It's possible that the food writers of Chicago are running out of ways to heckle Billy Dec, who serves as carnival barker and C.E.Bro of Rockit Ranch Productions. That won't stop us from trying, but with Bottlefork, the new restaurant that rose from the ashes of Dragon Ranch, he's bought himself some credibility. That would come in the form of chef Kevin Hickey, who previously took the stuffy fine-dining restaurant at the Four Seasons and transformed it into Allium, a very good, casual, creative, and personal restaurant that was just a bit hamstrung by its institutional environment. At the end of my 2012 review I wished that I could see Hickey "unleashed in a less inherently restrictive environment." I guess I should be careful what I wish for.
That's because while Bridgeport-born Hickey's down-to-earth demeanor was reflected in his food, which could be playful but was always tasteful and rarely over-the-top, the Dec tries to cast himself as some sort of ambassador for an awful vision of Chicago that only exists for a few hours every night on a few blocks in River North and Wrigleyville. And you can see that reflected in the almost willfully lunkheaded food served in his restaurants (e.g., Rockit Burger Bar's Mac Attack, a burger sandwiched by two deep-fried lumps of macaroni and cheese). Which will prevail here?
My usual MO when I'm required to write about a Rockit Ranch restaurant is to take a deep breath and give thanks that Guy Fieri hasn't opened a place here yet. Then I handicap it. I look over the menu for the most ridiculous dish, and order it right away. That usually sets a standard low enough that everything else seems somewhat better in comparison. The Bottlefork menu has the usual annoying tics that might lead you to believe the usual Rockit hoo-ha is going to hold sway: dishes are given infantilized names like "saladish," and there are lots of pointless scare quotes ("popcorn," "dip," "poutine"). But otherwise most everything, from the um, saladishes to the little snacks to the shareable plates and entrees, appears relatively inoffensive descriptively—appealing even.
I had to look at the cocktail menu for the ultimate absurdity: a $35 drink served in a glass large enough to hold a school of piranhas, containing a giant ice cube, a nudie playing card encapsulated within it, and five different whiskeys that cancel each other out in favor of a dominant dose of rosewater. There's no way to maintain any dignity while drinking the Bill Brasky, named for the mythic macho Saturday Night Live character infamous for a urine stream that can cut through steak and a habit of punching bald eagles. Tilt it to your head and the cube will crash against the glass, sending perfumed whiskey up your nose. But as far as the cocktail menu goes as a whole, it might be the most legitimate in the Rockit Ranch empire, dominated by fairly faithful classics and a few originals like the Losna, dark rum and amaro spritzed and bittered up with an India pale ale. (However, there's no legitimate excuse for charging $14 for a cocktail containing subterranean-shelf bourbon like Cabin Still.)
As for the food, I had such radically different experiences on each visit that I'm not sure I ate in the same place twice. On both occasions Hickey was expediting from the open kitchen (no sign of the Dec), a chef in his element, signing off on each dish that came off the line. And yet, on my first visit most things that came from it suffered from overcooking or an overabundance of salt. Tiny bites like the chicken meatballs in a bowl of ruddy cavatelli pasta carried an atomic level of sodium, as did the chalky, overcooked scotch quail eggs jacketed in bratwurst. Sometimes the salt levels were set in stark contrast to unaccountable mildness, like a mouth-parching rabbit leg hidden in a thick armor of batter, its saltiness in polar opposition to the bland cornmeal mush it rested on.
Deep-fried dishes—and there are a lot of them—were particularly discouraging. You get what you deserve when you order poutine; fries came browned but still limp, swamped by an onslaught of beef-cheek gravy. But how about fried sweetbreads, their crispiness obviated by a slather of pickled-pepper aioli? Same goes for the "tots," mushy cubes of browned potato drowned in a shiny, seemingly plasticized pimento cheese sauce.
Other dishes are just puzzling. A salad of grilled kale topped with a gooey egg is married to a pair of strange accompaniments—a slice of steamed squash with its hard skin left on, and a crostini smeared with only a hint of melted burrata. Shards of pork jerky have an interesting depth of soy-cola flavor but are thin, unyielding, and physically painful to eat. The only dish anyone could agree had any merit was a surprisingly subtle bacon and beef burger topped with blue cheese and crispy shredded potato, the bacon adding nuance to the beef rather than overpowering it.
Such a string of failures had the group I roped into a second visit audibly cursing me, but then it was like we'd entered a different restaurant. Same table, same size crowd, and same chef expediting the dishes, but nearly everything we ordered was reasonably enjoyable: fall-off-the-bone-style lamb ribs with sweet tamarind bark, balanced by a bracing, refreshing yogurt; a whole squid body stuffed with coins of finely ground chorizo and bedded on a slick of thick tomato sauce; a luscious, fatty ham steak, cut from the shoulder and lightly cured, served with a mildly sweet apple glaze set to the side; steak tartare, by request seared to the consistency of well-charred rare burger, topped with a melting poached egg.
Even one of the more dubiously overdone dishes, a po'boy stuffed with lobster, foie gras, and deep-fried oysters, was an example of tasteful balance, neither the liver nor the oyster overpowering the sweet lobster.
The last dish we tried at Bottlefork—almost by accident—said a lot about the place's potential. In lieu of a rotisserie chicken that wasn't quite ready, we were offered a plate that had yet to make it onto the menu: an octopus and potato salad, tossed with chunks of pan-seared house-made "Spam" (quotes appropriate here), sweet crunchy beans, and spicy pickled brussels sprouts. It was a dish with such an impressive range of textures and bright, popping flavors it left a lasting impression that went a long way in dispelling the unhappy memories of the first visit.
But not all the way. Maybe Hickey's still whipping Bottlefork into shape, or maybe he's just the anchor that keeps it from sweeping out on the sea of its owners' questionable taste. But he's opening his own place soon, so he won't be around forever. Either way, Bottlefork's not yet worth the risk.