As someone who’s lived in the Midwest for most of my life, I lean into Chicago’s colder months, piling on cozy layers and retreating to low-lit joints that specialize in comfort food and boozy drinks. Still, I can appreciate the cheerful category of eateries that whisk us somewhere warmer with bright, beachy fare and tropical tipples—especially when winter’s novelty fades.
On a recent dreary Thursday, a friend and I fled to Flora Fauna in River North, the latest from power couple Liz Pearce (the Drifter) and Jonathan Meyer (Broken Shaker, the Dawson). Though the vibrant interior design and globe-trotting menu promised a delightful escape, the meal floundered due to woefully overcooked proteins and lackluster cocktails.
The former Bohemian House space has undergone a transformative makeover, complete with faux ferns, colorful wallpaper accents and a jewel-toned bar. Set beneath a cluster of rattan light fixtures, the handsome dining room is a cross between a breezy island eatery and a posh “Golden Girls” set.
Pearce architected the bar program, and I’ve long crushed on her clever cocktails—from the fun, low-ABV elixirs at Beatnik to the stronger, more complex stuff she concocts at basement speakeasy the Drifter. At Flora Fauna, the beachy lineup often seemed too predictable. The Celery Midori Sour Slushy was pleasant if prescriptively tropical; the passion fruit purée and pineapple juice overpowered the piney, vegetal notes of the more unique celery-flavored gin. I preferred the sweetness in the Old Fashioned, where a pineapple cordial played nicely with caramel-scented bourbon and blackstrap rum. The rum-based Castaway Negroni hit the right notes with honey-like passion fruit purée softening the bitter edge of punt e mes and campari.
We started with an order of the braised jackfruit dandan with crunchy green papaya, which delighted our taste buds thanks to a spicy sauce made with black vinegar, tamari and chili paste tinged with numbing szechuan. Crudo aficionados will appreciate the lamb tartare, where supple, earthy meat mingles with shavings of sweet turnip and apple. Soursop vinaigrette added a punchy tartness to the mixture, which we smeared on wickedly greasy lotus chips.
Moments later, we puzzled over the octopus, which arrived as a dismayingly busy composition of seared tentacles, plantain matchsticks, blistered cherry tomatoes and sour gooseberries atop criss-crossing streaks of avocado purée and guajillo chile sauce. The rousing medley of flavors surprisingly worked but couldn’t salvage the cephalopod’s rubbery texture.
Tough protein unfortunately reappeared in the Farm Stone Bowl, a bubbling, broth-based centerpiece served with corn tortillas. The sumptuous liquid teemed with nopal strips, panela cheese, greens and chunks of fatty pork belly. Still, tough, boiled bavette steak and dry chicken thigh meat dragged down the dish’s spot-on seasoning.
We ended the evening with the Hemingway Daiquiri tart, with tart-sweet grapefruit curd, a heap of rum-scented whipped cream and syrupy Luxardo cherries and grapefruit segments. The cream was just overmixed enough to let the dessert down—a fairly straightforward fix for this talented roster, much like the overdone proteins.
Yet in the realm of escapist dining, such mistakes largely serve to remind us that nothing’s as good as booking a flight and experiencing the real thing.
Atmosphere: The former Bohemian House space has gone tastefully tropical, with hanging plants, wicker accents and poshly flamboyant prints.
What to eat: Flora Fauna’s shareable menu is a solid option for plant-based diners, who shouldn’t miss the jackfruit dandan. For carnivores, the jerk pork shank fried rice is excellent for sharing.
What to drink: Beachy cocktails include an inspired passionfruit-laced rum Negroni and puckering yuzu-sake Daiquiri. Or build your own from five base cocktails with tropical flavor additions.
Where to sit: Pull up a plush seat at the airy, 17-seat bar for cocktails and snacks, as lounge seating is more photogenic than functional.
Maggie Hennessy is the restaurant and bar critic for Time Out Chicago. She likes (real) dive bars and bread with every meal. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @edible_words.