When word went out that Jason Paskewitz and Ryan O'Donnell were planning Rustic House, a sequel to their successful first venture, the sophisticated Gemini Bistro, I figured the pair wanted a simpler follow-up restaurant, something that would let them expand without overexerting themselves.
And that's true to an extent. Rustic House certainly seems like the polished Gemini Bistro's affable country cousin. Some walls are clad in reclaimed barn wood, others in overlapping runs of bleached burlap.
High-mounted wood chandeliers, topped with pillar candles (electric, I trust), remind one of re-purposed wagon wheels, minus the spokes. An aged-looking but new brick wall separates the front room from the back, where a fireplace lurks. The bar and table tops sport wood-grain tops.
But Paskewitz, the chef half of the partnership, ably demonstrates that simple does not mean simplistic. There are some fine dishes on this meat-dominant menu, and the cooking abounds with passion.
The rustic angle was more or less imposed on the partners — a gleaming, built-in French rotisserie was already on the premises. "We designed the whole restaurant around it," Paskewitz says. "It's such a nice way to cook food, long and slow, holding in the juices. But they're very expensive; we wouldn't have bought one. We got lucky."
Each day, a different cut of meat gets the rotisserie treatment. Wednesdays, it's duck, marinated in orange juice and sugar the night before and glazed with more marinade at the finish. That's actually one of the more complex rotisserie dishes; most meats get just a little salt and pepper.
A little garlic for the pork and veal racks (Tuesdays and Fridays, respectively), some rosemary for Sunday's leg of lamb. The rotisserie does the rest, and one bite of the juicy duck breast, or of the organic chicken (the only rotisserie item available every day), will remind one of the virtues of simplicity.
There's also a wood-burning grill on the premises, which turns out a nicely charred octopus appetizer (with wilted greens, tomato confit and olives) and takes care of the menu's two steaks — USDA prime, wet-aged beef sourced through Gepperth's Meat Market, across the street.
The $44 tag next to the 16-ounce New York strip can be a bit surprising, given that the average entree runs about $26, but this is a serious, steakhouse-quality hunk of beef that can hold its own with any steak downtown. Mine arrived at a picture-perfect medium rare, properly rested, topped with a dab of compound butter.
Paskewitz is fond of dressing his dishes up with luxury touches. His terrific pan-roasted halibut really doesn't need much support, but the chef adds a lobster and sweet-corn succotash and a gently sweet champagne beurre blanc. And I'm not saying that the hand-rolled gnocchi, served with substantial nuggets of seared foie gras over a light parsley nage, has magical powers. But Paskewitz created the dish to impress his girlfriend, and now she's his fiancee. You don't get better feedback than that.
To begin, there are some cute nibbles in the form of marcona almonds tossed in duck fat, and honey-glazed bacon served upright in a snifter. The must-try appetizer is the breakfast-inspired combination of maple-glazed pork belly topped with a sunny-side quail egg, alongside a jar of diced potatoes.
Desserts are pure fun. The blueberry pie, baked into a cast-iron pan, with blueberry gelato; pounce on this seasonal treat while you still can. The trio of creme brulee, in coconut, chocolate and almond flavors, is fail-safe. I had a yummy assortment of shortbread cookies with a mango milkshake, which has been changed into a Sprecher root beer float.
The short wine list has plenty of substantial reds to pair with all that slow-cooked meat, and about 20 wines are offered by the glass or carafe as well. Midwestern craft beers dominate the beer selection, and the bar makes a fine Sazerac cocktail.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
1967 N. Halsted St.; 312-929-3227; rustichousechicago.com
Open: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Entree prices: $17-$44
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Noise: Conversation- challenged
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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