I live for restaurants that overcome bad first impressions, and despite the craft cocktail's great leap forward in recent years, predinner drinks at the bar all too often provide them the opportunity to do so. That was case on my first trip to Rustic House, Jason Paskewitz's takeover of the snug Lincoln Park space that once housed La Trattoria del Merlo. There I was served a Vesper—the cold gin cocktail James Bond invented in Casino Royale—in which several icebergs had slipped past the bartender's strainer into the martini glass. 007 would never stand for that, nor do I imagine he would have appreciated the Sazerac my pal ended up with, intentionally poured over the rocks, a sad corruption of this ideally powerful but delicate all-American cocktail.
OK, so the respectable list of local beers might have been the smarter option, but what I was really getting nervous about was Paskewitz himself. The former Wave-N9ne-Four Seasons-SushiSamba Rio chef, who's had much success in the neighborhood with Gemini Bistro, was stalking the small front dining room with disturbing frequency. What was happening with my wood-grilled oysters and gnocchi while he was chumming it up with his friends?
Well, the idea that an executive chef always needs to be in the kitchen sniffing every plate that comes off the pass is an often debunked canard. That's what sous chefs are for, and if a kitchen's line cooks are properly trained they should have no trouble executing the general's orders in their sleep. Paskewitz and partner Ryan O'Donnell have another restaurant to run and unspecified plans to open more—the guy has to delegate. And on that night his crew did what they were supposed to, delivering the bivalves just warm enough, though perhaps a bit too heavily sprinkled with Romano. The gnocchi, tossed with slices of poached foie gras and parsley, were diminutive but lush. These were preceded by a mason jar of chicken liver mousse and firm slices of honey-peppered bacon, bar snacks that, along with the restaurant's unprepossessing name, may already give you the idea the chef is trying to catch the nostalgic late strain of American meatcentricity that's beginning to reanimate the city's moribund meat-and-potatoes rep.
After all, he offers three steaks and hunks of flesh spun on the wall-mounted rotisserie. From this issue free-range organic chickens and specials—one day suckling pig, prime rib on another, leg of lamb, veal rack, or a simple, muscled but tender duck l'orange, only missing a crispy skin. To reliably complete the cliche, there are no less than four different potato sides, including an unappealingly grayish but nevertheless crispy and buttery-good slice of pommes Anna.
Oddly, it was this, along with a shallow dish of sugar-crusted creamed corn brulee and Paskewitz's somewhat less flesh-dependent pasta dishes, that turned the tide for me. Besides the gnocchi, a heaping pile of ribbony pappardelle tossed with veal cheek ragout and topped with a sheaf of pecorino cheese was among the most satisfying things I ate. Forgetting the failed cocktails, I looked forward to the next visit over a carafe of tart, medium-bodied Greek red I'd never heard of before.
However, on a subsequent late-evening dinner, execution was so flawed across the board that I wondered if the crew was indeed cooking in their sleep. A crock of brussels sprouts arrived burnt on the cut sides, along with another of undercooked Lyonnaise potatoes. In fact, a number of promising if pricey dishes were undercut by such basic bush-league overcooking, undercooking, or overseasoning: stiff hunks of pancetta-wrapped monkfish wallowing in sweet orange-fennel bouillabaise; oversalted grilled octopus rendered chalky by the flame; spent, dry roulades of lamb atop couscous tossed with dried fruit; cold diced potatoes alongside a crispy pork belly with quail egg. It was a meal as inconsistent and disappointing as the first was encouraging. But oddly on this evening Paskewitz was prowling the floors just as much as the previous one, defying, once again, a first impression.
E-mail Mike Sula at firstname.lastname@example.org.