As you probably know, rabbits are running wild all over Chicago right now. If you haven’t seen them, then you must live in a high-rise facing the lake. Summer is the time when rabbits are born and begin their short but happy lives eating, fucking, and sleeping all the time. They’re everywhere. But when the weather gets cold, they’re smart enough to go someplace warm and wait it out.
As my colleague J.R. Jones noted a few weeks ago, for those reasons rabbits are kind of like us. We’re kind of like them too—here we are just past midsummer, and all we want to do is eat vegetables. That’s evident from the popularity of new veg-centered restaurants like Bad Hunter and the Little Beet Table, for better and worse, respectively. Even spots that take a scattershot approach to menu development, like Gemini and Ella Elli, are devoting significantly more inches on the page to plant matter.
The latest largely verdure-oriented restaurant that has folks bounding in like leporids is named, appropriately enough, Clever Rabbit. It comes to us from a handful of partners, one of whom is involved in the Betty and Sparrow. But the really compelling piece of the machinery here is the chef, Matt Lair, who last appeared at the stove at the late, great Bom Bolla, which in retrospect was also a pretty great summer restaurant (that unfortunately didn’t survive its first winter).
It’s good to see that Lair made it out alive, though. My interest in this restaurant was piqued considerably when I learned he was involved.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the $38 crudite platter, a presentation that seems designed to foment divisiveness. It’s a suitcase-size wooden board covered with a riotous arrangement of vegetables, fruits, flowers, leaves, schmears, cheeses, and flatbreads. Whether you think this a glorious way to enjoy nature’s love for us or an audacious rip-off might depend on precisely when in the season you eat it. I’m somewhere down the middle on the one I munched my way through last month. While the smoked mushroom mousse tasted almost of meat butter smeared on crunchy naan studded with hemp seeds, the ground-up black truffle sprinkled over watery white asparagus performed more like sawdust. Raw cucumber, dill, carrots, garlic scapes, radishes, and convenient spoonlike spears of endive appeared on my board. That Lair was serving excellently ripe and flavorful tomatoes in mid-June indicated they were from someplace far away. (From a Canadian hothouse, in fact.) I bet this spread gets better as the days get shorter. I’d definitely give it another shot, maybe in late July or early August, when our vegetables are at their best.
That said, the remainder of Lair’s menu is a bit more consistent, featuring inventive salads and composed and shareable vegetable plates as well as proteins that go easy on the protein. The law that says no one can open a restaurant without putting a burger at the bottom of the menu is proof enough that the bloodmouths will never be satisfied without their red meat. So of course Clever Rabbit has a burger. But it’s the only beef in the joint.
Of those salads, the fiambre is something that stays with you for days. You’re really allowed to eat this dish only on the Day of the Dead in Guatemala, when you’re supposed to deliver food to your departed loved ones in the cemetery. Yet somehow Lair received special dispensation to fill a deep bowl with roasted red peppers, asparagus, green beans, chickpeas, cucumber, carrot, radish, egg, hearts of palm, cheddar, and a ginger-lime vinaigrette that somehow tastes creamier and richer than it sounds like it would. A Guatemalan fiambre is also supposed to have a colon-clogging amount of meat in it, but happily Lair’s is a truly satisfying bowl without it—and really not something to tackle alone if you want to try much else on the menu. His likewise satisfying but more manageable Caesar turns up the intensity on an inherently flavor-forward salad by boosting the anchovy and Reggiano with ruddy croutons loaded with a surprising chile sting.
Most of the vegetable plates that form the heart of the menu function as salads themselves—cooked ones, anyway. And they vary in the pleasures they give or withhold. A trio of overbrowned and stiff dumplings squirt a filling of pureed carrot with an herbaceousness that tastes as if someone spiked the baby food with cough medicine. A plate of Swiss chard and kale cooked down and served cold amid chunks of fatty avocado is a take on Japanese gomae that’s pleasantly bland, especially compared to a bowl of Chinese broccoli and squishy, peppery tofu given deep funk from fermented black beans and elevating sweetness from pink grapefruit. The wiry resistance of shaved brussels sprouts is mitigated by a gob of honeyed yogurt, tart preserved lemon, and a nasal- tickling hint of horseradish.
The meat-lite portion of the menu is dominated by sea creatures. I always seem to get suckered by the crudo. It’s very often a stingy, unsatisfying thing to eat. Here that’s compounded: the delicate tissues of red sea bream are overpowered by smoked paprika. Scallops—pounded, breaded, and deep-fried crispy, like schnitzel—are a more successful exercise even if the underlying braised cabbage is dominated by salty anchovy. Chicken, usually put on the menu for delicate eaters averse to red flesh, is here the meatiest thing on the menu apart from the burger. A boned half bird flattened on the skillet by a brick, it’s a crispy, juicy job well done.
A short dessert menu features a carrot cake of remarkable density and deep, complex spicing. It’s marred by a disturbing splodge of olive-oil jam with a thickness, viscosity, and opacity shared by certain bodily fluids. I think this otherwise remarkable cake would be improved if served with a simple splash of good, fruity, unmanipulated olive oil. Meanwhile, a banana split proves messy to eat, its large slabs of grilled pineapple resisting pressure from the fork.
Everybody at Clever Rabbit seems to order the carrot margarita, but it lacks acidity, and the savory element of the root in tandem with an overdose of agave syrup obliterates any subtleties there might otherwise be. Other cocktails, developed by partner Nick Pagor, perform much better, including a bourbon potion spiked with coffee-flavored amaro that’s best sipped after you’re groaning from eating so much plant matter; there’s also a much lighter alcohol-free watermelon agua fresca given a vegetal jolt from charred jalapeño. A fairly extensive wine list is dominated by high-acidity bottles, but you may not find a more perfect one over which to contemplate your crudité than the medium-bodied Provençal rosé from Mathilde Chapoutier, which seems like a drink made for summer.
With its wide-open facade and crowded patio, Clever Rabbit also is made for summer. Whether it will continue to evolve or hibernate over the winter is still an open question. v