There’s no way to complain about distracting music in a restaurant without sounding like a long and lingering fart. But this won’t be the first time I’ve been accused of that, so here goes anyway: Turn it the fuck down, Beatnik.
Beatnik—as in the teenage hipster Maynard G. Krebs, played by a twentysomething Bob Denver in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis—is the sixth outing for Bonhomme Hospitality, the group behind Wicker Park’s Black Bull and Bordel and River North’s Celeste and Disco. In fact, Beatnik is a board-certified clubstaurant, one that somehow breached the invisible force field that protects the rest of us from Saturday night in River North and settled its throbbing mass in Ukrainian Village earlier this year.
Yes, of course there’s a DJ. Why wouldn’t there be? If you happen to be perched at a mosaic-tiled high-top next to him in the second of the restaurant’s three bars, you’ll have to try to keep your curry meatballs from butt-jumping the plate to a simulated Studio 54.2 soundtrack. It’s incredibly aggravating to eat to, but surprisingly motivating to write to. (Thanks, Horse Meat Disco.)
Beatnik tries to flood all your senses. Dripping candelabras and shimmering chandeliers illuminate an eyeball-crossing mishmash of antique styles and patterns from all points of the globe (Paris, Egypt, Bali), a picker’s display of patchwork exotica.
Black Bull chef Marcos Campos's menu takes a similar approach to collecting, drawing on a sweeping variety of cuisines, from Africa to Asia to Europe and South America. In these balkananized times, it’s nice to see so many cultures come together at once, and there are some interesting ideas here, like lemongrass-scented sepia steaks (since 86’d from the menu) perched on tubular squid-ink masa dumplings (Hey, you got your Thailand in my Mexico!). An arepa, opened like a mouth, seems to purge a mound of tangy, shredded tamarind-braised rabbit, served squirted with a crema whipped with leporid liver. Beet hummus with blue cheese. Baba ghanoush with fig balsamic vinegar. Grilled asparagus whisked by its accompaniments from the Levant (pistachio) to Spain (romesco) to Japan (bonito flakes) and back. There’s not a border Campos won’t run for.
The menu features two sets of starters, "small plates" and “mezze,” the latter essentially amounting to starters and sides meant to be ordered with an item from a list labeled “the feast”—five large plates ranging from bone-in aged rib eye to whole fish to half a duck, each with its own fixings.
Unfortunately, there’s so much happening in this high-volume mob scene—there are no reservations between 7 and 9 PM—it’s no surprise that the kitchen might sometimes wander into the weeds and get sloppy, sending out those aforementioned meatballs so oversalted they seem to mummify. Tiny French lentils are likewise mined with salt, and accompany deep-fried quail (also now 86’d) plated with blobs of a red salsa so sweet it belongs on your next plate of spaghetti. Oysters are rubberized by too much time on the grill and served wallowing in green hot sauce and a gooey, eggy jam that together are meant to be a miniature take on shakshuka, eggs in purgatory’s spicier North African ancestor. One of the larger investments is a roasted lamb “feast,” in my case rack and shoulder that, cooked together, reached different temperatures at different rates, resulting in a range of textures between slippery soft and impermeably solid. This was perhaps the only thing I ate at Beatnik that actually needed salt.
There are moments of clarity on this menu. Bright chickpea salad, pickled radishes, and pistachio tzatziki should flee that lamb they’re hitched to and go solo. Fanned slices of pork shoulder steak from Spanish Ibérico swine are deeply flavored but make no sense with the mashed sweet potato, roasted squash, and pickled plums that arrive on a separate plate that covers the dish. But fried baby eggplants with a date syrup-Dijon mustard sauce are baby candy, and spaghetti squash with tomatillo, cotija cheese, and chermoula (another nod to North Africa) is a winter salad that banishes winter.
Desserts seem even more focused on the East; there’s a chocolate-halva torte, an orange-blossom cheesecake with phyllo and candied pistachios, and a Turkish coffee affogato with mascarpone and chocolate-sauced cardamom ice cream that quickly cools into a bewitching swamp of flavors.
In some ways Beatnik is a throwback to the 90s and early aughts; specifically, to the brash, immersive restaurant productions of Jerry Kleiner (Marché, Carnivale, Red Light, etc), a restaurateur who delighted in getting in your face. But at least Kleiner was an impresario capable of focus. Beatnik, in its attempts to command all the senses, ends up shortchanging them all. v
Julia Thiel covered Beatnik’s beverage program here.
Correction: This review has been amended to correctly reflect Beatnik's neighborhood. It's located in Ukrainian Village, not Noble Square.