Boka – Chicago, IL
Purely philosophically, I get tired of neoliberal capitalist enterprises appropriating the things that I care about most.
But from a practical standpoint, I get it.
How about that introduction?!
This is a reason I am instantly wary of big, corporate restaurant "groups." They are everywhere, and their tentacles find their way into many outstanding establishments. And hey, I realize they are not all bad! Just seems that often with these guys it's about deploying the next trendy, overpriced spot that all the hip people can flock to and all the third-party stakeholders in this restaurant "group" can get their beaks wet, and the food/talent of the chef is the thing that gets co-opted. These sorts of things just make me really damn suspicious and cynical.
I wrote about one of the Boka Restaurant Group's spots back in the spring when I visited Momotaro, a combo izakaya and sushi joint in Fulton Market. To be clear, the meal was outstanding, but the restaurant did display some of the telltale signs of corporate restaurant group malarkey––I never learned who the chef was, the prices were just a bit too high, the restaurant was trying to do so many different things at once, etc.
Well color me flabbergasted, then, when I found out that the Boka group has a legit Michelin-starred joint right in the neighborhood of the most legendary restaurant in Chicago, Alinea. (Alinea, btw, is also part of a big corporate group!) This place was the OG star in the Boka group's crown, and has held a Michelin star since it opened in 2003.
Color me even MORE flabbergasted when I learned that Stephanie Izard, the Chicago legend behind Girl and the Goat, and one of my culinary heroes, ALSO belongs to the Boka group along with her four restaurants.
Ok... maybe Boka Group isn't so bad.
To test out my cynical theory of corporate restaurant groups, I decided to take a late reservation at Boka to begin my eight-day vacation to Salt Lake City and Chicago. Boka appealed to me because of an Eater article I read about places in Chicago to get some delicious Alba white truffles while they're in season. I haven't had a good white truffle dish in a few years, so when the article popped up, I started looking pretty deeply at places where I could dine on the magnificent tuber when I visited Chicago.
Boka was appealing because I'd seen it on many other lists, including the (generally but not always reliable) Michelin guide, and also because they sell their truffle dishes at-cost, which means they appear to care more about diners getting to taste this delicacy than they do milking diners for wanting it. I also found the prices quite reasonable for a restaurant of this caliber, so I made a reservation at 9:45, leaving plenty of time to get from Iowa to Chicago after work.
Boka has been helmed since 2013 by Lee Wolen, a winner of many accolades, and his cooking here has been applauded widely by Chicago critics and food enthusiasts alike. They do offer a tasting menu, but since my reservation was so late and my flight to Salt Lake City so early the next day, I decided to stick with the à la carte option, which is meant to consist of one cold app, one hot app, an entrée, and dessert. It's rare for me to dine at places with this sort of menu design, because I like to taste less of more things rather than the other way 'round, but I was glad to get a little change of pace from my usual M.O.
It took me about four hours to navigate my way into the city after leaving directly from work in Amana, and seemingly just as much time to find a damn parking space off Halsted, but I arrived about 20 minutes prior to my 9:45 reservation full of nothing but a Redbull and sour Starbursts and hence absolutely famished. Sadly, as it was a busy Friday, I couldn't be seated until exactly 9:45, so I took a spot at the bar and selected a cocktail. The one that stood out to me was named after one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, with a base of Glenmorangie 10-year complemented by Gran Classico, an Italian bitter apéritif and Mattei Cap Corse Blanc Quinquina, another Italian aperitif with herbal and sweeter notes like elderflower, and an emerging distinctive quinine flavor. Black cardamom was also listed as a component, I assume as a tincture. The drink was round and easy-drinking, with a definite sweetness from the Mattei that was helpful for metering the booze of the scotch. Both apéritifs were new to me, but that's hardly surprising given the literal thousands of different such tipples available!
It didn't take long before I was escorted to my table, and had a seat next to the window and was introduced to my waiter. I immediately knew I was in good hands.
Allow me to explain.
There is nothing like a fat waiter. I am a fat person, and I have a hard time trusting not-fat people who tell me what to eat at a restaurant. Generally, however, these not-fat people are the people that are employed at these "hip" places––lean, slick, attractive 20-somes who tell you to order the gluten-free avocado toast. A fat waiter, however, is a rarity, and when you find them, a thing of beauty, and can be trusted immediately with literally every question about food and beverage you have.
The fat waiter (I can't remember his name, just that he was fat) immediately recommended the duck, and said it is the best thing on the menu. The bartender had also told me to order the duck ("It's the thing we are known for"). She wasn't fat, but since the duck also had the endorsement of a fat person, I was comfortable in my entrée choice.
