New Veggie-Focused Restaurant Clever Rabbit Has One Truly Outstanding Dish

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jun 14, 2017 3:54PM

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The crudite of my dreams. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Restaurant critics are (understandably) concerned with the total experience of dining. How was the ambiance, the music, the cocktails, the wine, the savory food, the desserts, the height of the chairs, the cologne of the waiters? And that's as it should be, as dining is an all-encompasing sensory experience. But sometimes a single factor (or even a single dish) rises so far above the others that I heartily recommend a restaurant that has some issues. That's what happened at Clever Rabbit.

Clever Rabbit is the latest of the "non-vegetarian vegetable restaurants" (a mouthful, but I haven't figured out what else to call it) to hit the scene, succeeding Bad Hunter in the same category. These restaurants don't want to lecture you about eating meat; they want to showcase the bounty of vegetables. Which is awesome...when it works.

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Rabbits everywhere. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Clever Rabbit is in the heart of the Division Street corridor, and I give them some props for managing to carve an interesting design out of what is, frankly, a boring rectangular box on a fairly drab street. Tons of moss all over the walls, cute rabbit-themed design details and the ever-present Edison bulbs combine to create a space that, if not memorable, at least feels of the moment.

The menu is, oddly, arranged around the following categories: platters, salads, vegetables and plates. Except some of the salads contain vegetables. As do the platters. And some of the plates don't have meat, and only have vegetables. And some of the vegetables sort of feel like salads. It was frankly kind of confusing, and then, buried in the list of platters, my eye caught this: a $38 crudite plate.

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There it is again! Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Really? A $38 crudite plate? You've got to be joking. The best crudite in town is at Boeufhaus, and it only costs $10, which is pretty much what I expect a crudite to cost. So I pulled an unfair critic's trick of ordering something incredibly unlikely in the slight hope that, if it was awful, I'd be able to make fun of it and not have to think super-hard about what to write while I was nursing my Monday morning hangover.

Well, they beat me. This is the best new dish I've had in 2017. Now, that may be because (as Crain's Peter Frost pointed out on Twitter) 2017 hasn't actually been a great year for restaurant openings. In any case, this is a truly outstanding platter. It arrives on a huge table-sized board, piled high with yellow, purple and orange carrots drizzled with oil and perfectly seasoned with salt, a slick and savory ramp conserva, radishes topped with butter, delicate poached white asparagus, thick slices of fresh cucumber, heirloom tomatoes everywhere, naan, a huge swipe of labneh, plums with savory goat cheese, smoked mushroom mousse and an eggplant preserve.

If it sounds like a lot, it is. That's why it's worth $38. It took my date and I a half hour to make a dent in this huge pile of vegetable amazingness, and when we couldn't finish it without ruining the rest of our meal, we took it to go and finished it at home later.

The fact that I took it to go should tell you something; if you're a party of 2, you can dine happily on this and one additional shared entree. And that meant that the rest of the menu, which, frankly wasn't that distinctive, is kind of a blur because I was in the very first vegetable happiness coma of my life.

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The brussels sprouts. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

It's not that the rest of the dishes at Clever Rabbit are revoltingly bad; they're just not as good as they should be. For a vegetable-focused restaurant, none of the cooked vegetables I tried were all that great. A brussels sprout dish was... a perfectly fine brussels sprout dish, cooked and shredded, and i didn't taste a single hint of the honey or horseradish promised on the menu. Chinese broccoli, one of my favorite vegetables, tasted mainly of char, an intense amount of salt, and an admittedly pleasant contrast from the grapefruit.

Every vegetable (outside the platter) was oversalted. Even the potatoes, which I'd recommend ordering as a good filing side, were slightly too salty, though the roasted shallot yogurt they came with was outstanding, which my date described as "the onion dip my parents made for every party" (he meant it as a compliment). A totally nondescript tuna tartare had almost no flavor at all.

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Tuna. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

It also seems an odd choice to go for non-seasonal, non-local produce when the bounty of the summer season is upon us. Aside from the crudite, there's no asparagus on the menu even though markets are full of it, no peas to be found, and no great zucchini dish —but there are brussel sprouts (not in season yet), potatoes (not in season yet) and cauliflower (maybe barely in season next week). If you're going to showcase the greatness of vegetables, your menu probably has to totally change every couple of weeks.

The other surprisingly enjoyable dish (and the one I'd suggest to round out my crudite+entree plan) was the scallop schnitzel. I've never seen a scallop prep like this, pounded flat, breaded and then served with two colors of cabbage. It's not particularly summer-y, but it's an unusually hearty way of presenting seafood that satisfied despite its small size.

Will I return to Clever Rabbit? Absolutely, partly for the crudite and partly for some intriguing dishes on the menu I haven't gotten a chance to try yet. Service was solid, drinks were serviceable (though the cocktails were all a bit single-note), and the price, despite the expensive crudite was not outrageous; at one meal, I got out for less than $140 for two people, including three rounds of drinks and stuffed bellies.

Chef Matt Lair (formerly of Bom Bolla) is trying to do something a bit different, and he faces an uphill battle trying to convince diners to pay entree prices for vegetable dishes. But he clearly knows how to showcase veggies when he tries. He just needs to pick the right ingredients and refine his recipes.

Clever Rabbit is at 2015 W. Division St.