CHICAGO, IL -- Let me just say that "Bad Hunter" is the best name for a veggie-focused restaurant I've ever heard.
The phrase "bad hunter" is the punchline to a silly vegetarian joke. And it's a fine name for a restaurant that leans heavily toward greens and grains but doesn't take itself too seriously.
Bad Hunter is flanked on Randolph Street's Restaurant Row by Au Cheval to the east, and to the west, Lone Wolf, a sister property within Heisler Hospitality (also behind Sportsman's Club, Pub Royale, Trench). The hope by Heisler was that the restaurant would debut last June, when the local farmers markets are crammed with produce, but alas, the doors didn't open until mid-October. Not exactly the ideal month to introduce a vegetable-centric menu in Chicago, but chef Dan Snowden is philosophical about the timing.
"We'll have to do a winter menu every year," he said. "It's very challenging to open (in late fall), but we were able to pickle and jar and can (vegetables) during the summer. And the challenge has been inspirational; it really helped us see things as more than a vegetable on a plate. And winter is a great time for mushrooms, and diving into grains."
Flip between the all-day and strictly dinner menus, and you'll find a trove of worthy dishes. Nuggets of fried sunchoke are irresistible, bathed in black-garlic butter and perked up with Aleppo pepper-laced honey. Long, slender wood-grilled carrots arrive over a smear of pistachio-chile pesto sprinkled with fennel fronds and queso fresco; meaty maitake mushrooms, with lavender-laced parsnip puree, is a dish I could eat a dozen times.
Onion-stuffed fry bread works exceedingly well with burrata cheese and a bit of chile oil; aggressively charred sourdough with sunflower crema and smoked salt is a very satisfying shareable.
One of the menu's prominent hits is the root-vegetable Bolognese, which absolutely nails the traditional texture while luxuriating in a porcini-rich tomato and red wine sauce. The menu lists this as a farfalle (bow tie) pasta dish, but what you're likely to get are lasagna-width pasta sheets instead.
Some of Snowden's most successful dishes are vegetable-forward plates with animal-protein accents. Roasted turnips with white-sesame sprinkle and shoyu butter get a nice flavor accent from bacon-radish croutons. Butter dumplings, filled with charred cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, pick up sweetness from Asian pears and spice from a fanciful oyster kimchi with Fresno peppers and just the barest hint of fermentation. Beet tartare, the only dish that utterly failed for me, will be better when the promised white-anchovy component makes its presence better known.
And then there are the meats themselves. There are skewers of various types, notably chicken thighs with preserved-lemon yogurt and currants, and well-charred sirloin (although the pureed potato underneath was inexplicably cold). House-made lonza (a pork-tenderloin salumi) is a very appealing composition, abetting the tender and slightly salty lonza with bright, tart kumquat, peppery arugula and umami-rich truffled cheese. Salmon crudo distinguishes itself with a presentation that includes chopped Marcona almonds, crispy bits of garlic-rice "cracklings" and ponzu sauce.
The star of the dessert list is the white-chocolate and parsnip panna cotta, topped with a half-inch of cranberry gelee and a couple of ginger thins. Almond torte features ras el hanout spice accents, a pleasant surprise; the cake might be a tad dry, but the scoop of preserved-lemon ice cream rescues it.
The cookie plate is a mixed bag. It includes a terrific chocolate-chip cookie, served warm, an intriguing but so-so root-vegetable macaroon of sorts, and a dark-chocolate and olive cookie that made me shrug. The chocolate-chip cookie is so superior to its companions, the kitchen should probably offer three of those and be done with it. Either that, or throw in some of those ginger thins.
Service is strong, which is especially helpful if you're seated at the shallow communal bar that runs through the center of the room, requiring waiters to approach everybody from behind. Somehow, the front-of-the-house staff manages that skillfully, adroitly placing dishes (this is one of those haphazard, served-when-it's-ready kitchens in which one never knows what's coming next) in spaces that aren't spacious.
The beverage program is by Michael McAvena, who curated the exceptional beer list when The Publican first opened. Here, his focus is on wines, particularly those of lesser-known producers, and prices are attractive for the most part. There are a dozen cocktails, whimsically named and (of the six I tried) well made.
The cheerfully crowded dining room is full of natural elements — brick walls, paved floors, wood rafters and a profusion of shade-tolerant plants — which is about what you'd expect. But the vibe is welcoming and unpreachy, and the food doesn't taste of denial, and that's just about everything you'd want.
802 W. Randolph St.
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Lunch and dinner daily; brunch weekends