OK, so baffled by the reviews, we went to see for ourselves, and found The (Black) Rabbit Bistro on W. 29th charming and rather delicious, with great drinks. Can you believe it? You likely won’t until you go.
I don’t have time for a proper review today, as I am engrossed in a host of unpleasant administrative tasks, editing, and woodchipping a garden path, but I felt obligated to share after my sourpussing about Rabbit’s reputation for bad juju the other day.
We ended up staying a long time, sampling house-infused fig bourbon cocktails, flowery libations, and absinthey concoctions made by the bar manager, Amy, who is an absolute sweetheart. Her drink menu has a refreshingly unsweet profile, and she’s bold with flavor combinations. Her Manhattan, for example, has Navan in it, a French vanilla liqueur, and I had a drink with both lavender and lychee in it, and it actually tasted good. Holding back on the sugar and just letting the essences come through really goes a long way with this kind of experimentation.
The chef (Gabriel Gil, formerly of Red Agave) doesn’t hold back, either. I had to ask about a handful of the ingredients or preparations, since they were unfamiliar to me. That’s probably the first time I’ve ever had to do that in Eugene. “Gnoki,” for example, is a French version of gnocchi, but it’s made with choux pastry instead of potato, so it really does merit its own name. Does this kind of specificity make the Rabbit snobby or pretentious? I can see why many people think it would. I don’t mind it, personally. I was intrigued by startling combinations like braised endive and grapefruit. Bitters, anyone? We both had a really hard time choosing what to order, since so many things looked so good.
I didn’t meet the owners or chef, and had the very pleasurable experience of running into Scott, formerly of Bel Ami, who is now the bartender at the Rabbit on Amy’s days off (i.e., during the early part of the week). I didn’t see even a tiny speck of rudeness, arrogance, or anything negative whatsoever. In fact, I found the whole experience a thousand times better than I had expected.
So what about the food? Well, I had an open-faced duck rillette sandwich with frisée and cornichons with frites, and my companion had comfort food: a chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and green beans. They were both excellent. We also sampled a hen-of-the-woods, asparagus, savory custard and poached egg salad: delicious. And we watched several more delights pass us by, like a whole trout served with its little head perched on top, frog legs fried in what looked like panko breadcrumbs, the infamous no-ketchup burger. The latter smelled good, really good, and that was after I ate. And we heard about the soup specials, which sounded like they were from an alien planet but both the bartenders swore up and down they were the best soups they had ever had.
Prices are excellent for the quality of the dishes. Almost impossibly, Rabbit is cheaper than Belly, and a happy hour in the bar section in the back offers half price on a small set of appetizers (until the menu changes this week, your choice is frites, mussels, or frog legs) and $5 cocktails. That’s an Abe Lincoln for top-shelf cocktails. You can’t get that kind of deal anywhere.
I need to go back again several times before I do a proper review, but I’ll tell ya what: I’m really looking forward to it.
Try it and let me know what you think!
3/28/09: UPDATED TO ADD:
Hm. Went to Rabbit Bistro again, when the owners were in, and the tone of the place was dramatically different: too dark, for one, and a strange, muted hush fell over the place. I completely understand the critical comments in the reviews now. We were greeted by a brusque woman with this dialogue:
Her: Would you like to sit in the bar?
My husband, not seeing a bar and not understanding: In the bar?
Her: Yes, the bar. Because that’s what we’ve got right now.
Me: Um, ok.
I happen to like the bartender, so sitting in the bar area (for the record, in the back of the restaurant) isn’t a huge problem, but the way this was handled was not exactly welcoming. Just a small change of tone would have made a huge difference.
What could have gone down:
Her: We don’t have anything available in the dining area in front but there are some tables in the bar area. Would you like to sit there or wait for a table to open up?
Us: The bar area is fine.
And I enjoyed a strong Sazerac and sips of my friend’s Manhattan, infused with a subtle hint of vanilla. Didn’t care for the champagne cocktail with grapefruit juice as much, though.
The food was quite good, especially the trout. This is Rabbit’s saving grace. All three of us had seafood. The dourade royale presentation was quite fussy, with two pieces of fish on a long platter and a dozen or so clams lined up in a row above the fish. My mussels were tasty, but I felt the bacon (which was cubed back bacon, not the fried stuff) and the thin slices of green beans did absolutely nothing for the sauce. And, to be even more cantankerous, allow me to complain about serving both fish dishes with a root vegetable purée, a texture combination that has always grossed me out. A cauliflower-fennel soup du jour was tasty, albeit light on the fennel. The asparagus/hen of the woods mushroom/poached egg salad we enjoyed the other day came in a portion so tiny the egg barely covered it — I was surprised by that. Probably my biggest negative was that it took forever for the food to arrive.
Retrogrouch complained bitterly about the richness of the food, and my companion disliked the strip mall and multipurpose use room atmosphere afforded by same. It’s kind of unpleasant when you realize you have the best view in the place, and you’re sitting in the bar hinterlands, as far from the front door as possible, overlooking the back parking lot of Market of Choice.
So there you have it. One pleasant experience, one not-so-pleasant experience at the Rabbit. Just keepin’ it real, hare. Sigh.
Don’t forget about Happy Hour in the bar. The bar, because that’s what they’ve got right now. They’ve just switched over the HH specials to the liver cromequis (a fancy word for croquette), but have kept the fries and mussels. Rock bottom prices. $5 cocktails, half price appetizers. 4:30-6:30.