail that arrives inside an upended snifter filled with cigar smoke. It's the closest thing to a cigar-and-cognac meal finisher than one can get — legally — in any area restaurant.
441 N. Clark St.; 312-955-1900; bottlefork.com
Tribune rating: 2 stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday
Prices: Large plates $16-$29
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.