I felt like I’d walked into the secret love nest of Hugh Hefner and a crazy old bird lady.
I know that sounds crazy. Like why would Hefner shack up with a bird lady? But, the dude loved quaaludes, so anything is possible. And even if he never did, Bellemore restaurant’s interior design looks like what would have happened if he had.
There are stripper-chic red velvet tassels hanging near the draperies, a jungle republic’s worth of woven wicker caning on many of the chairs. Reams of velvet and leather have been spent on the banquettes, and bench seating – some of which is a couple inches too short, leaving me chest level with the edge of the table and feeling like Alice after she had just drunk the shrinking potion.
And then there are the taxidermied birds perched over the bar. There is the art, in the foyer, a naked lady’s torso, her face obscured by frolicking fowl. In the back, there are creepy owls, one whose neck is craned unnaturally like that girl in the Exorcist. It is said that John Lennon once put a cigarette out on a very expensive Matisse while hanging at the Playboy mansion. He likely would have regarded this art with so much curiosity, that he would have stubbed his fag out elsewhere. It is all a menacing menagerie that would make Tippi Hedren shudder.
It is also, while odd, cool, refreshing, and an antidote to the many bootstrapped restaurants that have co-opted the Chicago scene during the death of fine dining. I expect no less from designer Karen Herold of Studio K who once told me she started a design by asking what would it look like if Steve Jobs and Nike had a love child?
What really makes me shudder lies beneath the birds, a hipster bartender wearing a hat with Elmer Fudd flaps buttoned at the top. As he spanks garnishes and whispers at spirits, I can’t stop humming “Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!” in my brain.
If this were the Playboy mansion or some derivative, no doubt the martinis, their fulsome olive garnishes and crystalline liquor would be available at a moment’s notice, brandished by butlers. But, at Bellemore, we wait almost 15 minutes. We are told at minute 10, our bartender may have spilled a cocktail on his way over. These drinks are, in great service move number one, comped at the end of the meal because they took so long to arrive.
Because I can feel it coming in the air tonight, I have ordered the “Phil F’in Collins”. Although the menu uses the contraction, I ask for the Phil “Fucking” Collins, because I see the order as test of whether I am demure, or bold and quirky like our bartender Elmer Fudd. After a long wait, I am rewarded with a milky green elixir that looks like the color of the packaging on the short-lived Hi-C Ecto Cooler, a tie-in drink launched in conjunction with the original “Ghostbusters” franchise. Oops, my bad. When I wrote this last sentence, I assumed a drink whose label included green-slimed citrus wouldn’t last more than a few years, but Google tells me it spent twelve years on the market before discontinuation.
But, anyway, back to the libations, and yes – Bellemore is the kind of place where you order libations – the Collins features gin, green tea, lemon and saffron all wrapped up in the smoky tendrils of tequila. A sip and I am satisfied after the long wait.
The bird theme continues because our server sounds like Jesse Eisenberg and so when I close my eyes, I feel like I am being tended to by Blue the parrot from the movie “Rio”. Blue, however turns out to be an excellent server, folding my wife’s discarded napkin in to a swan, ok, really just a nicely creased “v” shape, when she goes to the bathroom. He also suggests a glass of Nerello Mascalese from Mt. Etna to go with the duck. The Nerello is not an Italian dominatrix, but a red bursting with berries, whose grapes grow near an active volcano, Mount Etna. Blue also pretends not to notice that my other dining companion is pregnant when he asks which of the three of us will not be drinking the two glasses of 2009 Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Champagne provided with slices of oyster pie topped with onyx pearls of caviar and edible flowers.
Speaking of the oyster pie, it is more beautiful than a copse of blooming cherry blossoms. It has been created for you to Instagram, to show how much cooler you are than all of your friends. And like a sucker, I do this. But, whatever. It’s really tasty. Buttery short bread melts, custard drips, and salt pops. I do not mind the $65 price tag. Keep in mind, I am not dining with a publication’s money. I am spending my own, so this really means something.
The pie, however, save for a half dry, half liquor-soaked rum cake, is the least interesting thing we eat. Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos, like Jason Vincent, Paul Kahan, and a few others is one of my favorite chefs. Partly because when I was dreading having to review a place called Bohemian House years ago in River North, a spot where I had to fight my way past drunken revelers at Howl at the Moon to get to, he served a magnificent meal of glammed-up eastern-European dishes like pierogi and chicken paprikash.
Back then he also had a sweet handlebar moustache, long before they were de rigueur for the mixologist set. I fan-boyed so much over it that I asked him what kind of wax he used. He said he dabbled in a beard oil that smelled like rum and vanilla. I didn’t even know beard oil existed. I now use beard oil on occasion and let me tell you, it changed my hirsute life. So, thanks Jimmy!
But, you may not have a beard. You do, I hope, have a mouth, and you will reward it with veal sweetbreads, molasses butter-glazed and molasses-streuseled, tossed with honey crisp apples and thick, tangy mustard. You will eat it and you will swear shared plates are bullshit, because no one in their right mind would give away any part of this dish.
Visions of gourmet Howard Johnson’s visits will dance in your head as you dip in to the fried razor clams, but the delight of the fried bits will be usurped by crispy sweet potato tots so perfectly square they may have fallen out of a game of Minecraft.
Potato agnolotti featuring whisper-thin pasta wrappers and black truffle hats are really pierogi in Italian clothing, a Ferrari of pierogi, aka, ferrogi.
The 21-day dry aged duck, pink fingers of breast meat, capped with a crackling lacquer of burnt honey studded with orange zest, will knock you out.
Snowballs of satsuma mandarin sherbet, topped with brown butter tuiles that look like sailboat spinnakers whose shores are lapped by maple toffee, refresh and lift any heaviness you may be feeling from the savory portion of the meal.
The rum cake is half dry and half soaked, and it tastes like a half-assed babka from an old Chicago bakery resting on the fact that it’s been open and owned by the same family forever, but it is also really the only thing I didn’t like.
2017, which featured a lot of closings and a lack of innovation, was a horrible year for Chicago dining. The next wave of great restaurants has not come. Dave Beran, formerly of Next and Alinea, decamped to LA to open Dialogue and a former Alinea linemate of his Jordan Kahn opened Vespertine in the city of angels as well. Five years ago, those guys would have stayed in Chicago and forwarded our scene. So, where’s the next wave going to come from? I’m not entirely sure, but, as I watch him dry age a squab and soak it in cognac for 16 days on Instagram, I think chef Jimmy, who is promoting a unique point of view glamming up Euro-fare, might just be the guy to lead the charge.