This past fall, I had just two memorable meals, largely because with the semester in full swing, I only ate out a few times. My top meal was at Alinea, but the other was at The Lobby (at The Peninsula hotel), a restaurant that went on to receive a Michelin Star just a couple weeks following my dinner there. Lee Wollen’s food impressed me with its precision, as my friend and I had a tasting menu with one perfect protein after another. Just after winning his first Michelin star, Wollen left The Lobby for Boka, a restaurant that I’d enjoyed twice while Guiseppe Tentorri was in charge. While I enjoyed Tentorri, though, Wollen has the higher upside as he’s better able to let ingredients speak for themselves. Tentorri is more imaginative, but prone to incorporating more ingredients than necessary; not only is Wollen skilled at foregrounding the virtues of each ingredient, but his subtractive methodology ensures that there are no wasted ingredients and that each carries a clear purpose. With Wollen at Boka, I knew that I would make it back there, and when I found myself headed to Chicago in April, it was an easy decision to return.
It is worth noting that hiring Wollen was just one component of a comprehensive overhaul that Boka underwent over the winter. These changes also included a major overhaul to the dining room, which now bears what I would categorize as an upscale chain restaurant vibe. The most curious aspect of the setting is the ‘living wall,’ which one can see at the photo at the top of this post. I suppose that many might like incorporating vegetation into the dining room, but I am always taken aback by sites that combine the living with the unliving, particularly as it relates to the domestication of nature. For me, there is an uncanny, haptic quality that arises when vegetation is given free rein to comprise an entire wall of a room—I have always been similarly unnerved by all of the overgrown ivy at U Chicago, which seems to take over the campus. Throughout this meal, I had the sense that nature was returning my gaze—a purely irrational response, but an unsettling one, nonetheless.
This was actually the first time in which I’ve had the same chef’s food at two different restaurants at which he/she’s cooked. Typically, when I return to a restaurant, it’s to chart the evolution of that eatery, but this was different in that I was more interested in the evolution of Lee Wollen than of the restaurant whose kitchen he commandeers. Because this write-up addresses Wollen’s cooking at the two restaurants, it may be helpful to read this post with a separate browser tab open with my post on The Lobby from November. The Lobby was a luxury hotel restaurant and so I’m sure there were restrictions placed on him that he probably doesn’t have to deal with at Boka, particularly since he is now a partner at Boka. Considering that he just arrived at Boka, it’s unreasonable to expect that Wollen has implemented all of the changes he envisions, but for anyone who dined at Boka under Tentorri, a cursory glance at the new menu reveals the breadth of the overhaul to this restaurant.
A structural change to the menu is that where Tentorri used to feature tasting menus of various lengths, Boka now offers just an a la carte option, with a vast array of choices for each course. For many restaurant enthusiasts, the lack of a tasting option—particularly at a Michelin-starred restaurant like this one—would be a deterrent. I actually feel, however, that the a la carte structure suits Chef Wollen better than the tasting. While I enjoyed the tasting menu meal at The Lobby, it resonated more as a series of great courses than a meal that wove a compelling narrative, which to my mind is the aspiration of any tasting meal. Wollen’s execution is gifted and he knows how to combine ingredients to inspired effect, but sequencing is not his forte and in this regard the a la carte structure suggests he is cognizant of his own strengths and limitations.
Boka probably holds less appeal for vegetarians than meat eaters. This is because Wollen’s cuisine privileges the protein, and even many of the salad dishes incorporated fish or meat, at least in an accenting role. There were four salads, six starters, and eight main dishes. One could order a plate from each category, but my companion and I restricted ourselves to a starter and a main. There were many interesting choices, and one of the benefits of dining in April is that we were far enough into the spring season that one could assume that any necessary editing had already been made to the courses and that the dishes had been fully thought through. Boka is a good example of how a la carte restaurants are not necessarily less ambitious than tasting menu ones; each plate was structured around a fish or meat, but complemented by interesting accoutrements, including fresh takes on proteins that Wollen prepared to great effect at The Lobby. He has developed a new preparation of chicken, which had become his signature at The Lobby—this skill with the bird dates back to The Nomad in New York City, where Wollen cooked before moving to Chicago. I also remembered his skill with octopus and so I ordered that as a starter. For a main, I chose the seared halibut. A side benefit of dining at Boka is that the prices are quite reasonable—the starters were ~$15, while the main plates were about $30 each—very fair for food of this caliber.