But first, an amuse bouche and appetizers. And wine, of course!
The fat waiter and I decided that we would try to pair the appetizers together and choose a pairing for the duck separately. I wound up with a corvina blend from Morandina in Valpolicella (a region I visited in northern Italy this summer!), which was not the heavy Amarone or Ripasso wine for which the grape is most famous, but a bright, light-bodied red loaded with beautiful red fruit and lingering acidity. A testament to the versatility of corvina!
For the duck, Boka was featuring a pairing of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (an AOC in the southern Rhône) from an estate that the legendary French producer E. Guigal acquired about a decade ago. Grenache to its core, loaded with cherry and the heft of flint, guided by the exceptionally stony soil of Châteauneuf. We let it decant a while in a carafe in preparation for the duck, but I snuck a few sips with the appetizers to test out the pairings!
The amuse was a seeded bread with carrot purée and mussel butter (I think??). Interesting and seasonal, but given the course to come, and my general lack of interest in carrots, I was already feeling a little carrot-weary. Luckily, I got some time to enjoy the bread service, an increasing rarity at restaurants (reason: skinny people), with a seeded loaf slice and a brioche roll, which set me up for the next carrot-heavy dish and helped cure some of my belly cramps!
The apps had already essentially been chosen based on my research by the time I arrived. Wolen's beef tartare is one of the standouts in many critical reviews, and I had to give it a try. This was a bit of a variation from the version I'd heard so much about, but was still excellent. The 50-day-aged raw beef was atop a layer of onion jam and topped with thinly-sliced heirloom carrots, puffed barley, and horseradish. Everything worked perfectly together. The umami of the onion was balanced by the vegetal raw carrot, while the barley provided a crunch and earthiness and the horseradish a hint of cool spice. The corvina was a nice pairing, highlighting the brighter elements of the carrot, but the Guigal really brought the age and heft of the beef to the forefront, though I didn't spend many sips of it on this dish!
Time for the reason for my visit––truffles. A simple, buttery and parmesan-y tajarin pasta was paired with a generous serving of shaved Alba truffle. With a light stir, the truffle disintegrated a bit to coat the pasta with bits of its gloriousness. While the pasta was a shade too over-buttered and I would have enjoyed having the truffle shaved tableside, this was definitely the winter treat I needed! And again, a good pairing with the corvina, but an excellent pairing with a sip of Guigal.
After all the hype about the duck, I will say I was looking forward to it, but feeling a little weighed down after the heavy truffle pasta. While the duck was bound to make me feel even heavier, it was definitely the highlight course of the evening, even above the truffle. The breast was served skin-on (naturally!) alongside a duck jus, entirely too little of a stunning rutabaga purée, a small slice of foie gras sausage, some pearl onions, and prunes. The confit of the leg was served separately in a mustard seed cream sauce with pickled ramps that I couldn't find.
This Rohan duck breast might qualify as the best protein I've eaten all year. The tender, perfectly cooked flesh was flanked by the most decadent, crispy duck skin I've ever experienced, seasoned beautifully and melt-in-your-mouth with a succulent layer of duck fat once the crispy skin gave way. Some of the accoutrements were a bit off-putting––the rutabaga was delicious, but scant; the foie sausage was interesting, but strangely textured; and the prunes were just a bizarre choice, to my mind––way too sweet and chewy and not very interesting, and I think a missed opportunity to provide a fruit with much-needed acidity to slice through the heft of the breast (and the confit!). The confit, while tasty, felt a bit out of place and "extra" and seemed to detract a bit from what was already one of the most spectacular cuts of meat I'd had in a while. The Guigal, meanwhile, was indeed a beautiful pairing. I would buy a case of this wine in a heartbeat (sugar daddies??)
It was 11:45 by the time a dessert menu was presented, so I politely passed, quickly paid my bill, and made my way out to O'Hare to sleep before my flight. Before I escaped, however, I was brought a few seasonal dessert bites: a currant pâte de fruit, an eggnog bonbon, and a cranberry financier cookie. Perfect little sweet bites to close things out!
I applaud Boka for staying largely above the corporate fray. There is a lot about this place that is right in line with the sleek corporate vibe, but a lot that fights it. For example, they hired a fat waiter, and also, as I left, a portrait of Bill Murray in full military garb was hanging in the hallway leading to the foyer. Now that is fun.
Boka was excellent. I would be interested to explore more of their menu; it is approachable and generally not aggressively "hip" or "chic," and the duck was an absolute winner of a dish, albeit the sides needing a tweak or two from the Maestro's perspective ;).