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Boka Executive Chef/partner Lee Wolen in front of the restaurant’s moss wall

Change is Good

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | July 8, 2014

Boka has been open for 10 years, and for a restaurant that’s a lifetime,” says Kevin Boehm, who, along with partner Rob Katz, is behind some of Chicago’s most popular restaurants, including Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster, Perennial Virant, Balena and Boka, the duo’s flagship. “In order to have a restaurant that stands the test of time, there has to be a bit of an evolution.”

What has happened at Boka is much more than that. After a six-week closure, the Lincoln Park destination reopened in February featuring a totally new look and a totally special new chef, Lee Wolen, who had most recently worked at The Lobby at The Peninsula Chicago and, before that, at New York’s Eleven Madison Park.

The transformation is evident from the moment you pass through the glass door. Behind the host stand, the walls are decorated with vintage keyholes, hinting at the quirky-meets-modern vibe you’ll now find throughout the space. Tongue-in-cheek portraits of Bill Murray and Dave Grohl further drive home the point. Rich, dark tones dominate the bar and lounge area, while in the neighboring main dining room white-accented midcentury-esque chairs, bronze leather booths and freestanding couches have replaced the more formal aesthetic. “Boka hasn’t lost any of its flair,” noted my dining companion, a regular to Boka 1.0, “just some of its starch.”

In the second dining room, one major component of the refresh—a 33-foot-long moss-covered wall highlighted with staghorn ferns, designed by Heather Shouse of Bottle and Branch—has been the talk of the town for months now, and for good reason: It’s a knockout.

You know what else is a knockout? The refined yet playful food of Wolen. (I’m not the least bit surprised, since one of the best meals I’ve eaten in recent years was the one I had at The Lobby shortly before Wolen left.) Divided into salads, starters and entrees, the menu is a welcome respite from all the small plates of late. For those having small-plate withdrawals, the servers are happy to request dishes be split in the kitchen.

Wolen’s passion for seasonal produce is evident from the get-go, with the amuse-bouche, which on one of my visits was a shooter of chilled carrot soup with a fragrant curry oil and on another, zucchini soup spiked with mint. Both were terrific and did exactly what an amuse-bouche is designed to do: tickle the mouth and wake up the taste buds for the rest of the food to come.

What follows is even more enlivening. Take the heirloom carrots from the salad section, which sounds ho-hum on the menu but is transcendent on the plate. Roasted pieces of heirloom carrots, tender amaranth, crunchy pistachios and chewy dates sit atop a small mound of smoked goat cheese. Not only is it a wonderful contrast of textures but flavors, too, with hints of spice (cumin), acid (sherry vinegar, lime) and smoke. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more balanced dish that effortlessly pushes the creative envelope too.

But wait—you haven’t had the roasted broccoli yet. (If you’re sensing a theme here, you’re right; Wolen definitely knows his way around vegetables.) For this salad, Wolen pairs roasted broccoli florets with strips of raw, shaved stalk and a broccoli puree. Add in a swoosh of Greek yogurt, marcona almonds, bits of bacon, a dusting of Parmesan and a terrific housemade cheese sable crumbled on top, and this dish shows all those ubiquitous Brussels sprout plates around town how a vegetable dish should be done.

From there, you could jump into the entrees and skip the starters. But then you’d miss out on the grilled Spanish octopus, a surf and turf of sorts with the addition of an earthy roasted pork broth. There’s also the ricotta gnudi, which veers toward Spain with chunks of morcilla (blood sausage) and hazelnuts.

If you dined on Wolen’s food at The Lobby, the roasted chicken entree with brioche crumbs wedged underneath its impossibly golden and crisp skin will look familiar—and that’s a good thing. While Wolen is quick to credit this terrific bird preparation to his days at Eleven Madison Park, he’s smart to recognize that as much as he’d like to leave this dish behind, it’s one with which customers have fallen in love. “People tend to crave food like this,” says my dining companion. I totally agree.

On the fish side, the entree of slow-cooked loup de mer includes some in-your-face ingredients, such as preserved blood orange, capers, olives and artichoke hearts. But rather than overpower the delicate nature of the tender fish, they add an exotic allure. Each bite seems new.

Desserts from Pastry Chef Genie Kwon, another Eleven Madison Park vet, take a similar simple yet creative stance. Frozen yogurt is nothing like the stuff you’ve had at those serve-yourself joints; rather the natural flavor has a lovely sour tang and pairs perfectly with pieces of tart rhubarb and the cutest mini macarons I’ve seen.
The wine list takes an international approach with interesting, food-friendly options like the 2010 Pingus Flor de Pingus, a tempranillo from Spain. And due to a special preservation system, by-the-glass drinkers have a reserve list to choose from as well as a regular one with pours available in 3 and 6 ounces. Attention to details and ingredients is also front and center in the cocktails created by Tim Stanczykiewicz.

To further sweeten this story, consider this: Years ago, when Cleveland native Wolen moved to Chicago, his apartment was across the street from Boka, and he used to eat there often. A chance meeting with Boehm and Katz at Eleven Madison Park was followed by a letter from Wolen expressing his desire to work for them. Four years later, that’s exactly what happened. Nothing beats a happy (and delicious!) ending.

Boka
1729 N. Halsted St., 773.337.6070

Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Salads $11-$13
Starters $12-$17
Entrees $22-$33