Bites: In Meat-Heavy Chicago, a Shrine to Vegetables
Carl Sandburg may have famously labeled Chicago “Hog Butcher for the World,” but Bad Hunter, in a former meatpacking district, celebrates the city’s culinary history by highlighting plants.
“The Midwest is known for farming,” said Dan Snowden, the executive chef. “And we’re smack dab in the middle of it.” A transplant from Santa Monica, Calif., he was unexpectedly wowed by Chicago’s farmers’ markets and wanted to showcase the bounty of locally grown vegetables — without, he said, being “too dogmatic about it.”
Most dishes at Bad Hunter, which opened in October, are not vegetarian. Beet tartare, served atop a snappy flaxseed cracker, includes white anchovy. It mimics the more classic steak version in its ruby hue and umami notes, and retains its earthy yet refreshing appeal. The only other obvious riff on a meaty classic is the veggie burger, on the menu despite the often three-hour line for the celebrated burger at Au Cheval next door. “It’s a bit cheeky,” Mr. Snowden said. “Just like the name,” he added, referring to Bad Hunter.
Stepping in on a recent evening, I was transported onto the pages of a 1970s issue of Sunset magazine. Earth tones and rustic pottery abound; plants fill shelves lining whitewashed brick walls. A cool crowd quaffed low-alcohol cocktails (a specialty).
The menu changes daily — the night I visited, it included butter dumplings, deep purple purses filled with corn and shiitake mushrooms dressed with an Asian pear and oyster kimchi. Despite the overly thick and abundant raw pear, it was phenomenal.
Wood-grilled maitake mushrooms arrived sandwiched between a rich butternut squash purée and vivid orange ribbons of more butternut squash, with a nutty ricotta salata crumbled over the whole brilliant thing. Charred carrots and fennel, though underdone, were redeemed by avocado crema and pistachio and green chile pesto. The only miss, perhaps appropriately, was the sliced too-salty soy-cured Wagyu beef dotted with spicy mayonnaise.
Even dessert — a festive, cold and creamy caramelized white chocolate and parsnip panna cotta layered with cranberry gelée — was plant-focused. My only regret was not ending the evening with another glass of rosé from the excellent selection of pétillant naturel wines. Pét-nats, as they are known, are naturally fermented, and their flavor depends on where the bottle is stored and when it is opened. “When you’re making thoughtful, responsible food, it makes sense to pair it with a wine you want to open and chug,” Mr. Snowden said.
An earlier version of this article misstated the hometown of the chef Dan Snowden. He lived in Santa Monica, Calif., before moving to Chicago, but is not from there. (He was born and raised in Boston.)
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