201 Sunrise Hwy., Rockville Centre
SERVICE: Friendly, but professionalism varies
AMBIENCE: Aggressively down-home
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 10 p.m.; bathroom not wheelchair accessible, municpal parking lot around the corner
Looking for the right word to describe Bucket List in Rockville Centre, I had to raid the language of zoology. This place is nothing if not galline: of or pertaining to chicken.
There’s the slick, studiously jaunty menu, of course, most of which is devoted to fried chicken in various forms, with some detours to grilled and pulled. The décor features chicken-themed art and knickknacks. One wall of the dining room is dominated by a faux chicken coop complete with corrugated metal roof, restroom signs specify “chicks” and “chick magnets,” there’s chicken wire behind the TV at the bar and servers wear T-shirts proclaiming “Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner!” and “This chicken don’t give a cluck.” (These, and other pieces of Bucket List merchandise, are available for purchase.)
You’d expect great fried chicken here, and you’d be wrong. Underseasoned and, in the case of the white meat, dry, it also never seemed to reach our table hot. Order the chicken with waffles and prepare yourself for waffles without structure, syrup with little maple taste.
Much better was the Nashville hot chicken, fried chicken that has been given a postgraduate dredging in a hot-salty-tangy spice mixture and served on white bread with a sliced pickle.
If chicken is the star of Bucket List’s show, the co-star is gimmick. The menu is full of high-concept mash-ups, some of which were winners. The nachos bucket comes to the table on a paper-lined sheet tray. When the server picks it up, you realize the bucket has no bottom and the contents — tortilla chips, pulled chicken in barbecue sauce, cheese and sour cream — spill out onto the tray. I wish there had been more cheese and cream to balance out the sweet sauce, but this dish was crazy likable. Ditto the mac-and-cheese doughnuts, of which I could not have been more skeptical. But they were oozy on the inside, crisp and brown on the outside, and provided a solution to the age-old problem of how to eat macaroni and cheese without utensils. (The mac-and-cheese served as a side dish, however, was runny and bland.)
But too many gimmicks fell flat. The Ferris wheel sampler is a miniaturized carnival ride whose five passenger cars are occupied by fried pickles, fried cornbread bites, fried onion rings, popcorn chicken (really, fried cubes of chicken) and funnel fries (segments of fried dough). None of these components tasted of much more than fried, and few were hot. The vertical orientation of the presentation made some sense — it occupied a small footprint on a crowded table — but since the wheel did not spin, it was about as useful a serving piece as a stationary lazy Susan.
Chicken potpie soup was a cream of chicken soup served with a Popeye’s-level biscuit. The mac-and-cheese sandwich subjected a dry chicken breast to that runny macaroni and bacon bits. Forgive me: I could not bring myself to try the grilled glazed doughnut stuffed with cheese and served with a tomato-soup dip.
The dessert menu, predictably, comprises over-the-top shakes on one side, over-the-top sundaes on the other. I’d go for a float, made with vanilla ice cream and your choice of nine flavors of Boylan sodas. In addition to six sugary cocktails (Bucket List punch contains rum, peach schnapps, Amaretto, cranberry juice and Sprite), there is a short list of wine and beer, the most exotic of which is Corona.
I didn’t encounter anyone working at Bucket List who wasn’t friendly and genuinely eager to please, but the presiding spirit here is one of calculation. Instead of a passion for mastering fried chicken or comfort food, I sensed a business hunch that a fried-chicken restaurant would do well on this corner. If it does, it will be the triumph of style over substance.