When Jason Paskewitz finally threw in the towel on Jackson Park, the massive steakhouse project he tried to get off the ground from 2006 through 2009, he did what few other chefs have the balls to do: He became quiet. No Twitter rants for this guy. No Facebook updates. No blog to capture his comeback. Within a few months of announcing he was done with Jackson, Paskewitz opened Gemini Bistro in Lincoln Park, and he was quiet here, too. Gemini was less a showy comeback than a restrained throwback, to a time when a restaurant didn’t have to hire a social-media expert to get attention.
That kind of restaurant seems to work for Paskewitz, who used to be known for his loud mouth (and thick Queens accent) as much as his food. So at Rustic House, his new restaurant, he’s gone the simple, understated route again. Rustic House is so close in size and feel to Gemini that it’s impossible not to see it as a sequel, and both restaurants reference a long line of restaurants before them. Yet something about walking into the space feels novel. There’s a confidence to the design of the room—it’s the opposite of showy. It doesn’t need to be showy. And in fact, I can’t relay a single detail about it except that there’s a lot of wood, there are usually people huddled at the bar, there’s a skylight in a back room that looks like a great place to have a party, and that only the most bitter people could resist feeling comfortable here. It’s a room that makes you want to eat, not look around.
The menu helps. Like the room, it’s kind of unprogressive—there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. But there’s also not very much here you aren’t happy to see again. Rotisserie chicken, grilled octopus, cookies and milkshakes. Joyless people might complain about a lack of innovation. Let them go to Moto.
The rest of us will take the chips with onion dip, and it will be a bittersweet experience. The thin and delicate chips will break upon contact with the thick and sweet dip, the flawed execution interrupting what otherwise would be the perfect cocktail snack. There’ll be other dishes that fall prey to this same problem: a lobster Caesar salad that’s too bland to be decadent; a dessert called Whatchamacallit with soggy wafers that keep it from emulating the candy bar; rotisserie lamb, too fatty and chewy to take more than two bites of.
But, more often than not, things will go as planned. The chicken, cooked in full view of the diners in a rotisserie, is juicy and meaty, salty and herby. Pommes Anna, one of four available potato sides, is addictively crispy on top and creamy below. The wood-grilled octopus is lightly charred, a smart pair to sweet tomatoes and briny olives. A rich chicken liver mousse, a hearty pancetta-wrapped monkfish, a sweet (almost too sweet) pappardelle with veal ragout—these are foods that do not surprise, foods that aren’t meant to surprise, foods that in fact might be problematic if they did surprise. Because you don’t order this food, or come to this restaurant, to be challenged. You come to be consoled.
With that in mind, the cookies with a milkshake is the way to end. The cookies are warm, the milkshake du jour (salted caramel on both of my visits) is frosty, and no, neither is the best version you’ve ever had. But you’re not here to complain. You’re here to enjoy the food and shut up for once, just like Paskewitz did.
By David Tamarkin