It’s tough to compete with a clientele of glammed-up hotties, TV celebrities and their posses, flashy interiors designed by Oprah’s buddy Nate Berkus and an effervescent owner like Billy Dec. Â But by serving up elaborate eats, like burgers made with Kobe beef and topped with foie gras (no longer available since the ban) or with a lemon-infused lobster patty, James Gottwald, executive chef for Rockit Bar & Grill, doesn’t have to sweat it.
A former cook at one sixtyblue and Wave, Gottwald sticks to his roots by crafting plates of sculptured potatoes, artfully drizzled sauces and nests of glistening fruit, dishes that would feel at home in any four-star dining room. Â Eschewing traditional bar eats, like soggy jalapeno poppers and tater tots, in favor of haute comfort food, like shrimp with bloody mary cocktail sauce or a deconstructed version of a lamb hot pot, he carves out his own culinary spotlight.
Q. What do you wish you could change or pickle and preserve about the Chicago restaurant/ food scene?
A. The warm welcoming neighborhood feeling that you get when you visit local restaurants. Â The bartender and servers will remember you after one visit. Â It is not about chains and franchises.
Q. What would your last meal be?
A. That is a tough question … how many sides can I have? Â Oh I got it, my mother’s veal parmesan with extra parmesan.
Q. Where do you eat or drink before or after a shift? Or what Chicago chef would you be most willing to share a kitchen with?
A. I love all of Chicago’s eateries. Â They have so much to offer. Â I eat at Rockit very often. Â My shifts are long, but when I do get a chance to get out my favorites are Blackbird (619 W. Randolph) and Avec (615 W. Randolph). Â Paul Kahan has an amazing talent.
Q. What’s Rockit’s can’t-miss dish?
A. The Rockit Pockit, no doubt. Â I grew up in Philadelphia, and the Philly Cheesesteak sandwich is hard to duplicate perfectly. Â It is all in the bread. Â I believe Philadelphia’s water plays a huge part in the structure and texture of the bread; the altitude may as well. Â I simply changed the bread, put it in a crispy wrapper, deep fried it and made it my way, or some may call it “the Rockit way.”
Q. What should we know about Rockit that we probably don’t?
A. Everything is made from scratch. Â All the soups, sauces, fillings and dressings are made on premise. Â Rockit has a huge prep area that employs some of the best staff in Chicago, if not in the world.
Rockit Bar & Grill; 22 West Hubbard Street, Chicago (312) 645-6000