In typical Chicago style, Bohemian House sits unassumingly between a upscale burger joint and a sports bar, but just beyond the hand-carved doors you will find an unexpected culinary renaissance of central and eastern European cuisine served in an intimate brick and timber dining room softly lit by iron lanterns, with large, arched windows framing a view of the city street. Turquoise leather sofas and high-back armchairs arranged around small round wooden tables recall the chic nightclubs of Prague, while pillowed booths and Moroccan tile echo the bohemian flavor of Budapest.
The open kitchen and communal dining tables further the impression of Bohemian style dining, accented by an impressive table setting for 14 looming high on a wall, complete with dishes, glassware, utensils, and even floral arrangements. The exposed brick walls with paintings hung throughout, and the rustic wooden tables with gray floral stenciling, blue and white floral printed chairs and mismatched china and the overall feel of this place take me back to the fantastic local restaurants of central Europe.
I feel at home here, relaxed and securely tucked away from the busy streets. Although I am dining alone, I resist the urge to sit at one of the communal tables, instead choosing one near a window to take advantage of the strong natural lighting. While living in Germany, on many occasions we would sit at a communal table and even if it was otherwise empty, other diners would soon join us, tending to group together rather than spread out, as is often the case here in the States. If you’re not comfortable sitting among friends you haven’t made yet, or you’re simply not in the mood to be social, there are other options including a private booth tucked into a nook with large pillows, and a Chef’s table for eight, or grab a seat at the bar and choose from over 70 European beers and hand crafted, expertly-infused cocktails.
On the menu, you’ll choose from twenty Czech-inspired dishes like spätzle with pork belly, knackwurst in a blanket, bacon buns, beef pierogies, and bone marrow & steak tartare. Chef Papadopoulos is preparing hearty dishes loaded with fresh seasonal ingredients, many of which are made in-house. You will find house-made dill pickles along with other pickled vegetables, mustard, sauerkraut, jams and preserves, and sausages.
I’ll admit, I was kind of expecting the dense meat and potato dishes that falsely characterize central European cuisine, so I was pleasantly surprised at the balanced selection. Nevertheless, when the menu arrived I requested a Vitus from Weihenstephan, a strong wheat beer that would pair with even the heaviest of European foods. In Germany, we always kept a few bottles in our fridge, ready to wash down those late-night knödle, so it remains one of our favorites even now that we are back in the States, and it was so nice to enjoy it once again from a tap. With my beer standing at the ready, I could see Chef Papadopoulos heading out with the first dishes;
First to arrive was an amuse bouche; different than an hors d’œuvres, it’s small, one or two bites preselected by the chef, and it is complimentary. Jean-Georges Vongerichten once said ” The amuse-bouche is the best way for a great chef to express his or her big ideas in small bites” This is a very European way of starting a meal and Bohemian House hit it spot on.
Slow Roasted Beets with Green Apples, Smoked Walnuts, Caraway Vinaigrette and Molasses Streusel, Pea Tendrils and ‘Red Veined’ Sorrel
On first impression, this was stunning to look at. The plating was an intricate arrangement and I didn’t want to destroy it with a fork but the urge to dig in took over so I took a bite. Rich, earthy roasted beets, tart pickled beets and a velvety blend of crème fraiche and puréed beets garnished with crisp sweet apple slices and savory smoked walnuts. Livelier than a root vegetable has any right to be, this tastes like late summer on a plate. Even if you don’t like beets, you might reconsider after tasting this dish. The combination of textures and preparations highlight the best qualities of the humble beet, and it just might surprise you.
Potato Pancakes with Housemade Cured Salmon, Apple Preserves, Kohlrabi Slaw, and Dill Flowers
These are NOT your typical diner potato pancakes with a side of sour cream and applesauce! These are the real deal! The potato pancake; a traditional Czech recipe was hot and crispy layered with the sweetness of housemade apple preserves and a dollop of cool kohlrabi matchsticks, rich house-cured salmon and dill flowers on top. This is one of the many dishes that will have me coming back to Bohemian House! As far as I know kohlrabi isn’t very well known here in the States, but it is popular and widely available in Europe. A delightful cross between turnip and cabbage, this is an authentic European garnish. Glancing around the dining room to check for witnesses, I shove a whole pancake in my mouth and savor it. Pure deliciousness!
