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Rustic House is one of those restaurants that I’m supposed to like. Everything is in place: the menu (straight-up local American), the people involved (Jason Paskewitz and Ryan O’Donnell from Gemini Bistro), the warm space outfitted with a Rotisol French rotisserie and a wood-burning grill, even the folksy name. So why, then, do I have little inclination to return? Probably because my meals there were loud, herky-jerky affairs dictated by neglectful service and food that looked good but rarely made much of an impression. A series of antimoments, basically.
It started pleasantly, with familiar bar snacks like sticky, sweet honey-peppered bacon and marcona almonds slippery with duck fat. Both got better with each potent sip of a well-made Rustic Nail. But for every bull’s-eye appetizer, like the bold hand-rolled gnocchi and Hudson Valley foie gras in a parsley nage, there was a misfire, like a quail-egg-topped crispy pork belly, a jiggly and fat-layered square that resembled Spam. Entrées also batted .500. Wisps of shaved pecorino melted into a brawny ragout of soft hunks of veal cheek with perfectly cooked pappardelle and a pear tomato confit. Even richer was a braised lamb shoulder (from Gepperth’s Market across Halsted Street) with Moroccan couscous, cherries, and dried dates and figs intensified by a sturdy natural lamb jus. Either of those and a side of roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta, and I’d be happy. But $44 for a chalky wood-grilled New York strip? Wood-grilled oysters coated with congealed Romano cheese for $15? Or, for that matter, $10 for a badly deconstructed Whatchamacallit bar? I’ll get one for a buck at Jewel.
The sharp golden-toned dining room’s permanent fixtures include weathered barnyard walls, limestone floors, leather banquettes, and, as far as I can tell, Jason Paskewitz. On my visits, the chef never seemed to be in the kitchen. One night, he sat at the bar with friends; another, he stood at the kitchen door and stared aimlessly over the dining room, moving only to shake the hand of the Cubs announcer Bob Brenly. Maybe it was the noise, but neither Paskewitz nor O’Donnell—the latter stationed at the host stand a few feet away—noticed my table dying on the vine, waiting nearly an hour for our food.
Back in March, Paskewitz was asked to explain the difference between Gemini Bistro and Rustic House. “At Gemini you are in and out in 90 minutes or less,” he said. “This place will be a little slower.” At the time, it sounded like a promise. As it turns out, it was a warning.