I used to have this theory. It was about $12 entrees—or $11, or even $14; basically the price range that to your grandparents connotes a respectable meal, but nothing too extravagant. The theory held that $12 was low enough to exclude ingredients of any particular quality—no grass-fed anything, growth hormones galore—and yet was more than you should be paying for whatever middling rendition of fettucine alfredo was available for that price. At what cost mediocrity? Twelve bucks.
Alas. I was a textual originalist, with a theory that stayed fixed in the past while time, like a free-range chicken, scampered on ahead. And so here we are in 2013: you can vote if you’re a woman, you can have anal sex if you’re anybody, and you can spend about three times the Illinois hourly minimum wage (before taxes) on a flamingly mediocre main course at a new restaurant at the corner of Southport and Wolfram. Old ideas die hard, though not as hard as the livestock slaughtered for dinner service every night at the Bentley Tavern.
Like many restaurant concerns forged in the current era by people with more money than taste, the Bentley serves “American” fare, and seems devoted to proving just what a punishing concept “American” can really be: bland and unimaginative, on the one hand, and badly made, on the other. The chef is Ian Flowers, formerly of Lokal; the owner is Brian Dohmen, who named the restaurant after his dog, a shepherd-boxer mix whom he adopted from PAWS.
If you prefer steak, there will be steak, though it will be chewy and, even cooked rare, strangely bloodless. If you like duck, that’s available too, and also chewy. Both come with sauce—brown sauce, essentially—that tastes like a can of Campbell’s broth thickened with roux, or maybe cornstarch. The canned-soup theme extends to an appetizer of baked chevre submerged in a crock of what’s billed as “tomato fondu”; I’ll let you guess what that tastes like. Soup sauce also complements a confoundingly awful starter of duck confit agnolotti, rendered on this menu “angelotti,” I assume as a way of managing diners’ expectations. If you can get through the weird, hard wonton wrapper and into the filling, your past is marred with fewer jaw injuries than mine. (Only one, actually, when I fell off my bike in sixth grade, and it wasn’t really that bad. Thanks for asking.)
An appetizer of scallops came to the table lukewarm. (So did a martini.) They had a generally fishy flavor. There was some bacon, and little charred onions that were nearly raw in the middle. The timing issue was especially confusing because we were almost the only people in the dining room and the dish showed up right away—how did it find the time to cool off? On another visit the entrees came out about two minutes after the appetizers. I hadn’t even teethed my way into a single angelotti yet.
A half chicken was essentially flavorless, but on the plus side it was juicy and well cooked, which in this context felt a little menacing: somebody here knows how to cook a chicken and this is their menu? This place doesn’t need a review, the person I was dining with suggested, it needs a parent-teacher conference. What really ruined the poultry were the accompanying brussels sprouts, which were the brussels sprouts that people who hate brussels sprouts talk about when they talk about why they hate brussels sprouts: charred on the outside and cooked to death in the middle, like they’d been stewed for hours and then, like an afterthought, passed under a broiler on their way out to the table. A similar fate befell the black cod entree: the fish was lovely and moist, with a thin, crispy skin, but the asiago risotto underneath it was chalky and revolting.
We sat for a while in front of that pile of brussels sprouts—it was a big pile, perhaps in tribute to its Americanness—picking at them, one by one, impelled by a sort of wonder: Was this really real? I walked back to the train thinking of the meal less as food than as performance art. Perhaps we were being punked. At the platform, I got a text message from my friend, regarding the brussels sprouts, specifically: “It’s like we got punk’d,” she wrote.