On a recent Tuesday night, I spotted Rich Melman standing in a dark corner of RPM Steak with his sons, managing partners R.J. and Jerrod. The Lettuce Entertain You founder and chairman was doing most of the talking. His end of the conversation, at least the part I overheard en route to the bathroom, involved banal details about the french fries at their newest restaurant. When I came out, he was still going.
One thing is certain: The brothers were listening. RPM Steak, the latest in a string of crowd-drawing hits (RPM Italian, Stella Barra Pizzeria, Paris Club Bistro & Bar) in R.J., Jerrod, and Molly Melman’s division, aims to be everything a steak house should be in 2014. It also tries to capture the excitement that every new Lettuce restaurant had once upon a time. The stunning cream-hued space feels smart and sophisticated yet neither flashy nor traditional. And when Doug Psaltis’s ambitious kitchen is on, it fires at a level unseen at most steak houses. The prices venture into absurd realms, but the gilded clientele—many of them fans of RPM’s high-society celeb partners Bill and Giuliana Rancic—don’t seem particularly fazed.
Psaltis loads the menu with canny dishes that tease diners without pushing them from their comfort zones (see: crispy shrimp and asparagus in deep-fried spring roll wrappers with wasabi aïoli). But you don’t go to a steak house to get teased; you go to get consummation. And RPM happily obliges: Every bite of the buttery whipped potatoes with blue cheese tastes like 1,000 calories, and the tiger prawns are the size of monkey wrenches. A glorious tower of chocolate cake gets adorned with flecks of edible gold, because of course it does.
Nothing is richer than the blazing roasted bone marrow dusted with curry and smoked paprika—except a perfect lobe of seared foie gras atop grilled toast layered with apple and red onion jam. Even the brawny salads go for the jugular and the coronary arteries in equal measure, including an iceberg wedge that morphs into a swamp of bacon, blue cheese, avocado, and croutons. For every delicate flower of a dish, such as the raw bar’s impeccable Japanese yellowtail in a punchy yuzu sauce, RPM offers three smashmouth hits, such as the wonderful wood-grilled bigeye tuna steak topped with a chimichurri-like salsa verde.
The ambitious steak program makes Gene & Georgetti look like a bunch of slackers. The menu trots out everything from a modest 8-ounce grass-fed bison filet to a ludicrous 42-ounce wagyu tomahawk, but it’s in between where you’ll find the greatest pleasure. Modest—if generously marbled—hand-cut medallions of short rib steak turn into treasure when they hit the shallot and bone marrow butter. And the 24-ounce cowboy steak, a $72 prime hunk of bone-in rib eye with a smoky char and fine-grained flesh honed during 28 days of dry aging, is one the five best steaks I’ve had in Chicago.
My chocolate soufflé was top-notch. When the server poked it open with a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream, the ice cream melted into a fine mint sauce that intensified every gooey bite. Put away the overpriced wine list and allow your server to steer you toward a Tuxedo, a martini that gets loopy with an absinthe rinse and a floating lemon twist bow tie. Sinatra, meet Toulouse-Lautrec.
I had the same elegant server on multiple visits. One night he would be totally dialed in and hilarious; on another, stressed out and inaccessible. RPM Steak is still raw and will have off nights. But the hints of playful swagger and youthful enthusiasm that pack the room point the way for steak houses to come. Lettuce had its finger on the pulse of Chicago’s restaurant scene back in the day, but things have changed. Now it is threatening to become the pulse itself.
“I liked it more than any meal I’ve had in the Czech Republic,” a globetrotting friend told me after dining at Bohemian House. Yes, that may sound like damning with faint praise, but it echoes my impressions about River North’s new middle-Euro den. The decadent room is all golden chandeliers, exposed brick and timber, and tufted turquoise leather. It doesn’t feel like Prague so much as a gypsy caravan that went to design school.
Each handcrafted wood table seems to host a different slice of the neighborhood: parties of raucous cocktailers, semiprofessional diners texting one another pictures of their pierogi, stilted business meetings, even more stilted blind dates. Amid all this, the nuances of traditional Czech, Hungarian, and Austrian cuisines—on the surface, all potato bluntness and meaty bluster—may be tough to discern.
For better or worse, Bohemian House has done it. Boho’s executive chef, Jimmy Papadopoulos, doesn’t see, say, chicken paprikás as a sacred and unalterable tradition. He sees it as an opportunity. Papadopoulos (Sam & Harry’s Steakhouse, Schaumburg) infuses grilled chicken with hot paprika until every bite tingles with juicy heat. Then he spins you around with pickled sweet peppers and brings you back to earth with milk-jug-shaped Czech potato dumplings. Great interpretation of a dish that historically makes my eyes glaze over.
If the concise menu has a subtext, it would be Hey, look! Eastern European food can be hip too! Some updates hit the mark, like the lemony, tender pork schnitzel with German fingerling potato salad and dill sauce. Others miss but get points for trying, such as the sour-cream-based spaetzle with cubes of smoked beef tongue, served over sweet corn with leeks, pickled peppers, and a thick sauce made with aged Gouda: overthought, overwrought.
The ideal meal begins with a Bohemian Bee, a simple but potent cocktail that melds gin, honey, lemon, and sage into something wonderful that primes your tongue for the ingenious bone marrow topped with finely minced steak tartare. It’s a combination so rich and satisfying you will keep dipping butter-slathered sourdough toast into the bone long after the marrow’s gone, in hopes of finding something. The Czechs love their ducks, and Boho’s deliciously caramelized bird, marinated with plums and served with charred kohlrabi, might be Papadopoulos’s finest hour. You could finish with coffee and doughnuts, but where else can you get handmade caramelized-plum kolacky—light pastries that fall somewhere between a hamantasch and a Pop Tart—with powdered sugar and burgundy plums?
Beyond that, order carefully. The servers are pleasant and knowledgeable, though they’re of little use in this capacity because they adore everything. So let me help: Yes to the Knackwurst in a blanket drizzled with horseradish cream on sweet-and-sour cabbage. No to the filmy deviled eggs topped with smoky whitefish and crunchy fried shallots. The surprising crisp potato pancakes with cured salmon, apple preserves, kohlrabi, and dill? By all means. The bone-dry $30 Alaskan halibut on a gooey sweet-onion purée with chunky bacon-onion vinaigrette? Steer clear.
Bohemian House may never convince anyone that Czech food is the wave of the future, nor does that appear to be its mission. But it’s hard not to feel affection for the place. A kitchen can’t fake enthusiasm or love for its ingredients, and Boho, despite its inconsistencies, obviously has both. If it’s taking liberties with old country traditions, so be it.