The Duck Inn is easily the most likable, comfortable, douche-free restaurant ever from Rockit Ranch, the group responsible for Ay Chiwowa!, Sunda, and of course Rockit Bar & Grill. That's partly because Billy Dec kept his hands off, allowing it to be an expression of someone else's personality rather than his. And that's also because it's safely located miles away from the orgies of River North, on a quiet, half-deserted corner of Bridgeport that used to house the classic Gem-Bar. The turf is also home to chef Kevin Hickey, who grew up here and has imbued the space with the spirit of a neighborhood corner tavern from times gone by, naming it for a diner his great-grandmother owned during the Depression. Vintage cigarette ads, bowling trophies, and a Richard J. Daley campaign poster look down over yellow vinyl bar stools and Eames-style wire chairs.
This was Hickey's baby before he got involved with Rockit Ranch at Bottlefork, and on the bar menu you can spot the same signature fun and irreverence that distinguished that restaurant and his previous engagement at Allium. There's a supersized version of the Chicago dog he did back at Allium, this one with a manlier girth, stuffed with emulsified beef and duck meat. It's an impressive, jaw-stretching tube steak, taut and snappy, the whole package dressed with a judicious application of the expected garden toppings. A lot of these snacks are sloppy in the best sense of the word. There are light, crispy cheese curds wallowing in a wash of sweet, thick Bloody Mary-flavored sauce and a tamal, stuffed with duck confit and foie gras, that disintegrates at the touch (though the liver somehow gets lost). The soft french fries almost collapse under their chili-cheese blanket, and boned-out and chorizo-stuffed chicken thighs bathe in a bracing piquillo pepper sauce and are draped with thick ropes of blue cheese fondue.
Other dishes on the bar menu seem almost dignified by comparison. A plate of chewy toasted tubular Korean rice cakes comes with a side of tart kimchi-spiked aioli, and a neatly square "hamburger sandwich" on buttery grilled rye is blanketed with gooey Brun-uusto cheese that was made for melting.
You don't have to eat these appealing bar snacks on a stool. They can also be ordered in the rear dining room, which has its own dedicated menu. It's a little more highbrow, but no less fun—though occasionally more problematic. There's nothing wrong at all with a dish of pressed, seared chicken parts with pickled brussels sprouts, creamed butternut squash, and thick chicken-heart gravy that's so collagen rich it almost tastes like an aspic. There's a plate of lusciously buttery, creamy uni risotto with a garnish of crisp, salty sea beans regrettably undercut by mushy shrimp. Meanwhile a long, wide ribbon of pasta stuffed with smooth horseradish ricotta accompanies the slightly dry granny-style brisket, which could have spent a minute or two longer in the boiling water.
The Duck Inn offers a short $55 tasting menu with intriguing-sounding things like clam stew and sumac-spiced lamb saddle, but the real object of desire is the ducks that are supposed to spin in a rotisserie oven in the open kitchen, in full view of the dining room. Last month in the Reader Hickey recounted his unfortunate experience trying to order rotisserie ducks in a New York restaurant famous for them: "I went back and I look and . . . there's no ducks in the rotisserie," he said. "'Oh, you have to order 24 hours in advance,' they say. That's lame."
The first time I ordered a duck at the Duck Inn . . . well, let's just say the experience was similarly lame. The next time I knew to order in advance, yet when we arrived the rotisserie was dark and empty again, and our server seemed surprised that we'd ordered a duck. After some huddling among the staff in the kitchen and an extraordinarily long wait, a regal-looking bird was produced on a wooden board, cut into its constituent parts and arranged around a salad of frisee, grapefruit, and pomegranate that concealed wedges of soft, scarfable, fat-saturated potatoes. The breasts of this duck were phenomenal, their fatty skin seared and crackling, the meaty flesh pink and oozing with hot juices. But the legs and thighs were destroyed—dried, stringy, and desiccated, as if they'd been hanging around all night. How often does it happen that a whole bird's breasts are cooked perfectly while its lower parts are ruined, rather than the other way around? I wish I could say what that duck went through, but I suspect it hadn't seen the inside of that rotisserie in some time. Still, I will wager that when these issues get sorted out those ducks will be great.
Things improved at dessert. The Duck Inn, like many smaller restaurants of ambition these days, does not have a pastry chef. But chef de cuisine Aaron Kabot, a Nightwood vet, has stepped up and acquitted himself nicely, offering a mini baked Alaska with a frozen core of beet-and-blood-orange sorbet, a bourbon-drenched apple brown betty with cider granita and parsnip ice cream, and a dark, sticky toffee pudding with rum-spiked cream—all wintry finishes that would send anyone out the door equipped to survive the elements.
Even apart from the food, the Duck Inn is an inviting place to drink. The interesting cocktails include the Drunk a l'Orange, a light, Dreamsicle-like bubbler with bourbon and cream soda; the Anton Chigurh, a heavily bodied scotch and cherry liqueur potion with a savory note from the addition of saline solution; and the Don, a manhattan sub with bourbon and fortified wine rounded out with walnut liqueur and chocolate bitters. A wide-ranging wine list starting with a fruity, juicy Lebanese pinot noir at $38 tops out with a California Syrah for $195, which just might be the priciest wine ever sold in Bridgeport. There's also a selection of beers specifically chosen to drink with food, including Moody Tongue's Truffle Pilsner—which just might be the priciest beer ever sold in Bridgeport at $175.
Which isn't to say that this particular corner of Bridgeport has completely changed with the arrival of a decorated former fine-dining chef. It's really a return of a chef who is of the place and knows just how a new restaurant should fit in.