The amuse bouche was a cool carrot soup, punctuated with a dose of chili oil. The oil didn’t overwhelm and this was refreshing; it was basically the spring equivalent of the pumpkin soup that prefaced my meal at The Lobby. Wollen must really like opening meals with these orange soups.
We were served two breads: a delicious ciabatta and a heartier, crusty bread. Lemon zest was grated over the butter. Neither the breads nor the butter were baked in-house.
Here is my octopus. It was grilled and served with scallion and a broth of burnt orange and pork that was poured tableside. An extraneous garnish of green herbs topped the presentation. Serving an entire scallion amplified its flavor but was also cumbersome and not particularly attractive. The composition gestured toward the cluttered aesthetic of a bowl of Japanese ramen, which is fine but not as elegant as I’d come to expect from Wollen. I would order this dish again because the octopus was absolutely marvelous and complemented by the thoughtful supporting ingredients. One could not cook octopus any better—a well-spent $16.
The halibut was lighter than the octopus and clearly constructed with an eye toward honoring seasonal produce. A reasonably-sized piece of the fish rested in the center, supplemented by peas, carrots, fava beans, shaved radishes, asparagus, and a pickled pearl onion. Adding some decadence was a butter sauce that was accented with orange and thyme. There was much to recommend here; the dish toed the seductive line between being decadent without overdoing it. The vegetables were delicious and there were many different textures at work. Meanwhile, the fish was near-flawless; its texture was not quite at the level of my turbot from Sixteen, but still much better-prepared than what one finds even with the majority of Michelin-starred chefs (at least in Chicago.) As with the first course, my main critique concerns the presentation. Simply put, I don’t see why the vegetables needed to adorn the fish, which made the plate look too messy. One can also see weird green herbs scattered throughout—unnecessary in a dish that already boasted fresh vegetable flavors. So, this was a delicious main course, but the presentation could have shown more restraint.
There were around a half-dozen desserts from which to choose, including a composed cheese course. In the absence of a compelling fruit offering, I ordered the chocolate ganache, which was served with caramel ice cream, a fruity meringue, and a cassis gel. This was fine but no different from the sorts of desserts one finds everywhere nowadays. I think I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but one of the ironies of contemporary dining is that desserts have grown more abstract but less original. One would think that the free-flowing compositions typical in most fine pastry kitchens would facilitate more original compositions, but when everyone is thinking in the same spirit, the result is a lot of desserts that all look the same. This dessert, for example, had the same deconstructed, poly-textural composition one can find everywhere else. While delicious, I feel as if the groupthink in dessert composition has led to few distinctive voices in pastry right now.
A meringue and a superb chocolate truffle rounded out the meal.
This meal generally replicated the pleasures of my meal at The Lobby. The octopus was even better than the version I had at The Lobby and the halibut is also worthy of commendation. Wollen possesses a strong understanding of flavor combinations and his execution is almost flawless. This dinner also reinforced my preference for Wollen over Tentorri; where Tentorri inherited Trotter’s abstract plating design (which I like) and talent for combining flavors and textures that one wouldn’t ordinarily think of, he also inherited Trotter’s tendency toward awkward fusion cooking. This dinner borrowed from many cuisines (French, Japanese, etc.), but always with the focus that I’ve come to expect from this talented chef. My main critique involves the deployment of gratuitous vegetal garnishes, which cheapened the presentation and occluded the precision of each dish. At The Lobby, these garnishes were nowhere to be found, so I’d love to see Wollen return to a less-cluttered plating technique, which would be more synchronized with his culinary style.
While I feel that the plating could use some work, this meal actually accomplished more than my meal from last fall. With my meal at The Lobby, I felt that Wollen prepared a tasting menu when in fact his sensibilities lay in the 3-act realm of the a la carte meal. There is obviously a difference between a tasting menu meal and an a la carte meal, but there’s also a distinction to be made between a tasting menu dish and an a la carte one. With a la carte, one will spend more time with each plate and so it is not enough to have a clear focal point to each dish; there need to be interesting supporting ingredients in order to sustain one’s interest. This was on display with this meal, not only through the excellent vegetables in both dishes but also the exquisite sauces. I have no doubt that Boka will retain its Michelin star under Wollen, and I’ll be sure to return for another celebration of a la carte dining.