Bad Hunter sees things through an unapologetically modern filter. “The chef focuses on hyperseasonal cuisine,” said our waiter, in a tone that recalled that precious-restaurant sketch on Portlandia (“The chicken you’ll be enjoying tonight was named Colin”). Yet despite its cheeky name and obvious ambitions, the “vegetable-forward” (but not strictly vegetarian) small-plate newcomer never crosses into pretentiousville.
The striking spot, on West Randolph Street, includes an old trough filled with greenery and a kitchen enclosed with wood and chicken wire glass. A sleek red oak LED light dangles over a river-stone-paved bar decorated with plants and a vintage analog amplifier. The restaurant is loud but pleasant, as if an uncool nightclub had landed in a greenhouse.
Dan Snowden (Nico Osteria) stuffs dense fry bread with dill and sorrel, then pairs it with a gorgeous sphere of Burrata drizzled with chili oil and surrounded by pickled onions. And Snowden loves his wood-fired grill. He puts a blackened edge on carrots and fennel and serves them atop pistachio and green chili pesto with avocado crema and queso fresco. He fires a skewered chicken thigh until it’s juicy and caramelized, then anchors it with preserved-lemon yogurt. Light touches, bold flavors.
The ever-changing menu is small but contains moments of inspiration. Thinly sliced lemons and slivers of sweet potato both get tempura-fried and dipped in a balsamic-hazelnut sauce—and emerge heroic. Even more impressive are the butter dumplings. Snowden removes the kernels from corncobs and then roasts and purées the cobs to make wrappers, which he stuffs with the kernels and tons of butter and serves with sliced shiitake mushrooms, Asian pear, and tart oyster kimchi. Brilliant. And the next time I find a stupid-long wait for a cheeseburger at Au Cheval, I’m bopping next door instead for Bad Hunter’s exceptional veggie burger: two hefty black bean patties lush with melted cheddar and sweet tomato jam on a buttery brioche bun.
Sometimes dishes are more clever than good, as in the underwhelming beet tartare served with anchovies and flax seed crisps. Other times they implode under the weight of their plucky determination. A tsunami of walnut oil and bland vincotto (cooked wine) wipes out the perfectly cooked chestnut spaghetti alla chitarra and its accompanying wild mushrooms and leeks.
But remember this name: Emily Spurlin. Her whimsical desserts—hot toddy Popsicles, sunchoke cakes—go in fascinating directions. The vegan squash tart with red curry, topped with Thai-spiced cashews, coconut cream, and black sesame seeds, rejiggers Thai flavors and is in the running as one of Chicago’s best new desserts. The bar program emphasizes low-alcohol drinks, which sounds entirely reasonable—but somehow disappoints when you’re paying $13 for the privilege.
The rhythm of the meal is jerky. On one visit, after the initial onslaught of dishes ended, my table remained adrift for 30 minutes until the waiter suddenly remembered we existed. In fairness, he did send out a complimentary plate of radishes with nori butter and charmed us back into contentment.
Bad Hunter is one of those confident restaurants that know they’re onto something good. It just needs to catch up to its own ambitions.