Restaurant Week 2013 - Boka

For my third Restaurant Week outing, I decided to break out of the pattern I had been following so far: not only did I leave behind the West Loop, I left Justin at home to have a girls' night with my friend Jess. Actually, given the romantic vibe at our selection, Boka, it was really more of a lady date, and I kind of wished I had brought Justin, but the location was really perfect for me and Jess. The restaurant had been on my radar for ages, ever since I needed to pick a pre-theater dinner for my mom's birthday two years ago, when we went to see Dixie's Tupperware Party at the Royal George Theater. She ultimately chose to go out for hot dogs instead, but Boka, a Michelin-starred establishment, has been lingering in the back of my mind ever since.

When Jess expressed her interest in checking out Restaurant Week with me, she let me choose the venue, since I spend so much time reading up on the Chicago food scene. Though I could have picked somewhere newer or more trendy, I went with Boka, not only because I'm slowly trying to increase the number of Michelin-starred restaurants I've been to and I couldn't afford to do so without Restaurant Week, but because it was mutually convenient. For me, Boka was a straight shot north on Halsted from my office, and for Jess, it was a short bus trip west on North Avenue. In terms of location, it was the best possible choice.

As a matter of fact, Boka may have been the best decision I've made so far during Restaurant Week. So far, it has had the best food, the best service, and it's easy to see why it has earned a Michelin star and the other two places we've tried have not. Boka is the restaurant I would most want to return to, even if it is the one I am in the position to least afford.

Ambiance - Our reservation at Boka was on the early side, since we were both coming straight from work, and when we arrived, the restaurant was largely empty. We were seated in a dimly lit room that looked like it might have been a glassed-in patio that could accommodate outdoor dining in fairer weather. The tables were spaced far enough apart that diners could engage in private conversations without worrying about interference from neighboring patrons, and the chairs were comfortable enough to want to linger over one's food. Frankly, I felt a little uncomfortable being there with a same-gender friend, but as the place started to fill up, the sense of being on a date diminished somewhat. Still, I think Boka would be a perfect locale for a romantic dinner for a special occasion like an anniversary or Valentine's Day.

Service - Our waiter, though young, was not a pretentious hipster like the servers we had encountered at Nellcôte and BellyQ. He was very friendly, and very accommodating of all our questions about the menu, and shepherded me through my indecision surrounding my dinner choices by providing me with recommendations that took into account the season, the weather outside, and how hungry I was. He even offered us a second helping of bread after we had consumed our initial ration, which was a pleasant surprised compared to Nellcôte, where they charged us $3 for the privilege of sampling their bread in the first place. We didn't get any attitude for ordering off of the Restaurant Week menu, and blissfully, nobody tried to up-sell us on anything. In short, the service was a model of perfection.

Food - Based on the strength of our waiter's persuasive recommendations, I actually ended up going in a totally different direction with my selections than I had been planning on. Initially, I had intended to go with a seafood-themed meal, including the seared diver scallop appetizer and salmon in sweet potato sauce with a seafood dumpling as an entree. However, the waiter suggested that, given the cold day, I might prefer something heavier, so I went with the mushroom soup and Berkshire pork cheeks instead. It was the right call.

Though the pureed mushroom soup was creamless, like the recipe I make at home, the flavor profile was totally different, and worth trying. In the bottom of the bowl was a sweet/tart shallot jam that worked its way into the occasional bite, creating a lovely touch of variety, and the pieces of grilled baby bok choy worked surprisingly well, contributing a smokey component. Floating in the center was a golden brown square of seared chicken thigh that was so good, I honestly could have ordered that as an entree and been happy.

The pork, however, was a masterpiece unto itself, having been braised to a meltingly tender state of submission. It was plated with a Brussels sprout slaw that was delicious enough that I wished there was more of it, as well as small cubes of Honeycrisp apples. I know apples and pork are a classic pairing, but I'd never really considered using Honeycrisps (my favorite apple) for anything other than eating out of hand.

The only place where I felt the tasting menu faltered was the carrot cake, which suffered from an overly generous hand with the cardamon. I also felt that it was a bit fussy and overly deconstructed, what with its orange sorbet, candied kumquats, cream cheese frosting swirl, and garnish of raw carrots cut into flowers. If dessert had lived up to the standards set by the previous two courses, my meal at Boka would have been a more or less ideal dining experience.

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