Presidio is a new Bucktown cocktail barstaurant that's supposed to remind you of San Francisco—kind of like the way Monti's is supposed to place diners in a Philadelphia state of mind. Well, not really. Monti's has cheesesteaks. But at Presidio there's no sourdough or cioppino, no green goddess dressing, no hangtown fry, no Rice-A-Roni. There are a few nice, arty shots of the Golden Gate Bridge on the walls, and some classic cocktails that were first created in the City by the Bay. But San Francisco's culinary influence on Presidio, according to the preopening hype, is supposed to come from the rigorous seasonality of the ingredients, which seems completely at odds with the slices of limp pink pluot—I initially mistook them for winter tomatoes—languoring on top of the rabbit confit salad. Those might be in season in July, but in early spring they spoil an otherwise delicious salad, with shreds of meaty leporid confit, as suprisingly fatty as carnitas, strewn among hearty greens and julienned sweet baby beets.
It's an uncommonly bad choice on a concise but well-rounded menu that seems auxiliary to the cocktail program, which is executed by the consulting Dogma Group, made up of Clint Rogers (the Dawson), Alex Renshaw (Drumbar), and Brian Sturgulewski (ex-Bordel). Their original drinks perform the neat trick of incorporating subtle and unusual fruit and vegetable elements without leaning too sweet. My favorite example of this is the 8 Track Mixtape, which lends plantain and clove flavors to Tennessee whiskey so that the concoction ends up tasting like a banana old-fashioned. You'll taste understated curried sweet potato in the rummy, tiki-esque Jolly Roger, apricot and cinnamon in the bourbon-cognac-white port-based California Derby, and celery and thyme in the Barbarians at the Gate, made with tequila and plum sake. Draft beer is limited to three choices, from the pedestrian Anchor Steam to a $9 IPA from Naperville's Solemn Oath Brewery that's poured so short it couldn't put out a cigarette. The latter is the only brew on the menu that isn't from California, and that's even counting the half-dozen large-format bottles from three different breweries. Northern California also dominates the modest wine list, with 14 by the glass and nine reserve bottles.
Much of the above is consumed in the front lounge area, which has the bar on one side and on the other a series of low coffee tables and cushioned benches that aren't particularly suited to eating. Yet chef Shaun Connolly, who spent time cooking in restaurants as diverse as Moto, Chicago Cut Steakhouse, and Nightwood, offers a series of small plates you'd expect to be ideal in that environment. Don't believe it. Eat like an adult in the rear dining room, where you can easily keep the steak tartare off your dress and won't dribble mussel liquor down your cravat.
You'll certainly want to be seated in a chair at a table to tackle the cavatelli, a sizable mound of firm, silkworm-size pasta busily tossed with rapini, sweet peppers, and peppery ground pork. Triangles of caramelized baked polenta are textural pleasures unto themselves—crispy on the outside, creamy in the middle—but dressed with shaved aged ricotta and shimeji mushrooms they're as tasty as the layer of apricot jelly atop a foie gras parfait. Dishes are variously as shareable as a plate of roasted cauliflower with currylike ras el hanout, doused with so much honey it could be dessert, and as unshareable as a composed trio of scallops, topped with chopped almonds and seasoned more judiciously with smears of smoked-tomato romesco and green-garlic vinaigrette.
There are four dishes at Presidio that could be considered entrees. A pair of small bone-in pork chops—refreshingly at odds with the dino-size cuts so prevalent these days—get a Germanic touch mounted on a pile of sweet-and-sour cabbage and topped with chunky pear vinaigrette. Similarly, twin black bass fillets are stacked upon diced potato and chorizo, all situated in a shallow pool of vivid green fennel sofrito. Rosy red slices of lamb loin are fanned across a sea of thin curried yogurt, almost matched in their meatiness by accompanying smoked baby purple carrots. But the best thing on the menu at Presidio is what seems to be its most mundane: a simple thick, loosely packed prime beef burger with melted American cheese, served on brioche.
For dessert a thin, almost liquid panna cotta (with more pluots) is redeemed by a sprinkling of black sea salt. It outshines a small chocolate-hazelnut cake with vanilla ice cream armored in Magic Shell. A more satisfying way to finish off an evening at Presdio is with a shot of one of nine varieties of Fernet, from the bitter, intensely herbaceous Tempus Fugit Fernet Angelico to the lighter, fruitier R. Jelinek.
Presidio doesn't make a terribly strong impression on any front, but it does make a nice oasis on a stretch of Damen Avenue that has increasingly less character as the years go by. I'd sooner opt for more companionable drinking at Lemming's across the street any day of the week, but for a relaxing spot with decent cocktails and food, there isn't much else nearby. v