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At Boka, the Italian-born chef Giuseppe Tentori, who went to culinary school in Milan and was also a chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s, has taken over from Giuseppe Scurato. Tentori, cooking in the same modern American style as the prior Giuseppe, is going great shakes in Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz’s popular theatre-district restaurant.
On the last of several recent visits, my party passed on the subdued beige interior with its black tablecloths and opted for a table in the pleasant patio under a tree in the back corner. Bliss and reverie. But then my taste buds snapped to attention when faced with an appetizer of squid stuffed with herbed scallops and shrimp. Served on baby spinach with pineapple pickled with rice wine vinegar, hot chilies, lemongrass, and ginger, plus tapioca dyed black with squid ink, it was a lot to take in. Our waitress helpfully recommended putting each component into each bite for the proper effect-good suggestion. Tentori is a talented and confident chef whose only error is in occasionally overdoing it. My party started one meal with Rocky Point oysters topped with mango horseradish and Kumamoto oysters topped with mignonette granita. Sounds good, and the oysters were impeccably fresh, but the mango horseradish was too aggressive, almost obliterating the flavor of the oysters.
There were other hugely successful starters, such as Spanish saffron risotto with arugula and paper-thin slices of crisped se-rrano ham, and another of delicate Peruvian tabouleh with English cucumber, haricots verts, Greek feta, and watermelon radish (Peruvian because it was made with quinoa instead of bulgur, obviously a Trotter influence-he has a recipe for quinoa tabouleh in his new cookbook, Spa Cuisine). New on the menu on my final visit: fava bean and English pea soup with loads of crayfish, four boldly seasoned black pepper beignets, and soft sweated Spanish onion in the center of the bowl. Magnificent.
Bacon-wrapped Berkshire pork tenderloin stuffed with sage was admirably moist and tender, set with Israeli couscous and baby squash on a bed of mild mole. I also loved the duck breast on wild mushroom sauce with a delicious stinging nettle flan (something like a spinach soufflé) and farro mixed with minced duck gizzard confit. For fish, I’d recommend the black sesame seed–crusted salmon with a foamy soy emulsion, green tea soba noodles, shiitakes, and sunchoke. But for braised meat fans like me, veal cheeks with grainy, house-made mustard, grilled treviso (a light radicchio), and white runner beans-both puréed and whole-was pure ecstasy. Even the pheasant, dry and forgettable at too many restaurants these days, is a showstopper in Tentori’s hands. He makes what he calls a stuffed pheasant, really a thin layer of breast attached to delicious fennel-seasoned pheasant sausage. It’s sliced like a terrine, showing the imbedded pistachios, and layered with Brussels sprout leaves and salsify cooked in pheasant jus. That’s more like it. With these intricate entrées, a bottle of 2004 Mulderbosch South African cabernet sauvignon ($50) hit the bull’s-eye.
Pastry chef Letecia Zenteno, besides making straightforward treats like strawberry rhubarb oatmeal crisp, likes to repeat a flavor theme in her more complex desserts. So her chocolate cheesecake is crusted with hazelnut praline dipped in chocolate, topped with white and dark chocolate shavings, and served on chocolate toffee with passion fruit and coffee whipped cream. And her lovely pineapple upside-down cake with subtle curry cream sauce is graced with young coconut gêlée, slivers of young coconut, and coconut sorbet. A stellar cheese offering is more than just lip service. Service at Boka, however, is a puzzle. Our servers were very knowledgeable about the food, but on every visit the pacing was off, with long delays between courses. A rare off-key to an otherwise first-rate dining experience.
BOKA-1729 North Halsted Street; bokachicago.com. Appetizers $9 to $13, entrées $19 to $38, desserts $6. Dinner nightly. Reservations: 312-337-6070.
LE LAN-749 North Clark Street; lelanrestaurant.com. Appetizers $9 to $14, entrées $23 to $33, desserts $9 to $11. Dinner Monday to Saturday. Reservations: 312-280-9100.Edit Module