Here’s an old Czech proverb: Lepsi jeden prd nez deset doktoru, or “Better one fart than ten doctors.” It’s earthy advice for digestive health, but it’s also an apt metaphor for what’s going on at Bohemian House.
I’m certain that no one who spends a lot of time in River North restaurants has been pining for the traditionally starchy, fortifying provender of Central Europe. That’s amply provided in graying suburbs like Berwyn, where Klas and Czech Plaza have soldiered on for decades, or in Mount Prospect, where now even “modern Polish cuisine” has dug a toehold.
But this beautiful new restaurant near the corner of State and Illinois, which takes the form of an ornate beer hall haunted by the spirit of art nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, is poised to exploit widespread misunderstanding of the original meaning of “bohemian.” The term refers, however loosely, to the western portion of what is now the Czech Republic and the Roma people who came from it.
There’s really nothing quite like it in the neighborhood—and it’s better than ten other half-assed attempts at cultural appropriation within immediate stumbling distance. Former DeLaCosta chef Jimmy Papadopoulos, whose seemly handlebar moustache makes frequent appearances in the dining room, hasn’t targeted his menu toward blue-collar bohunks in need of mountains of roast pork, dumplings, and sauerkraut to get through a second shift. Instead he’s easing a new generation of softies into eating like them.
That’s why his potato pancakes are dainty little things; a trio of bites, dabbed with apple preserves, kohlrabi matchsticks, and ribbons of cured salmon with dill fronds for corsages. These are three dear ($12) and tasty little hors d’oeuvres—or they would have been had they arrived when they were still hot (one of a few examples of poor pacing and disorganized service that hadn’t been ironed out by the time I visited).
The pursuit of accessibility is why his soft and silky beef cheek pierogi are drenched in an intensely concentrated winey sauce and garnished with wizened carrots, slow roasted to concentrate their flavors. It’s why a stout house-made knackwurst is clad in—or, more accurately, laid under—a blanket of puff pastry, a nod to younger generations raised on cocktail weenies swaddled in Pillsbury dough.
Still, Grandpa could probably get behind Lithuanian-style bacon buns, their soft dough cratered and filled with crispy pork bits, or deviled eggs topped with a scrap of smoked whitefish, a single loop of frazzled shallot, and a few fried capers. Papadopoulas’s greatest expression of irreverence among these smaller shareable plates is the union of two of the biggest meatcentric cliches of the past half decade: a long split length of roasted beef bone saddled with a pile of minced beef tartare. Topped with a tangle of fresh watercress concealing the just-pink, slightly warm trench of marrow, this magnificent hunk of raw flesh gives you a small of sense of what you’d have to do to survive if you lived in the time before fire.
Papadopoulos has been tweaking dishes with some frequency, which is why I was disappointed that he’d swapped out smoked beef tongue for pork belly in a spaetzle entree by the time I got to it. But it was no big deal; the meat melted among the pasta nubs, sweetened with smoked corn and tarted up with pickled garlic. Maybe you’ll roll your eyes at an emasculated breaded pork schnitzel fussily cut into strips and stacked like Lincoln Logs, served with what the menu describes as German potato salad which is in fact just fingerlings bathing in a bacony vinaigrette. But the pork is delicately cooked, almost pink in the interior, and it banishes the memory of the overfried shoe leather this dish can become in less capable hands.
The chef’s roast duck is an odd bird, its pink, seemingly cured flesh falling easily off the bone amid sweet fuchsia-colored summer plums. Meanwhile a grilled chicken paprikash is something extraordinary: a lovely, charred half fowl, heavily rubbed in paprika, bathing in a vibrantly red, smoky sauce, its considerable spice and acidity boosted by sweet pickled peppers and tempered by a few judicious dabs of sour cream. It’s so good I only regret the kitchen’s decision to pair it with dense, leaden potato dumplings that just reminded me of the lighter, airier bread dumplings, or houskovy knedlik, that are engineered for maximum sauce absorption.
Only a quartet of doughy plum kolacky nod toward the old country at dessert, though a better bet is an intensely dark and bitter chocolate custard offset by a scoop of salt caramel ice cream. It’s odd that there are only two Czech beers among the 15 on draft, and no Czech wines on a very short, unremarkable list—though there is something on the generally classic, basic cocktail list called a “Czech-Gria”—a combination of curacao and Czech wine that isn’t nearly as sweet as you’d expect.
Bohemian House is an unlikely candidate for River North’s flavor of the month—but it’s a lot more substantial than the majority of its neighbors.