I can't decide if Boka is the best new restaurant, or the most-improved old restaurant, in Chicago.
Boka, the first restaurant by owners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz (whose portfolio bulges with a half-dozen highly regarded restaurants, and more on the way), celebrated its 10th anniversary with a floor-to-ceiling gut job in January, greeting its second decade with a dramatic new look, a new chef (Lee Wolen, impressive as chef de cuisine at The Lobby, came to Chicago from New York's acclaimed Eleven Madison Park, where he was sous chef for three years) and an exciting new menu.
First, the look: The new Boka is a complete contrast to the bright, hanging-white-sails look of yore. The escutcheon-plated foyer, with its sliding cloakroom door, imparts a Victorian, bordering on steampunk, feel. Beyond that, the main dining room is dark and sophisticated in cream and bronze tones, walls and furniture wrapped in leather and shimmering fabrics. The secondary room, once the seating area of last resort, is maybe the coolest dining space in the city: A long brick wall is inscribed with an Oscar Wilde quote, while the opposite wall is alive with a dense, vertical array of ferns and mosses.
Wolen keeps his contemporary-American menu simple and understandable; a few diners might stumble over morcilla (blood sausage) or amaranth (the new quinoa), but otherwise there isn't a single menu description that will throw you. The execution, however, might knock you for a loop.
My shorthand advice for appreciating Wolen's work is to echo your mother's admonition to eat your vegetables. Not since Stephanie Izard have I seen a chef whose veggie work was so joyful and so delicious. I'm quite serious when I tell you the broccoli salad is a must-order dish; this picture-perfect composition of raw, shaved stems and roasted florets is brightened with preserved lemon and a barely there lemon vinaigrette. Marcona almonds and Parmesan sablet add crispness, and more support comes from below (a puddle of Greek yogurt blended with broccoli puree) and above (tiny curls of shaved Parmesan).
Heirloom carrots with smoked goat cheese and carrot crumble (think dried crumbs of barely sweetened carrot cake), and a fanciful play on panzanella with crushed pumpernickel croutons, poached egg, asparagus and strips of smoked arctic char, are equally memorable. I think of the potato-thickened artichoke soup, with smoked sturgeon, crisped potatoes and pickled radish, as more or less a liquid salad, which the intensity of the artichoke certainly justifies.
I've worked my way through the entire entree list, and though the seafood items are impressive — orange-glazed halibut over spring vegetables, sous vide loup de mer with calamari — the meat dishes dazzle. The short rib is a revelation; this is no braised, half-shredded bit of slow cookery, but firm, bright-pink beef that delivers the flavor and texture of rib-eye steak (indeed, my wife was convinced that Wolen had slipped us a substitute).
The pork duo pairs texture-perfect loin with barely crisped pork belly, supported by a spring onion puree and sour cherry compote. Rabbit loin, sausage and leg are laid among pickled ramps, braised apricot and pistachio pesto.
And there's always the chicken, a variation of a dish from Wolen's New York years, a lacquered-skin chicken breast stuffed with lemon-thyme brioche, alongside a layered cube of chicken leg confit.
In between, there are memorable starters such as ginger-marinated fluke in a carpacciolike presentation with dashi-steeped tapioca, toasted rice powder and raw wild fennel; salt cod ravioli and artichokes in a frothy sauce that resembles sea foam; and soft ricotta gnudi amid hazelnuts and morcilla. Wolen's octopus, grilled and accented with a burnt-orange seasoned pork broth, will spoil you for other versions.
Pastry chef Genie Kwon, who also oversees the sweets at GT Fish & Oyster, flexes her creative muscles on Boka's dessert list. There's an almond custard with olive oil cake that includes vanilla meringue dusted with raspberry powder, meant to evoke cherry blossoms; chocolate ganache with cocoa-nib crumble, salted caramel ice cream and cassis sauce; and a lovely coffee cremeux alongside hazelnut cake, milk ice cream and whiskey foam. The daily cheese option is a composed plate highlighting a single cheese; one visit yielded a creamy cow's milk cheese with picture-perfect pieces of toasted brioche, dates and assorted greens.
Service is exemplary, but I figure my anonymity at Boka was virtually nil, so factor that into your expectations.
The wine list has some good values, along with intriguing bottles that will tempt you out of your price range. The sultry and comfortable lounge is a fine environment in which to cozy up with one of Tim Stanczykiewicz's well-crafted cocktails. After a weekend in New York, Boka's $12 drinks look like outright bargains.Boka
1729 N. Halsted St.; 312-337-6070
Tribune rating: 3 stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Entrees $22-$33
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.