I’ll never forget the look of disappointment from my restaurant-loving dad when my then 13-year-old sister announced she was a vegetarian. It was a reaction I’d see repeated by the waitstaff at the places where we dined. These days, of course, it’s a different story, with many more options for nonmeat-eaters. But in Chicago, none of them come close to celebrating the delicious possibilities the vegetable kingdom offers as Bad Hunter.
Technically, the West Loop newcomer from Heisler Hospitality (Pub Royale, Sportsman’s Club and Estereo, among others) isn’t a vegetarian restaurant; fish, chicken and beef dishes are featured regularly on the specials menu in preparations ranging from salmon crudo to a chicken-thigh kebab. But perhaps that’s why Bad Hunter works for not only those who eschew meat but for those who don’t. Or, as my vegan dining companion said, “They’re not trying to be fake vegetarian.” In other words, you won’t find any vegetables dolled up to resemble meat.
What chef Dan Snowden is doing is taking his culinary experience at places such as Nico Osteria and The Publican and creating vegetable-focused dishes like you’ve never had before.
Take, for example, the tempura-fried lemons and delicata squash. Inspired by a fritto misto Snowden had years ago in Italy, it’s a weird dish that works wonderfully with the acidity of the lemon balancing out the richness. Romanesco broccoli benefits too from some time in the deep fryer after which it’s paired with two Spanish-style sauces, an almond ajo (garlic) blanco and salvitxada, a kicky red pepper-based one.
Snowden’s creativity isn’t just limited to vegetables; his pasta dishes are terrific too. Butter dumplings, his take on Korean-style mandu, are stuffed with corn and shiitakes and paired with kimchi. A pan sear followed by a steam bath gives the wrappers a great chewy texture.
Then there’s his saffron farfalle topped with a hearty root vegetable Bolognese and grapefruit zest-infused breadcrumbs. It’s as comforting as any traditional meat sauce I’ve had. The fact that Snowden puts the vegetables through a meat grinder to emulate the Bolognese’s texture is indicative of the kind of attention to detail going on here.
Desserts from Pastry Chef Emily Spurlin (Floriole) are equally intriguing and dabble in the vegetable world, including the beautiful and delicious red curry squash tart. The low-alcohol cocktails from Bar Manager Josh Fossitt take a walk in the garden too. I particularly liked the tequila-based Spicy Carrot Cooler with a touch of heat via Jamaican Jerk bitters.
While opening any restaurant is challenging, doing a vegetable-focused one in the Midwest during winter can be especially so, says Snowden—but it also has him and his kitchen staff thinking about the upcoming seasons. “We’re already starting to get excited about spring and summer,” he says. And so are we.