The true character of a restaurant is often measured by what its crew does when no one is watching. Great restaurants do what’s right or go the extra mile even if diners don’t see the details or have specific expectations. New York’s Eleven Madison Park (EMP), for example, sends guests home with a parting gift of homemade granola so good it could put Nature Valley out of business. To mitigate what is often the most awkward restaurant service act, presenting a bill, they bring a bottle of apple brandy and offer gratis pours of the spirit with the delivered check so that guests don’t feel like they’re being rushed.
Because I can see this kind of greatness and commitment at every scale or size, I get very frustrated when any restaurant is knowingly short-changing its guests at a very basic level. Mistakes and compromise are inevitable—the unforgivable act is not that a restaurant crew isn’t seeking perfection, but that they are indulging in indifference.
Clever Rabbit, a new vegetable-focused restaurant from partners Chris Haisma (The Betty and Sparrow), chef Matt Lair (Bom Bolla), Nick Pagor and Brad Serot, where I recently had the one of worst meals I can remember, feels like it’s participating in the latter.
On the favorable side, there’s a rocking people-watching patio out front. The interior dining room, with its framed Aladdin Sane-era Bowie pic and live moss wall (try not running your hands through it on the way out), is pretty cool.
And, enjoying summer on that patio will be pretty easy, given the refreshing, well-balanced cocktails put out by Pagor. The bright tropical Sauced and Found ($12) is a mix of rum, a rhubarb-based digestif, pineapple cordial, grenadine and lime juice. It tastes and smells like a Hawaiian farmer’s market. It’s also maybe named improperly, for I could drink these all night. And if I did, hours later, I’d surely be sauced and lost, passed out somewhere amidst the Wicker Park “gutter punks” covered in the remnants of Big Star pork belly tacos.
Pagor also makes a mean carrot margarita ($12), which has all the pungent limey qualities of the original, but also a mouth-watering fiery and savory finish that evokes the sweetness and mineral-rich notes of a carrot freshly plucked from the earth.
This kind of flavor, however, is missing from a cross-cut bunch of rock-hard rainbow-colored baby carrots served front and center on Clever Rabbit’s $38 crudite plate. If you are serving a vegetable tray that costs as much as a thick, bone-in-ribeye from Paulina Market, you’d better be serving peak freshness fruit and veg, not unseasoned insipid early-season tomatoes and rock-hard plums. When I mention the poor quality of the produce to Lair, he says, “That’s the unfortunate thing about opening when we did. I had to work with what I had. We’re getting really good ones now.”
On the same platter, white asparagus stalks covered in a fuzz of summer truffle tasted like stale soil. There are only a couple types of truffles worth eating in this world—black fall or winter-harvested Perigord truffles, or white truffles from Alba. Almost anything else is a pretender and a cheap ploy to capture a diner’s money with the lure of luxury that one connotes with the word truffle. I mention the lack of pungency to Lair and he says, “I 100 percent agree with you. They’re not that pungent.”
I follow up by asking him why he’d knowingly serve a substandard truffle. He responded with a familiar refrain: “It’s unfortunate, but that’s all we had to work with.”
It’s OK to miss a bad produce delivery or not taste a certain plate, but actually knowing that what you’re putting out is substandard and still doing it is unforgivable.
Given these responses, you’re probably not surprised that the accompanying eggplant agrodolce was unsalted and had the texture of moist cat food. There was one good thing on the platter—a mushroom mousse infused with cognac cream. It was silky, rich and we ate it straight after giving up on the sad produce. One star bite on a platter at this price, though, is not enough.
In addition to generosity and exceeding expectations, good restaurants are also known for detail-orientation, things like scrutinizing the diner’s plates that come back to the kitchen. A fairly untouched dish often signals there might be a problem. Though the crudite was our first course and we left half the platter uneaten, our server whisked it away and didn’t bat an eye or even ask if there was an issue.
Housemade pici pasta ($12), a thick, spaghetti-like noodle, was crumbly like semi-dry Play-Doh (you know you tasted it as a kid too). We left this plate too almost completely untouched. About 75 percent of the dishes we tried were left half uneaten, and no one noticed.
Scallop schnitzel ($16) featuring thin cutlets of mollusk coated in a golden crust served on a tangle of braised cabbage and a swoosh of anchovy-filled creamy puree would have been a smart play on the classic German dish if the scallops weren’t wafting ammonia. My wife and I both took bites, grimaced and simultaneously spit them out.
I did enjoy ginger-perfumed carrot dumplings ($11), a glorious vegetarian pierogi of sorts. Chinese broccoli ($10) features blanched stalks, smoky charred tender florets, addictive MSG and pepper-sprinkled tofu nuggets. Add sweet and sour bursts of preserved lemon and honey, and you’ve got a dish as good as any I’ve had at the West Loop gourmet Chinese spot Duck Duck Goat.
Though the restaurant is vegetable-focused, there is also a burger on offer at Clever Rabbit, aka The Fat Rabbit ($15). It had a towering pillow-soft brioche bun and swiss-cheese swaddled Allen Brothers beef patties glistening with a floral and tangy sherry mustard (made by sautéeing shallots and garlic and mixing them with French’s yellow mustard and spiking the whole thing with sherry). The juicy beef squirted with each bite. However, it was cooked well-done, and our server did not ask for a doneness preference.
But, these few good dishes were followed up by a tuna crudo ($12) which, despite promising lime and inherently salty miso-tahini, was neither salty or acidic. The tahini clung to mushy tuna cubes in a bitter, chalky shroud.
For dessert, carrot cake ($9)—whose backside was as tough as a Parmigiano-Reggiano rind—lay next to a semi-solid milky discharge of olive oil jam. In disbelief of the cake texture, we started taking turns hitting it with our spoons just to watch them bounce off.
We also tried a riff on a banana split ($8). I dug the charred pineapple, carrot crumble and sprinkle of marcona almond as an alternative to straight banana and peanuts, but the pineapple sorbet and vanilla gelato (sourced from neighbor Caffé Gelato) underneath tasted like freezer-burnt ice milk.
The bottom line
I’m decidedly a carnivore, but I also love vegetable-focused food. I’ve grown tired of prime steak topped with foie gras wrapped in bacon. I love the fauna menu at Curtis Duffy’s Grace. I think the vegetable dishes at Girl & the Goat are better than almost all the meat dishes. If I’m biased with vegetables, it’s toward them. Like so many, I’m looking for something healthy, new and tasty. But, to celebrate vegetables, your seasoning game has to be on. Undersalting, lack of acidity and, even worse, a lack of judgment in choosing great produce means I would hesitate to send even the hungriest vegan to Clever Rabbit.
Review: Clever Rabbit
2015 W. Division St. 773-697-8711
Rating: Zero stars (out of four)