Let’s say things start turning around for the better. Say the president takes a perp walk, and the oft-foretold Chicago restaurant bubble never pops. If things stay on that trajectory, soon you’ll be able to eat at a different Boka Restaurant Group restaurant every day of the month.
For a food critic it’s no longer astonishing that every time BRG opens a new restaurant it’s another remarkable one. It’s become something you can reliably look forward to. Number 15, Bellemore, is Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm’s new November restaurant, which opened hot on the heels of number 14, their new September restaurant, the weird but ultimately delightful Somerset. Surely they’ve done it again.
Well, let’s see. They’ve teamed up with Jimmy Papadopoulos, formerly of Bohemian House, where he performed surgery on eastern-European food, excising its unfair reputation for bland oppressiveness and implanting a quickly beating heart. They’ve opened Bellemore in the vast husk of the abandoned Embeya, laying down a new coat of conceptual paint and installing curvilinear banquettes, brass chandeliers, and a few stuffed peacocks in the upper corners, presumably to scare away crows.
The spacious dining room, patrolled by invariably likable runners and servers, is relaxing. Classic punk is in the air—Television, the Clash, the Jam—and yet it’s one of the less frenetic environments in the group’s empire. You’ll gaze down upon a large, sensibly designed menu that even the most secretly illiterate among us could read. It offers three courses, with a handful of choices available for each. That these three sections aren’t labeled with twee gag-worthy gags shows the Boka group respects your intelligence. It’s just one course after the other. That’s all. Not even a burger. Miraculous.
First, at the very top, there’s a wooden trencher set with burnished Hawaiian rolls, so light and risen they seem to sway, served with a little dish of soft, country-ham-infused cultured butter mixed with tiny, salty bits of fried ham and topped with soft pumpkin stewed in sweet saba, the grape syrup that’s a clever chef’s stand-in for good balsamic vinegar. Here’s a tip: These will come out from the kitchen before anything else you’ve ordered. The shine on them will put a twinkle in your date’s eye, and your first impulse will be devour them like a starved dog. But don’t lose your mind. Save some, because you’re going to need them to do a proper job on a later course.
In the meantime, you might be intrigued by something called “grilled vegetable soup,” an update on classic Italian ribollita, a hearty bread-and-vegetable soup. Here it’s a clear amber-colored broth of charred vegetables and chickpeas bolstered by Parmesan rind and brimming with braised kale, turnips, carrots, rutabagas, flageolets, and grilled sourdough croutons. It’s a bowl that manages to be both light and powerful, the kind of thing that could wake you from a coma. It’s also the kind of thing Papadopoulos was doing to Czech food at his last position.
On my visits, there was a crudo—the most reliably disappointing dish in all contemporary American restaurant culture—that happened to be an exception to the rule. Thick, lush ribbons of hiramasa, just barely altered by calamansi vinegar (made from a fruit that straddles the divide between citric sweetness and citric acidity), it was plated with paper-thin slices of black and watermelon radishes and bits of sweet mandarin orange in a pool of cool, toasty hazelnut milk. I would say don’t be a fool and share this one, but it’s already been swapped out for a mackerel crudo.
The venison tartare has a lot on its plate—grilled mushrooms, shaved turnips, pickled pear, and fragile pumpernickel chips, all dressed with smoked-onion oil and finger lime. Yet somehow the mineral-rich wild red meat manages to contend with all that and fulfill the primal, life-affirming craving raw flesh is supposed satisfy.
I don’t know why I ever order razor clams (in the United States, anyway). They’re never as sweet and fresh as they’re supposed to be, instead frequently masquerading as dirty worms. Here, however, it’s as if they’re from a New England clam shack that fell from the sky over northern Spain: buttermilk-battered and deep-fried golden, then plated with a bit of razor-clam ceviche and crispy-soft, perfectly cubed battered sweet-potato fritters over a tangly celery root slaw dressed with remoulade, your tartar sauce all grown up.
Lamb belly. Remember I told you to save some rolls? You need them for this dish. (That’s OK. Just order more.) The lamb belly is a frankly unlovely lump of luscious, braised ovine flesh plated with persimmon marmalade and a whipped feta sauce that dissolves into lamb jus. What’s left on the plate when the solids are consumed and the remaining sauce and juices are one inspires a sorcerous and formidable compulsion that the rolls will help resolve. Order more, I said.
That’s not the only dish that outperforms a somewhat uninviting appearance. Compressed sections of Cornish hen thigh and breast flesh sandwiching ground forcemeat are perfectly roasty, with none of the hamminess that results from overbrining. These come with mushrooms, apples, and soft potato dumplings that again recall the chef’s winning way with eastern-European food. So too do soft and gently tensile veal sweetbreads carpeted with molasses streusel aligned with thin slices of Honeycrisp apple and served atop “fermented cabbage” (aka kraut) with a brown splat of maple butter on the side.
A similarly earth-toned tangle of chitarra camouflages crispy fried garlic, snappy sweet scallop, and bits of shrimp and squid. Papadopoulos goes medieval on duck breast: two thick, red slices of tender, 21-day dry-aged breast muscle are tenderized, honey glazed, and served with a piece of baby fennel confited in duck fat, plus nutty farro, fennel puree, sherry-vinegar-marinated roasted beets, and a meatball—a duck-heart crepinette to be precise, formed from the bird’s heart and leg meat.
You might have noticed by now that this is a predominantly meaty menu (there’s only a single salad), but Papadopoulos fares well at sea too. An uni-crowned black bass fillet sits silkily atop creamy white grits in a pool of lobster jus emulsified with uni butter and sweetened with charred grapefruit. A likewise lush piece of cod with multicolored cauliflower florets, crushed brown-butter-roasted hazelnuts, and tamarind-seasoned grilled radicchio, all draped in brandade mousse, is a master class in acidity dancing gracefully with fat.
And then there’s the oyster pie, the dish that servers will tell you landed Papadopoulos the job: two small slices filled with smooth oyster-infused custard blanketed with black Ossetra caviar garnished with creme fraiche, green apple, lemon, and dill, each piece topped with a single Beausoleil oyster. A gorgeous creation, it’s become something of an Instagram star; it sits alone on its own side of the menu, where a sketch of it dares you not to succumb. The price is what might stop you: $65. I wish the folks at Bellemore would offer this without the perfectly appropriate Moët & Chandon champagne pairing, an option ought to reduce its cost significantly. And yet, coming in with half an ounce of primo caviar, it’s a relative value.
Pastry chef Allison Schroeder scores with a lemongrass semifreddo topped with makrut lime granite. There’s also a homey-looking pile of chestnut-flour brioche chestnut chips with verjus-poached pear marbles and pear sorbet, and a dense chocolate pavé with persimmon marmalade.
Cocktails by Lee Zaremba feature a scotch-and-pear soda, complete with a giant ice spear, that’s so subtle—and surprisingly not sweet—I’m sure I’ll be going out of my way for it in the near future. I wish I could forget a sweet, insipid pumpkin-seed milk punch, but also memorable was the To the Point: bourbon, Earl Grey, and chartreuse, the “Elixir of Long Life,” the last tipping this potion up to $18. The wine list is more reasonable, heavy on Alsatians and Italians, with a few priced below $50 and few priced above $80, like an easy-drinking 2013 André Brunel Côtes du Rhône.
So with Bellemore you have another essential Boka group restaurant to budget for. And with Papadopoulas on the team, perhaps you can look forward to restaurants number 19, 25, or 31 as well. v