Illicit has always held a certain allure. Smoking pot scored with a prescription just isn’t quite as fun; the boom-boom room should never bear a sign of this name. As The Breakfast Club’s John Bender put it: “Being bad feels pretty good.”
But when bad becomes co-opted in the form of perfectly legal “speakeasies” aiming for authenticity via mustachioed drinkslingers, or so-called secret supper clubs that are actually card-carrying catering companies, well, the thrill is gone, baby.
So in a full-frontal endorsement of illegal activities, TOC is reviewing the truly underground Rabbit Hole just as we would any new restaurant in Chicago: on food quality, concept execution, ambience, service and generally whether we’d send our best friend there. On all of these counts, the Rabbit Hole succeeds. But I’ll be the first to admit that it’s tough to fully separate the food from the experience—everything tends to taste a little better when served in the cloak of a darkened home dining room where the stereo dial is set to SEXY and the wine flows as if Bukowski is hosting. Strangers sit across from you at a dramatically long dining table, looking gorgeous in the glow of drippy black candles and even better as the night evolves from polite pleasantries to a down-and-dirty discussion of just why and how oysters became classified as aphrodisiacs.
For this alone, the Rabbit Hole is a godsend for the lone diner, a real-life Chatroulette coupled with a meal. This is just as the Rabbit Hole’s founder—code name: “The Queen of Tarts”—intended. Fielding reservation requests via the Rabbit Hole website, she’s your point of entry into the club, as well as the first person to greet you when you arrive at the address (handed over via phone eight hours prior). She appears through the swinging wooden door hiding the kitchen of this vintage Logan Square graystone, balancing a silver tray bearing welcome cocktails that take Earl Grey tea from tame to dangerous thanks to a hefty pour of whiskey and a drop of honey. A dozen of us mingle in the living room, including a sultry singer/songwriter nailing the Prohibition-era look, a few postgrad globetrotters making the most of their unemployment checks and a teacher in her early thirties who was surprising her husband with the night for his birthday.
After cocktails, the Queen reappears with another tray, this one lined with Wellfleet oysters splashed with a blood-orange mignonette. As we slurp them, she announces the theme tonight (each event varies) is “Exploring Aphrodisiacs,” which elicits a round of excited and slightly nervous coos, the likes of which I haven’t heard since the last time I played Spin the Bottle. But before any making out can get under way, we’re told to take our seats. “Dinner will begin,” the Queen says ominously. Then she ducks back into the kitchen, where we can only assume she’s commiserating with the other person behind the Rabbit Hole: the Cheshire Chef.
We already know from the Rabbit Hole website that the Cheshire Chef is a California Culinary Academy grad and has a decade of cooking experience, mainly in the Bay Area. But we don’t know her name, or what she looks like. All we know right now is that she’s starting off our five-course meal with a pillowy asparagus and celery-root empanada, sent out of the kitchen on a swirl of basil pesto and alongside a pour of prosecco. It’s subtle and simple but a nice start, enough to get the table buzzing with anticipation of what’s next. I’m not as excited as the rest of the group with the second course, a dry tangle of linguine with a few lobster mushrooms and a handful of bay scallops that land squarely in “rubbery” territory. But the hand-formed links of wild rabbit sausage that follow are clearly well cared for. They’re pan-browned and paired with warm mashed bananas hiding the fire of Scotch bonnet chiles.
So far, portions have been close to what’s classified as a main course in most restaurants, so the mountain of mole-braised oxtails that hits the table next is intimidating. The collective round of moaning could be credited either to the tender pile of cinnamony, chocolatey meat or to the “Mama Juana” cocktail alongside, a balanced mixture of rum and red wine carrying the green cardamom scent of Indian ice-cream shops. I have no trouble finishing both, making a mental note to serve moles with rum more often.
As table talk turns to which nearby bar to descend upon as newfound friends, the final course picks up where the last left off—chocolate ganache slathered onto a crust of crushed green pumpkin seeds and crowned with a dollop of cardamom pudding. Like most of what we’ve eaten tonight, it’s creative, intensely flavorful and interesting enough that most (if any) technical missteps seem to blur into the scenery, forgotten in the bigger picture of the night.
Finally, the Cheshire Chef sneaks out of the kitchen into the dining room and is greeted with a round of applause, followed by a few questions. We learn that she did something similar called Subculture Dining in San Francisco and that she chose this path for the intimacy of it. “When you cook in a restaurant doing 300 covers a night, you don’t know who the hell you’re cooking for,” she says. “Now, you guys don’t know who the hell is cooking for you.”
Therabbitholechicago.com. Average tasting menu (with pairings): $80.