If the amalgamation that is the restaurant's name itself doesn't make this clear, Bottlefork is about fusing drink and food so completely together that "pairing" would no longer be the appropriate term.
The restaurant opened in February along the Rick Bayless corridor of River North, with Brandon Phillips managing the bottle and Kevin Hickey on the fork. It's all about "putting the drink into the food and the food into the drink," as the folks at Rockit Ranch Productions, my server, and chef Hickey all put it. To drive this unity home, the bar itself stretches forty feet, heading straight into the kitchen without break. Line chefs and bartenders, working side by side.
Although the bar's party trick—a whiskey version of a soda fountain suicide called the Bill Brasky ($35)—has gotten the interest and raised eyebrows it may deserve, the house cocktail Big Salty Tears ($14) better exemplifies the elegant mashup of food and alcohol that makes Bottlefork more than a concept. A rich meringue of egg-white cream stands on this maple-scented blend of whiskey and sherry, which lingers on the tongue with a nice citrusy zing.
The kitchen contributed parsnips and baby beets to the rye mash for the Root Cellar amber ale, rounding out the hops with a sweet body that works nicely as a transition between seasons. The brew is a collaboration with Begyle Brewing, and can be found in the mussels ($16) as well as on tap ($6).
But it's pretty easy to hide parsnips in beer. Incorporating alcohol into food takes a bit more finesse. Those mussels, fennel-strewn and smoky with hunks of bacon, are a paragon of Hickey's talent for it. On the other hand, you have the spinach and artichoke oysters ($12). They're laced with Jeppson's Malört—that bitter, bizarrely trendy local spirit that even advertises itself as a "brutal" experience. As you might imagine, this makes it somewhat of a tough-it-up-and-knock-it-back experience. Yet as unappetizing as that might sound, there is something so clever about this pairing—raw oysters are the only food I'm aware of that are downed like a shot, after all—that it's impossible not to appreciate the inside joke.
On the pleasanter end of the bitterness scale, the juniper and orange zest in the Gin and Juice salumi ($8) is well worth savoring. The lamb is cured by Indianapolis's Smoking Goose Meatery, accompanied by the house's bright giardiniera and best paired with, well, gin and juice. Hickey brought over a Letherbee gin, Thai bitters, and orange cocktail that emphasized the charcuterie's attributes perfectly.
Fermentation is a lighter-handed way to carry Bottlefork's theme into summer dishes, and the real stunner of the evening, the grilled octopus and housemade spam ($17), does exactly that. The cubes of ground and reconstituted pork shoulder are incredible—sweet, caramelized around the edges, and joined by hunks of grilled octopus that prove just as tender. Everything is tossed with garlicky fermented brussels sprouts, crisp sugar snap peas, and a slightly spicy ginger kimchi sauce. Order it and guard it well.
Still only a couple of months old, Bottlefork is still figuring out what works. But with chef Hickey at the helm, this could be the most interesting Rockit incarnation yet.