As someone who doesn’t have the budget to indulge my love of fine dining as frequently as I’d like, Restaurant Week is one of my favorite weeks of the year. I tried to be particularly discerning about the restaurants I chose, but I couldn’t resist making reservations for Boka twice so that I could try two sets of menus. Since the redesign with Chef Lee Wolen becoming Executive Chef/Partner last year, Michelin-starred Boka has become one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago. Their offering may be the best deal of Restaurant Week this year: four carefully composed, beautifully plated courses (cold, hot, entrée, and dessert) for $44.
The meal begins housemade butter and warm rolls – a choice of multigrain or baguette, although my server encouraged me to try both. The butter is light and spreadable, and the lemon zest gives it a nice brightness. The baguette is soft on the inside with a good crust, while the multigrain is darker and more flavorful, its crust softer but more textured from the seeds.
For my first cold dish, I chose the Heirloom Carrots, a beautiful mix of textures and flavors. The orange and purple carrots are earthy and soft, but the pistachio and amaranth give it a little crunch and a little chewiness. The goat cheese is creamy, smoky, and slightly tangy. There’s a sweet puree, micro greens, and a little acidity.
On my return trip, I chose the Marinated Fluke as my cold course. It is understandably a small portion, and the fluke is a little difficult to cut, but it is a lovely dish – very fresh and light, again with interesting contrasts in flavor and texture. The grapefruit gives it fruity acidity, the basil adds an additional layer of fresh flavor, and there’s a pleasing chewiness from the tapioca and crunch from the puffed rice.
Although I was initially uncertain about the combination of black garlic and olives, I trusted my server’s recommendation for my first hot course, and the Pork Belly was one of the best dishes I’ve had in quite some time. The pork belly doesn’t have the kind of sear that I usually expect, but it is soft and luscious. The pork belly is obviously rich, but the accompaniments keep it from feeling heavy. The utterly smooth black garlic puree is fantastic. The sauce, citrus rind, mustard seeds, and crunchy celery make each bite a little different, and the slivers of salty, briny olive and translucent ribbons of crunchy celery are so smart. Despite the multiple strong components, it is a very well composed dish, and the flavors – acidic, rich, salty, citrus – go well together.
I was tempted to order the pork belly again because I enjoyed it so much, but I took my server’s suggestion to go with the Slow Poached Egg, and it was again an excellent recommendation. Foams have a bad reputation, but this parmesan foam is an essential part of the dish. The egg yolk makes a velvety sauce for the tender and toothsome cavatelli. Umami comes from the parmesan foam and a silky smooth mushroom puree, and something with an acidic brightness keeps it from being too rich. A poached egg doesn’t initially seem as exciting as pork belly, but this is a terrific dish.
While the Grilled Beef Short Rib I ordered for my first entrée was perhaps my least favorite of the eight dishes, it was still a very good dish. I’ve never had a short rib quite like this, treated like a steak, although it has the fall-to-shreds quality that I associate with short ribs. The celery root puree is silky smooth, with the slightly tangy, vegetal flavor of celery root, but not in a bad way. The cipollini onion is sweet, soft, and almost caramelized, while the celery root is firmer and almost juicy.
The two scallops have a gorgeous sear, but it doesn’t extend past the very outermost edges – these may be the most expertly cooked scallops I’ve had, and I love scallops. The creamy sauce is light, possibly involving cauliflower, but it isn’t fatty or heavy like a cream-based sauce. There’s a hint of acidity from the apple. It is a light, simple dish, and though it isn’t as complicated as many of the dish I like often are, it still manages to be memorable.
I finished my richer, more meat-centric meal with the Chocolate Cake, two small flourless chocolate cakes. The darkness of the chocolate is balanced by the sweet-tart huckleberries. The tuille perched on top of the ice cream is amazingly light and crispy. Although the cardamom ice cream is not very creamy – almost more like a sorbet, icy but smooth – that just focuses on the clean, pure cardamom flavor, instead of on the fatty richness of cream. Rounding out the dish are a smooth, mild chocolate and a gingerbread crunch.
To end my lighter, seafood-focused meal, I chose the Frozen Yogurt. I’m not typically a big fan of frozen yogurt, but since my server had offered such stellar recommendations, I decided to take a chance on it, and I’m glad I did. The frozen yogurt itself is both tangy and creamy, with a tiny bit of fantastic, tart passionfruit sorbet on top. There are bits of angel food cake, diced pineapple, crunchy puffed buckwheat, and a piece of mochi, which was an interesting addition. The spiced caramel macaron is perfectly formed, but it doesn’t have the give that I expect from a macaron. It’s also a little crumbly, which is not very surprising given that it’s the size of a quarter. Overall, it’s a light, refreshing dessert with a surprising amount going on.
The mignardise is a cassis pear pate de fruits with a lovely, tender texture and a hint of crunch from the sugar. Both sweet and tart, without being too much of either, it is a very satisfying end to frankly fantastic meals.
In all honesty, I have rather high standards and rarely write entirely glowing reviews of restaurants. That said, Boka has met or exceeded all of my admittedly high expectations. The food is excellent, and the service is impeccable. While finances will not allow me to return as frequently as I would like, Boka will definitely be on my list for at least two – if not three – trips during Restaurant Week next year, as well as for more restrained return visits throughout the year.
Boka – 1729 N. Halsted St., Chicago