Sausage-fennel pizzetta, spicy tuna roll, brick chicken diablo
Sausage-fennel pizzetta, spicy tuna roll, brick chicken diablo Credit: Andrea Bauer

“How many restaurants still have their own matchboxes?” was the host’s boast as I edged my way toward the exit at BLT American Brasserie. I didn’t have an answer for him, but by then I suspected that was the best thing going for this sprawling, overdecorated glorified Applebee’s of a restaurant from New York-brand chef Laurent Tourondel, at one time the man behind BLT Steak, BLT Fish, BLT Prime, BLT Burger, and BLT Market—none of which he has any connection to anymore, thanks to a convoluted lawsuit with former partners that’s allowed him to use the initials but none of the dishes he created.

He’s also the chef at Brasserie Ruhlmann in Rockefeller Center. Remember the short-lived outpost here on the dark and lonely edge of River North? A French restaurant, opulent, art deco in design, easy to wrap your brain around. Even amid the wave of neo-French bistros and brasseries opening in recent times, it still had a reasonable chance of luring in someone with a yen for steak frites or soupe à l’oignon while it lasted.

For a while I couldn’t fathom just who this replacement is meant for. Tourondel opened BLT in early December, installing Aksel Theilkuhl, another out-of-towner, as his proxy, and I’ll admit I deferred visiting because I couldn’t figure out how to address their splatter-wound menu, so aggressive in its egalitarianism that almost nothing compels. On the other hand, you have to be curious about the confidence of a kitchen that cranks out barbecued ribs, grilled branzino, Thai steak salad, and fish-and-chips without putting them in quotation marks.

But only after working my way dutifully through the sushi, the pizzas, ceviches, sandwiches, and grilled entrees did I come upon it: BLT is for the ditherers, inflexible eaters whose best expressions of compromise amount to social tyranny. You know, those killjoys everyone must accommodate on group dinners, whose dietary pickiness is such that they’ll only be satisfied at the one place that makes everyone else miserable? Them.

Let’s start with that sushi: it doesn’t matter if it’s the peekytoe crab roll with mango, the yellowtail with caviar, the spicy tuna layered in a fishy orangish slurry, or the cross-sectioned candy-bar coconut-macadamia shrimp maki. Each is jacketed by a gritty, set rice paste, the dullness of the fish masked by sweet sauces or fatty avocado filler. You’ve wolfed this sushi, sans garnishes, from supermarket shelves in desperate times past. So who will say, “Hey, I feel like sushi tonight! Let’s check out BLT?” Maybe the same folks who will eye the “Asian” calamari salad, the veggie burger, or the jumbo lump crab cakes, and say, “Let’s get pizza!”

I had divergent experiences with these personal-size “pizzettas”—both unfortunate. A promising-sounding mortadella and mustard variant was covered in cold, pink roma tomatoes grown in some greenhouse in the arctic circle, obliterating any other qualities it might have possessed. The overtopped fennel-sausage with shredded onions and cooked cream didn’t so much as smother the crust as highlight its unsalted, tongue-dulling tedium.

You could easily avoid wading into the unfocused morass of entrees altogether by consulting the chain-steak-house section of the menu: a set of sides including a blooming onion, winter asparagus, and a crock of creamed spinach “fondue” swamped in watery, cheesy muck. Or you could cede intestinal real estate with something from the raw bar—say, a red snapper ceviche soaking sourly in its bowl.

But then you’d miss out on the more promising things to eat here, some of which might be acceptable—at significant price reductions—in isolated corn-belt exurbs with far fewer options for feeding their inhabitants. The $18 Butcher Burger has an appealing crustiness, having been dredged in crushed peppercorns, but that soon disintegrates under a crushing pile of cheese, bacon, wet mushrooms, and caramelized onions. The “Deluxe” BLT, with a toasty exterior containing a ragbag of melted Taleggio, bacon, jalapeño, escarole, and truffle paste, would be sloppily enjoyable at half the $16 they’re asking. Then there are the three loosely packed tomato-sauced meatballs of veal, pork, and ricotta plopped in a pool of polenta for $25, and a briny, boneless, brick-flattened half chicken diablo, with a few strands of limp rapini for a dollar more.

There’s a remarkable consistency at work here: almost everything is consistently galling. I said almost—a warm, light, banana steamed pudding was a subtle and apologetic good-bye kiss.

Sushi, pizza, steak, sandwiches, blooming goddamn onion—there are so many better options for any of these categories all over the near north side. (Well, OK, it might be the best blooming onion in the city. I’m not sure.) But I’m positive it takes a lot more than just a well-known name and a book of matches to pull them off all at once.

[Editor’s note: BLT American Bistro closed in spring 2012.]