A glorious trip to Hungary and the Czech Republic last fall opened my eyes and taste buds to the food of Central Europe.
It’s not just pretzels, beer and knackwurst—though they are all, of course, delicious—but a world of flavors and textures, from the sweetness of root vegetables to the tang of dark sourdough breads and whole grains; from briny pickled fruits and vegetables to crispy schnitzels and chewy dumplings. I loved it all.
So I was thrilled to hear that Chicago, a city of immigrants and long home to numerous old-style “Mitteleuropa” restaurants (many long gone), was finally getting a restaurant with a new take on an old cuisine. I must admit, I was quite surprised to see a chef named Jimmy Papadopoulos at the helm, but my trepidation was quite unfounded. Turns out, this nice Greek boy knows his way around the soul-warming cuisine at the heart of Bohemian House.
Comfy and Inviting
The restaurant, once a recording studio, was cleverly repurposed and designed. Much like the food itself, the interior is warm and inviting, with exposed brick walls, wood rafters, comfy lounge seating, and lots of throw pillows in shades of red, gold and brown. The lighting feels dropped in from an earlier century; the whole place is suffused in a comforting glow.
The cocktail menu, which is updated seasonally, features many house-infused liquors, like the vanilla-fig bourbon that graces the Infused Fashion ($12). Beverage Director Daniel Pagano also favors updates on classics like the Bohemian Bee ($13), which adds sage to the classic “Bee’s Knees” combo of gin, honey and lemon.
Beer Is the Call
There is a wine list (although don’t plan on bringing your own—they have no corkage policy, as we found out the hard way), but the name of the game with this food is beer. Local craft and Bohemian beers abound, like the Czech stalwart, Pilsner Urquell, or the Praga Dark; Krombacher from Germany is another thematic option. Skip the “Flight of Three” ($10) option; the pour was pretty chintzy (although fine for the single draft).
The Perfect Mouthful
Don’t miss the Deviled Eggs ($7), which had great texture and flavor contrast: creamy mashed egg yolk, smoky whitefish, vinegary cherry bomb peppers and crispy shallots and a heavy sprinkle of paprika, all in one perfect mouthful.
Also loved the Potato Pancakes ($12), lacy little latkes topped with silky cured salmon, sweet apple preserves, julienne kohlrabi for crunch, and a little sour cream and dill. People had raved about theBacon Buns ($7), which come with Bohemian pickles, and the fat brown rounds looked delicious, but they lacked oomph—though clearly stuffed with bacon, they disappointed just a little.
Although the dough was a bit too thick, the Beef Pierogi ($13) satisfied, surrounded by roasted heirloom carrots, pickled onions, fresh sour cream and a rich beef jus.
The Cauliflower Salad ($9) was a party on a plate: roasted cauliflower topped with smoked onion, crispy watermelon radish slices and a wobbly poached egg, which is gilded with bits of crispy chicken skin. It’s a winner.
Don’t be put off by the presence of smoked beef tongue in the surprisingly light Spätzle ($17), especially when it is joined by crispy Brussels sprout leaves, caramelized onions and an aged gouda cheese sauce. I am emphatically not a lover of offal, but this was super tasty.
The Wild Striped Bass ($28), the seafood nod here, is served with a warm bacon vinaigrette, sweet onion puree, cherry tomatoes and a tangle of fried shallots. It was cooked well, but the flavors didn’t excite.
Poultry is well treated here; we loved the Czech Roasted Duck ($24) surrounded by roasted fall produce (apples, turnips), brandied prunes and smoked hazelnuts. The duck meat falls off the bone and melts in your mouth.
The star of the show, though, is the Grilled Chicken Paprikash ($24), a tender half chicken served with dense potato dumplings in an absolutely spectacular version of Hungarian paprikash sauce, redolent with lots of hot paprika, onions and garlic. Ask for a side of grilled bread (don’t be surprised if they charge you $2) to sop up every last drop.
The Sweet Story
For a sweet ending, there are three desserts to choose from—all calorie-worthy. The Dark Chocolate Custard ($9), topped with salted caramel ice cream, candied peanuts and butterscotch, is a solid choice, but the light-as-air Cheese Kolacky ($8) with powdered sugar and plum ice cream, or the Coffee & Doughnuts ($9)—Bow Truss coffee gelato served in a demitasse cup, topped with crushed hazelnut brittle, accompanied by warm sugar-dusted doughnuts—is definitely the move.
“Bohemian House is a place that’s focused on connection,” Papadopoulos says. “It’s focused on people coming in and enjoying the food, and enjoying the company, whomever they choose to dine with. Ultimately, what we want to do at Bohemian House is to be a refuge from that business of the city.” Mission accomplished. This is a place I can really get behind.
4 out of 5 stars (A-)
11 W. Illinois St.