The day: 17th July 2008, Dinner.
The place: 1729 North Halsted, Chicago, Illinois (tel : 312 337-6070).
The venue: Boka
The food: American, fusion.
The drinks: Not a long list, but good selection and price ranges.
Always curious to see if and how our fellow countrymen incorporate our cuisine in their efforts around the world, Boka sounds like an appropriate choice for our second Chicago gourmet experience after Naha. We had read good things about Trotter’s-trained chef Giuseppe Tentori, who is at the helm in Boka’s kitchen.
This is clearly a place that strongly wants to feel ‘cool’: in a trendy Chicago neighborhood full of bars and restaurants, with exposed brickwork inside,
The atmosphere is calm and elegant, though, no excessive noise as one might have expected in a cool and ‘youngish’ place. Sulky old fellows that we are, we are too often annoyed by loud and boisterous diners, and we are glad to find some unexpected civilization here. So we can spoil everybody else’s dinner with our flash.
On the menu, several interesting proposals. There is a short section with raw fish (e.g. marinated big eye tuna, poki, pickled ginger, watermelon, black sesame ($15). First courses (around the $15 mark) appeal with, for example, Main diver sea scallops, pig’s tail and potato hash, watercress and preserved melon ($14), and mains come in the $25-38 range, for example the roasted pork belly, ginger prune sauce, Israeli cous cous, mizuna carrot slaw ($31).
The bread arrives, from a tray, with a good selection of four varieties (Italian influence?). The pumpernickel appeals particularly.
Our first courses:
– Crispy veal sweetbreads, maitake mushrooms, fava beans, oregano mole ($15)
– Sweet corn soup, crayfish tortellini, paprika leeks ($14).
Let’s begin with the soup. The soup itself is bodily and tasty, but the crayfish taste is nowhere, but nowhere, to be found: is it the material or the preparation to be at fault? The paprika spiciness certainly does not help at all in the search for crayfish flavour, and does not seem a good idea at all. The ‘tortellini’ (not) are very pretty, though their texture is a little perplexing. There aren’t unpleasant flavours in this dish, but they are very muted indeed and there is confusion, no centre. A bit of a disappointing start, we must say.
The sweetbreads are cooked very well, in three ways. Well in two, actually, (fried and grilled) because the third bit, the breaded one, which has a very different (jelly-like) consistency and taste, is in fact…brain. We find the combination sweetbread-brain very persuasive, and the breaded brain itself wonderful in its crispy-soft textural contrast, but we think it should have been advertised. The rest of the plate is a nice accompaniment of refreshing fava beans, seemingly cheesy polenta (we think) with the mushrooms inside, and an intense, dense, sweet and at the same time slightly bitter, oregano mole. A dish of bold flavours, probably too many, but overall successful.
Our choice of mains:
– Angus strip loin, braised shortribs, chanterelle mushrooms, juniper fig sauce, semolina croquette ($38)
– Miso glazed whitefish, spicy Napa cabbage, edamame, tofu, smoked yellow tomato sauce ($28)
The fish is good and cooked well but not so intense in flavour (not as good in itself as the excellent whitefish we had at Naha two days before, for example): once again, is it the fault of the raw material or the preparation? And once again, the spicy ingredients do not help at all, what a strange idea (maybe a Caribbean influence? Maybe they use different fishes, though). All the rest in the dish is individually great. The sauce, which we guess is grilled pepper and tomato, is instead (we had forgotten) the exceedingly good smoked yellow tomato sauce. The edamame brings a consistency contrast, and the tofu…the tofu with a lemony taste, crispy outside and soft inside, is cooked to perfection and something to remember. There you are, this could have been a tofu and edamame vegetarian dish, and it would have been a great dish. It could have been just fish and yellow tomato sauce, and it would have been a great dish. The spicy cabbage (but there were caramelized onions too, we think) would have been a great side dish. But together?
The strips of beef are succulent, tasty, cooked well. And the slow roasted bit is remarkable, softly yielding and intensely flavoured. And what to say of the excellent, great looking and refined cabbage tartare? Then why o why put on top of it those exceedingly salty mushrooms? The polenta is also good, and a good idea to soak up. Because you do want to soak up that fig sauce. The saltiness so upset Woman that she declares the fish dish to be the better one, but Man thinks this dish was better conceived, and that the strongly flavoured beef was better suited than whitefish to withstand the multifarious ‘attacks’ from all other ingredients.
There were also complimentary side dishes, one of diced cucumber and the other of courgettes (they go at $7 on the menu). Here’s the refreshing cucumber:
Finally, our desserts (both at $9):
– Sweet pea and ricotta ravioli, pine nut mint pesto, strawberry sorbet
– Tea smoked chocolate cake, rooibus ice cream, cherry gastrique.
There is a separate pastry chef, Elizabeth Dahl. She produced both the best and (according especially to just one of us) the worst dishe in the evening!
The unsatisfactory one, to Woman’s taste, was the ravioli, too dominated by the sorrel to the point of unpleasantness. Man agrees that the sorrel flavour was bold and dominant, but liked it. Man and Woman however concur that the ricotta lacked flavour, or better it had a herbaceous flavour (hard to believe it just came from the mint – was there sorrel in there too?). The strawberry sorbet was fine.
But the cake was a spectacular dish! Oh, my! The pudding undergoes three treatments, steaming, baking and smoking (the waiter looked shaky on the order but we may guess), and is very soft, filling your palate with strongly aromatic and smoky flavours. And the icecream, what a delight too! Very exotic, unique taste for us (we never tried rooibus) in the creamy consistency. And the cherries seal off this splendid dessert. We end on a high note, thanks chef Dahl, we forgive you the sorrel.
With a bottle of Atalayas Ribera del Duero 2005 ($49), free tap water (in America you can do it even in fine dining places without being frowned upon), and $18.02 tax, the total comes to $180.02, which, thanks to the favourable exchange rate, keeps us inside our usual £100 threshold.
The waiting staff is very professional. The senior waiter who serves us is always able to answer our (many!) enquiries about the (many!) ingredients in the dishes; and the sommelier/manager is VERY serious, going through the prescribed motions of the bottle opening, showing and tasting rite with an unusual elegant formality, despite our modest choice of wine.
As you can see we had extreme ups and extreme downs this evening, sometimes within the same dish! The best thing about Boka’ cuisine is that Prometean sense of unboundedness that one often finds in the New World: nothing is forbidden or impossible: you saw it, Japanese, French, Chinese, Italian, no ingredient in the world (what a range!), no cooking technique, is excluded from the plate. And Chef Tentori (and Dahl) is gifted with technique, personality and creativity in abundance. Some flavours were memorable. What we missed, though, was the balance, the sense of proportion, the elegance and the focus in the dish that we so much appreciate. There is to some extent a cultural clash here, and one might say that this is New World fusion cuisine, take it or leave it. But if top Japanese and Italian cuisine offer clean, elegant dishes firmly centered on the main raw material, and a good French dish is always supremely balanced and focused no matter how rich, why does their fusion need to generate (sometimes) such a holy mess, why does it lead to such strange choices of flavour pairings? We shall leave you with this conundrum. Anyway, if you are in Chicago, it is worth trying Boka.