There are so many intriguing elements to Ravenswood's Band of Bohemia that it's easy to see why this endlessly gestating project was one of the most anticipated openings of 2015. A pair of Alinea vets launch a "culinary brewhouse" in a former cookie factory hard by the Metra tracks. Tapping into the national craft beer fixation, they've decided their food should be paired to complement their house-brewed suds—not the other way around. Befitting the partners' shared background, the food itself is complicated, busy, technical, and intellectual, but it clearly plays second fiddle to the beer. The wide-open converted industrial space is ornate, almost steampunk-lite, raw brick walls towering over plush overstuffed red brocade chairs. In the daytime the place doubles as a grab-and-go coffee shop featuring Dark Matter beans. Reservations are by Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas's Tock ticketing system, which offers a choice of a la carte dining, a four-course tasting menu, or a deluxe 13-course "Chef's Counter" experience overlooking the kitchen. The principals, chef-turned-brewer Michael Carroll and Craig Sindelar, who spent 11 years as Alinea's head sommelier, tapped former El Ideas vets Matt Dubois and Kevin McMullen (executive chef and chef de cuisine, respectively) to implement a menu full of schmears, dots, purees, microgreens, shavings, sauces, and extrusions, described in the requisite clipped argot that has come to be known as Achatzese.
The thing that stays with me most: Band of Bohemia is ground zero for the new #BlackFoodMatters movement. It's like the chefs took a look at the complexion of the American fine-dining plate and said, "This shit is not black enough! How can we make it blacker? Pasta too pale? Shower it with leek ash. Need a bed for your pig face? Put some braised fennel puree under it. Not black? Bam! Infuse some squid ink in that bitch. Ginger jus under a duck breast? I reject the premise—paint it black."
It's true that black is the new black in dining these days, and there is something weirdly compelling about the occasional squib of stygian negative space on a plate, but at Band of Bohemia it illustrates a broader style at play: a heavy reliance on abstraction the result of which is that each element of a dish is delicious in its own right, but the sheer number occasionally stunts overall cohesion.
Here's an example: a "milk chocolate, coffee, hazelnut, cocoa nib" dessert prominently features a long, clingy worm of flexible ganache (coincidentally, the name of my Human League cover band) roping its way around various tasty garnishes that riff on a hazelnut theme (some candied nuts, some ice cream) but fail to come together into a unified dish, or even a unified spoonful.
It's a pattern found across the menu, much of which is confusingly organized under BoB's beer varieties: four small plates, each to go with the grilled apple-tarragon ale, the orange-chicory rye ale, and the roasted beet-thyme ale. Five large plates are assigned to one of those beers, or to a maitake mushroom variety, or an amber farmhouse style "Culinary Noble." Putting aside their unusual but relatively subtle food backnotes, these are all relatively similar, light-bodied, hoppy, easy-drinking session beers that don't necessarily enhance the enjoyment of the food so much as stay out of its way. I suspect that's not the intention.
At least they don't distract from the memorably delicious, albeit often flawed, bites on the menu, such as a roughly minced bison tartare bound by aioli and sprinkled with malt powder. A layer of raw trumpet mushroom balanced on top doesn't do much, nor does the gratuitous smear of sweet red-currant puree. A perfectly cooked little bite of sturgeon makes strange bedfellows with pickled beet coins and rubbery duck hearts. A similarly delicate morsel of monkfish tries to make friends with long, shriveled blackened carrots, but they're two great tastes that don't taste great together.
It's difficult to make any sense at all out of a few dishes; a jumble of pear, aerated blue cheese, hazelnuts, and fennel is far too sweet to keep company with savory dishes, while a duo of pommes Anna and a cylinder of roasted potato, both undercooked, is served with an avalanche of garnishes and sauces, including tart pickled peppers, dabs of romesco sauce and smoked olive oil, and a large gob of charred shredded onion.
A few other dishes would work remarkably well were it not for executional errors. Tortelloni stuffed with duck confit and ricotta comes together better than most, with a dusting of smoky leek ash and bits of crunchy dehydrated maitake mushroom lending interesting contrast to the rich, if undercooked, pasta. A tough tête de cochon showered with curried pickled onion, braised fennel, and crunchy bread crumbs only needs more time over low-and-slow heat to tenderize properly. A relatively simple seared duck breast was allowed to shine among black currants and the aforementioned dark, rich ginger sauce. The most unorthodox dish on the menu, unusual in its economy and downright conventionality, was the whole bisected Cornish hen, garnished with sheaves of fried fennel and shaved brussels sprouts and resting on a substantial pile of collards. It's an easy bird to overcook, and mine was.
Perhaps the most successful dish I tasted at Band of Bohemia was a dessert, a moist, strong-flavored, appealingly complex square of fennel cake, topped with a spike of dried fennel towering over apricot conserve and lemon rind and served with ornamental microgreens, a pile of cookie crumbs, and, best of all, a quenelle of olive-oil ice cream.
If you're inclined to visit Band of Bohemia I suggest disregarding the Tock reservation system, which doesn't seem to be doing the restaurant or its guests any favors. Prior to each of my visits it was fully booked online except for senior hour and late night, yet on both I walked in at prime time to find the dining room more than half empty. The website encourages walk-ins, but I wonder how many people just decide to go somewhere else where they're guaranteed a table. (I've experienced the same situation with the reservation site Open Table many times.)
I still think there's a lot that's compelling about Band of Bohemia. You're not often going to find such an arsenal of modern fine-dining talent at this relatively low price point. And I sense that as time goes on some of the more overthought, overcomplicated, and, frankly, joyless platings will give way to something a little more organic and soulful. v