“This is either going to be the best or worst meal we eat this year,” I told my date before we walked into Bohemian House, a new neo-Czech restaurant in River North
Truly, I didn’t know what to expect. Though the restaurant gets its name from the fact that the Czech Republic was once part of the ancient kingdom of Bohemia, I, like most people, tend to associate the word “bohemian” with the French origin, which is to say, a way to describe socially unconventional folks before the word “hipster” was invented. But, even as I wiped the images of a restaurant based on the cast of “Rent” from my mind, I was still concerned that Bohemian House (or “BoHo,” as the sign near the entrance reads) was sandwiched between greasy dive bar Snickers and the restaurant with maybe the second worst name ever in Chicago, American Junkie (The Money Shot, which has since closed, was number one).
And then there was the fact that the chef was a relative unknown: Jimmy Papadopoulos spent the past six years working as chef de cuisine of a hotel and convention center steakhouse in Schaumburg. And he’s cooking Czech food, a cuisine not typically measured in finesse or invention, but by the amount of salt, fat and carbs you can whip into it to soak up all the pilsner you’re likely to slam while eating. I cast my hazy expectations aside and dug in.
Chef Jimmy, the secret weapon
When the business partners behind Bohemian House approached him, executive chef Jimmy Papadopoulos didn’t know what to think either. “I almost backed out,” he said. “I was at a crossroads. I was like, this isn’t my style. I’d tell my friends I was about to cook Bohemian food and they were like, ‘What’s that? Middle-Eastern?’ ”
But then he started dining out at places like the venerable Czech Plaza in Berwyn to find inspiration. “I had this roasted duck that was way overcooked,” he said. “But there was something exciting about the smoky duck and the contrast of the bright sweet and sour red cabbage that got me thinking about how I could reinvent things.”
With his handlebar mustache, cleanly shaven head and heavily tattooed forearms, Papadopoulos looks more like a craft beer brewer or ’80s wrestling villain than a cerebral super-chef. And yet, Papadopoulos is a student of Thomas Keller’s “The French Laundry Cookbook.” He’s memorized the techniques and stories from the book and quoted them almost verbatim when I interviewed him.
The gig at Sam & Harry’s steakhouse in Schaumburg turned out to be an under-the-radar opportunity for Papadopoulos. He had a huge budget that allowed him to order $75-per-pound wagyu beef or any special ingredient he wanted, and to experiment and hone his craft with few critics watching.
Papadopoulos’ positivity is also infectious. When you talk to him, you feel like he’s never said no to a problem. He seems ready to take on the world. He’s also pretty funny. I wondered if he’d used wax to get the curl on his mustache. “No, just spaetzle batter cured under the restaurant heat lamps,” he said.
When I dined, he and his sous chefs visited each table to say hi or to solicit feedback about the plates they were putting out. When I later set up an interview with him, he texted me a picture of the Slagel Family Farms pig head he’d just gotten in, over the moon about making headcheese in the same way kids freak out when the ice cream man starts jingling the bell on his cart. Papadopoulos and his crew are in it to win it.
Beets even the Obamas might love
Then again, enthusiasm and access to luxury ingredients can only take you so far. Papadopoulos is also a serious technician. Everybody in town has a beet dish these days, but few chefs roast their beets, puree them and whip them with creme fraiche to create a velvety, sweet and tangy burgundy-colored sauce that acts as a dip for expertly roasted candy-striped whole beets garnished with wood-smoked walnuts and drizzled with sticky, tangy molasses and caraway vinaigrette ($9). The garden-like like composition of the plate plus the contrast of crispy and soft as well as smoky and sweet makes this the kind of dish you’d find at one of the high-end prix-fixe places in town. I suspect the Obamas, notorious beet haters, might rethink their position if they sampled this one.
Papadopoulos’ spaetzle ($16) is not the usual leaden fare you find at local German restaurants, but light puffs made with sour cream, egg and a touch of flour. It’s tossed with trumpet mushrooms, rainbow chard, gray shallots and translucent shavings of beef tongue that have been seasoned with pastrami spices, smoked for six hours and brined for five days. The long brine and smoke transforms the usually tough, dense tongue meat into what tastes like a comforting, well-braised short rib. When the dish was served, my server poured a warm sauce of aged gouda tableside, transforming the plate into a kind of Czech answer to American mac ‘n’ cheese.
Papadopoulos’ chicken paprikash ($23) is juicy to the bone, its skin blistered and rubbed with a bit of fiery paprika. The Czech-style potato dumplings tossed with the chicken, like the spaetzle, are cloud-like and provide serious carb-y comfort.
Almost every dish served at Bohemian House was something I’d crave again. The only exception was the deviled eggs ($6), which featured creamy whipped yolks, a fried caper, tangles of fried shallot and a sprinkle of smoked white fish. They were prepared well, but there were just too many elements at play and far too much richness in each bit; a pickled pepper or a drizzle of vinaigrette would have lightened the load.
A savory chef with sweets skills
Bohemian House doesn’t have a dedicated pastry chef, so Papadopoulos also oversees desserts including “coffee and doughnuts” ($8), a plate of hot, sugared ricotta cheese-larded fritters served with a demitasse of espresso gelato studded with hazelnut brittle. There’s also a dark chocolate custard ($9) with a pudding-like skin and a rich, complex bitterness complimented by a dollops of sweet and salty caramel ice cream.
Are those place settings glued to the wall?
Like the food, the interior design is intricate. The space is lit by iron- and glass-trimmed chandeliers and a feathery white globe lantern. Tables are made with hundred-year old reclaimed wood, some hand-stenciled with silver swirls. The basic bones of the room are typical Chicago loft-like brick-and-timber construction, but with a cross-bracing of light wood that creates a cathedral ceiling-like effect that draw your eyes upward and toward the back of the dining room. Tufted turquoise sofas in the front lounge compliment the cool blue- and black-painted back bar that’s made of stacked antique-looking side tables. The piece de resistance, however, is table settings for 14 featuring silverware, plates and centerpieces epoxied to the wall over one of the back tables. “Yeah, it’s really cool, but I know our GM is super-nervous about it,” Papadopoulos said. “Everyone’s like, ‘It’s epoxy, it’ll hold forever!’ But you know you don’t want someone getting hit in the head by a crashing plate three years from now.”
Waiter, there’s a sage leaf in my cocktail!
The cocktails at Bohemian House are stellar. I especially enjoyed the Bohemian Bee ($13), featuring gin, honey and lemon juice topped with a sage leaf, a complex mix of savory, spicy sage perfume and piney juniper. Befitting the restaurant’s Czech focus, the beer list is well-curated, featuring plenty of crisp lagers, foamy pilsner and an especially funky Hop Nosh IPA ($7) from one of my favorite breweries, Uinta Brewing Co. in Salt Lake City.
Bottom line: With its stellar food, a beautiful interior and well-crafted cocktails, Bohemian House might just be one of the best new restaurant openings of 2014. Its chef, Jimmy Papadopoulos, is definitely one of the brightest new stars to arrive in Chicago in awhile.
Review: Bohemian House
11 W. Illinois St. 312-955-0439