Along with gun racks and truck nuts, in certain parts of the country there's a bumper sticker prevalent on rusty pickups that states " 'Vegetarian' is an old Indian word for 'bad hunter.' " It's from this feeble scrap of woodsman's humor that Heisler Hospitality, the burgeoning bar and restaurant empire behind Trenchermen and Pub Royale, has adopted the name for its latest.
While Heisler is usually confined to the ghettos of West Town and Wicker Park, Bad Hunter is the second of the group's spots to land on prime real estate at ground zero of the Fulton Market restaurant row, next door to its first incursion onto the turf, Lone Wolf. That's not the only departure from the typically underlit, hard-pouring Heisler concern. Full glass frontage allows the sunlight—or at least Randolph's ambient nighttime glow—to reflect off tall walls of white brickwork and mirroring. You can almost hear the abundant greenery photosynthesizing.
That echoes the direction of the menu. There's a movement in restaurant-evolved cities to put more focus on plant life than animal matter. This is already evident in Chicago from the unfortunate entry of the New York-based Little Beet Table, a discouraging move in this direction.
Luckily, Bad Hunter goes its own way. Chef Dan Snowden, a veteran of the Publican and Nico Osteria, presents a widely varied and frequently changing menu of veggie-dominant things available all day, as well as a dinner menu with about 50 percent animal protein. That doesn't mean you're likely to encounter foie gras, pigeon gizzards, or whatever obscure innards chefs are using these days to boost your uric levels. What you will find is a single skewer of lush grilled chicken thigh meat resting on a bed of cool yogurt, sprinkled with currants and slivers of preserved lemon. Flaky Spanish mackerel fillets, skins as crackly as a live wire, are dressed with a brightly acidic salad of ground cherries and radishes. It gets no more meaty than a fat, snappy lamb bratwurst adorned with tart fennel sauerkraut and oranges as crimson as raw flesh.
These are fine dishes, but it's the rest of the menu that makes Bad Hunter an oasis for anyone who prefers to keep blood out of the mouth. Narrowly sectioned tempura-battered fried lemons and delicata squash are the sweet-and-sour snack every movie-theater concession should aspire to. Charred chunks of fractal Romanesco broccoli are dressed in a Spanish double shot of the Catalan-style pepper-nut-and-bread sauce salvitxada and served atop a shallow pool of almond-garlic soup. A blimp of white-anchovy-spiked beet tartare, launched to the mouth on brittle flaxseed crackers, tastes as meaty as the dish it models.
That's the operative gratification behind most of the vegetable-centered food at Bad Hunter: the flavor-driving forces of fat and umami are deployed with such assuredness that even the most hard-core carnivore won't miss meat at the center of the plate. It's why hunks of almost pickly radish dressed in shoyu butter are enriched by the stray bacon-radish soft "crouton" that apes the Cantonese turnip cake lo bak ko, while the pleasant bitterness of grilled rapini is tempered by liquefied Emmentaler cheese, sharp togarashi, and sweet-and-sour grape-must syrup.
A trio of amply portioned pastas continues this approach, among them a formidable tangle of nutty chestnut-flour spaghetti alla chitarra entwining meaty wild mushrooms dressed with walnut oil. And while what's billed as an oyster kimchi dressing fat butter dumplings stuffed with corn and shiitakes seems to be missing significant bivalve participation, the seared chewiness of these bulging pillows is a seductive distraction.
The vegetables on Snowden's menu succeed on their own terms so consistently it's almost no surprise that the single attempt to force plant matter into a meaty role falls flat. Forget any praise you've heard: Bad Hunter's veggie burger is built with black beans, the single most malevolent substance enlisted in this already much-maligned vegetarian staple. Though the thin double patties are armored in a crunchy, brittle char and enrobed in melted cheddar, that doesn't prevent their chalky, pasty interior from establishing gridlock in the mouth. Tomato jam provides no acidic relief, and the mustard aioli that slicks the iceberg lettuce sends the sandwich's constituent parts squirting out of the bun like an In-N-Out Burger shot from the mouth of hell. Not even the perverse pleasure of ordering this disaster topped with bacon can redeem it.
But I love Bad Hunter.
There's a much smaller pool to choose from at dessert, but the red curry squash tart presents like a rich, mildly spiced coconut milk cheesecake, and a chocolate cremeux with a crunchy cookie crust topped by a mildly fungal porcini ice cream surrounded by frozen grapes is ranking near the top of my list for the year's best desserts.
Low-octane cocktails exceed all expectations with dazzling flavor profiles: the Spicy Carrot Cooler, for instance, features tequila and Jamaican jerk bitters, while the Joker's vodka base is amped with jalapeño-spiced kale juice and smoky mezcal. A unique and wide-ranging wine list includes a number of naturally sparkling pétillant naturel and tannic orange-wine selections, and is helpfully divided among flavor and body profiles, all the better to find something appropriate to pair with this cosmos of flora and verdure.
It's difficult to feel virtuous eating at Bad Hunter with the decadence inherent in many of the vegetable dishes. Even the ones not particularly backed by butter, cream, or cheese are so precisely targeted at the cranial pleasure centers that any aspersions cast on that form of "hunting" are a joke. v