By Michael Nagrant
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but ripping someone off is just a recipe for bad karma. With that in mind, The Bristol, Bucktown’s new Midwestern-inspired trattoria, might be headed for some bad vibes.
I’m not saying this just because The Bristol has a chalkboard menu. Gil Langlois’ Lincoln Square restaurant Chalkboard has, yep, chalkboard menus. Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap and half the red sauce joints in Little Italy have them, and before desktop publishing, so did every little bistro. It’s also not because The Bristol has a communal table; so did my grandmother’s house and Avec.
Overlap is going to happen. But, this isn’t like Chris Brown inserting a little Wacko Jacko Moonwalk into his otherwise groundbreaking Charlie Chaplin-inspired 2007 VMA hip-hop dance. There seems to be a bit more of a wholesale violation going on. Like Mado, less than a mile away, who also has the communal table and the chalkboard menu, the Bristol also butchers whole animals, features charcuterie and organ meats and is intensely focused on serving farmers-market produce. Even their menu has a similar brown tone. You’re tempted to call The Bristol “Mado North” but that would be a disservice to Mado.
The buttery, crumbly shortbread at Mado might be the best you’ll ever try, while the dense dry version (served with berries and a blah quenelle of crème fraiche) at the Bristol leaves you with a Cuervo-hangover-like cotton mouth.
The pork belly at Mado is succulent and perfumed with garlic and fennel. The pork belly at the Bristol features a chewy rind and dry meat girded by a greasy country-fried pork loin and a limp spaghetti squash cake. Like a Grateful Dead tour groupie, the dish is in need of some major acid.
Making comparisons to Mado isn’t entirely fair. After all, The Bristol also “borrowed” Schwa’s signature quail-egg ravioli dish. So, maybe they don’t use the quail egg, and the brown butter sauce they use is as old as cuisine itself, but the presentation at the Bristol is eerily similar to Schwa’s. The Bristol’s version was pretty good, but like almost everything else on the menu, it could have used a touch more salt.
The Bristol did show restraint on imitation in the cocktail department. There was no one in 1920s period dress spanking herbs behind the bar ala Violet Hour. Still the Bristol offered a selection of drinks made from freshly squeezed juices and homemade syrups. But, a gleaming cocktail shaker, a tincture of bitters and some champagne coupes does not make you a top mixologist. The Bristol’s Pisco Sour was horribly bitter due the cascade of cocktail bitters drizzled on the egg-white foam head. The Dark and Stormy made with homemade ginger beer and Bacardi Select was too limey and finished with a bitter, salty aftertaste. I asked partner Philip Walters why they were using Bacardi Select instead of traditional Goslings, or a more balanced rum, and he said their consulting bartender, who just happened to be a Bacardi rep, thought it was the best. Hmmm…
Not everything at the Bristol is an imitation. Their monkey bread with dill butter and sea salt served in mini cast-iron pots is new. The presentation is cute, but the bread was dry, there was no sea salt and the butter fat engulfed any discernable dill taste.
Despite the consistent food shortcomings, the Bristol might have the best service of any casual restaurant in the city. They fold napkins when you leave for the bathroom. They don’t serve courses if all the parties aren’t seated at the table, and they exchange plates and silverware with each course. The servers are knowledgeable and if they don’t know something, they don’t fake it.
This top service is even more incredible when you consider they’d only been open for a week and a half when I visited. That fact might also explain why even though most of my food was mediocre, I also had one of my favorite dishes of the year. Like Mado, the Bristol menu rotates frequently. True to this idea, they sold out of their sweetbreads the night I was there.
My server sensed my disappointment over the sweetbreads, and returned to the table a few minutes later and asked me if I was interested in some pork liver, heart and tongue that the chef had. I’d like to think I’d howled a manly Emeril-style “Bam” in response, but, I was so excited, I think I actually squealed out a Rachael-Ray-like “Yum-oh.”
I was then rewarded with a lightly seared and thinly sliced rare pork liver topped with bitter greens, toasted hazelnuts, sautéed chanterelles and fennel vinaigrette. Pork liver is not foie gras. It can be chewy, gamy and nasty. But somehow the kitchen found a way to make it luxuriant, silky and rich, proving you can make a silk purse from a sow’s liver. Despite the other food missteps, this dish signals that chef Chris Pandel has chops, and that The Bristol requires further investigation. Most importantly, the pork liver, not to mention the good marinated pork tongue and heart crostini on that same plate, represents a vision of solid head-to-tail cooking that we don’t have much of in Chicago. If the folks at the Bristol follow that path more, there may be better times ahead.
The Bristol is located at 2152 North Damen, (773)862-5555.