Bacon Buns with Housemade Bohemian Pickles and Plum Marmalade
Pillow-like, warm doughy rolls filled with with thick chunks of crispy bacon and deeply caramelized onions. I could describe the combined flavors of sautéed onion and rich, thick-cut bacon but the unexpected twist of the housemade plum marmalade and dill pickles offer balancing sweetness and tart acidity that really makes this dish shine. Some would call this comfort food, but that would be missing the point, and the point is that although the oldest of friends, bacon and onion still like to dress up and go out once in a while.
Spätzle with Pork Belly, Smoked Corn, Leeks, & Housemade Pickled Peppers
This is not the kind of spätzle I’m use too. It’s not the heavy, stick to your gullet type of spätzle I’ve so often been served. These spätzle are light and fluffy, looking a little like bubenspitzle but much more tender, and even with the thick slice of crispy pork belly and drizzled tableside with pork broth, this wasn’t the gut bomb I’d anticipated. The smokiness from the corn and pickliness from the peppers add game-changing flavor while rich and deep vinegar’s cut through the heaviest dish making it light and balanced.
Grilled Chicken Paprikash with Hot Paprika, Pickled Sweet Peppers, Kale, & Czech Potato Dumplings
This dish was succulent! A wonderfully charred half chicken, heavily rubbed with a spicy paprika seasoning, served with tender potato dumplings and topped with a smoky broth-based sauce, sweet pickled peppers and sauteed kale. The chicken is well seasoned and despite its’ charred exterior it was juicy and delicious, the sauce adding a satisfying layer of smoke. The dumplings with sauce could easily be meal all by themselves and the chicken could open it’s own restaurant, if it wanted to.
Caramelized Plum Kolacky with fresh Plums, Powdered Sugar, and Poppy Seed Syrup
Oh the Kolacky! Filled with warm, sticky-sweet plum sauce, dusted with powdered sugar, and served with sweet sliced plums sprinkled with poppy seeds and a drizzle of poppy syrup, the flavors are old world and the pastry was just right; a bite of the buttery pastry filled with plum jam made my eyes roll with pure enjoyment. These buttery kolacky are among the best I’ve ever tasted! They are a must!
Dark Chocolate Custard with Salted Caramel Ice Cream, Candied Peanuts, Butterscotch, and Cocoa Tuile
The Chef came to my table holding a cup and saucer, but as he sat it in front of me, instead of cappuccino, it was filled with a dark chocolate custard topped with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream. I took a bite of the rich custard with a bit of the sweet and salty caramel ice cream, and a candied peanut. The salty and buttery flavors of the ice cream and candied nuts lighten the intensely chocolaty custard. The combination of rich chocolate and sea salted caramel is one of my favorites, the added crunch of candied nuts, butterscotch sauce and chocolate tuile only added to the pleasure of this dish. Not your typical chocolate-on-chocolate dessert, the salted caramel ice cream makes this a decadent dish one you won’t soon forget.
I arrived two hours before service began so I had the pleasure of witnessing the warm atmosphere Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos and his staff have created, and it was all I could do to resist the urge to snap a photo of the staff dinner. The entire team sat around the table, talking, laughing, and eating like family and friends as Chef Papadopoulos joined the fun through the kitchen window as he was cooking, as the room filled with laughter. Promptly at 5:00pm, the doors open and the staff head to their stations fueled up and ready to work. The staff is one of the best I have seen and they made quite an impression on me. Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos is definitely one of the brightest new stars to arrive in the Chicago restaurant scene and is not only boldly innovative in his approach to tradition but he has a knack for rich, deeply flavored dishes. He’s warmhearted, friendly and fun, bringing a true bohemian spirit to Bohemian House.