Reviews: Topolobampo and Boka

Two restaurants, two reinventions: Here’s how these beloved Chicago places started new lives in 2014.

Boka (left); Scallops in aguachile at Topolobampo (right)   Photos: Anna Knott

I am supposed to love Rick Bayless. The man is an international treasure, with multiple awards, TV shows, cookbooks, and restaurants everywhere from airports to college campuses. As interest in regional Mexican cuisine swells, he can take a lot of credit for smashing the stereotypes Americans have about Mexican food. Bayless wasn’t just ahead of the curve. He was driving on a different road, bound for a different destination.

But my relationship with Topolobampo, Bayless’s masterpiece, has never been a torrid affair. It’s been an acquaintanceship—I’ve been happy to have it in town, but I haven’t really felt compelled to connect. To me, Topolobampo was simply a smart homage to regional Mexican food, less outstanding than admirable, in a room that perpetually screamed 1989. If this represented Bayless’s finest achievement, what was I missing?

I may never know. That Topolobampo is gone. Nearly every detail has been overhauled in the past year—art, plates, chairs, window treatments—and the new papery lights cast a hypnotic (and completely different) mellow glimmer. The first major renovation in 25 years has initiated a dance between Old World sophistication and River North modernism. “Some of the changes were aesthetic, and some philosophical,” says Bayless. “If we were to stand still, time would catch up with us, and suddenly we wouldn’t be looking to the future anymore, but to the past. ”

The space and the food finally feel in tune. A sprawling, stunning new array of dishes pushes forward and looks back in equal measure on a build-your-own prix fixe menu that showcases 24 small plates divided into subjective flavor profiles (“Soulful,” “Enchanting,” “Vibrant”). Descriptions get so charmingly wordy it’s as if Bayless and his chef de cuisine, Andres Padilla, felt guilty about excluding a single ingredient that contributed to their success. You don’t often see that kind of enthusiasm these days.

Consider the Chicago-style panucho, a play on a Mérida fast-food treat. Topolo’s involves a crispy tortilla that’s been jammed with a black bean and egg yolk filling, topped with an escabèche of güero chilies and caramelized onions, and laid in a Kaskaskia cheese sauce with charred Brussels sprouts. It’s a wonderful dish oozing complex flavors, and the menu describes it completely. The average menu today would simply read “panucho” and leave the staff to rattle off ingredients, two of which you might actually remember. Bayless’s team would rather educate.

And nearly every dish has something to teach, even the ones you thought you knew well. The kitchen adds heavy cream to a fantastic pasilla-blasted sopa Azteca, which somehow keeps the tortilla strips from shriveling into mushy lumps. And a carne asada made with a tangy wood-roasted 28-day-aged prime rib eye finally gives a classic Oaxaca black mole something worth coating. Amazing mix of power and finesse.

The more you order, the more you realize just how much ground the menu covers. You might get a punchy, Baja-influenced smoked shrimp and wood-grilled baby octopus with crunchy morita peppers, Lucques olives, and a basil pesto undertone. Or luck into the earthy Oaxaca enfrijoladas: crispy corn tortillas enfolding a parsnip-camote mash, pungent cincho cheese, seared tomatitos, and knob onions in a black bean and habanero sauce.

Jennifer Jones’s desserts, including the perfect Peaches in Cream—goat’s milk crema mousse filled with Masumoto peach gelatin and raspberries atop buttery shortbread and a sauce-style natilla infused with lemon geraniums from the boss’s garden—taste in sync with everything else. A savvy collection of wines by small producers goes heavy on Rieslings, such as the lychee-toned 2010 Ara from Brooks in Willamette Valley. Don’t default-order a margarita, though it’s top-notch, too.

Topolobampo routinely gets James Beard nominations for service, yet service remains the operation’s least polished element. Long lags between courses drag meals out. And a trip to the bathroom, which involves sliding past (and, inevitably, against) staffers in a tight corridor abutting the kitchen, then navigating a vertiginous flight of stairs, feels awkward for a restaurant of this caliber. I held it in for two hours.

Despite my grievances, I can finally say without hesitation that I love Topolobampo. I’m not just imagining the restaurant’s reenergized attitude. “There is definitely a new spark in that room,” Bayless says.

But if the changes make the vision feel more focused than ever, I have to allow for the possibility that I have also changed. And Topolobampo, like a great book that sat on the shelf for years until I was ready to read it, was waiting for me all along.

 

Boka reinvented itself, too. Though the restaurant launched Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz to superstardom in 2003, it never felt as sharply defined as their subsequent efforts (Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster). If I were pressed to describe how Boka fit into their oeuvre, I would say, “It’s the sort of upscale one with the sails in the dining room.”

Boehm and Katz have never been shy about starting over. In 2011, they re-imagined Lincoln Park’s Perennial as the “farmhouse posh” Perennial Virant, a showcase for chef Paul Virant. Then they scrapped the clubby Landmark to pair with Chris Pandel’s crew on Balena, a rustic Italian charmer. Both represented huge improvements.

That’s what makes Boka’s reboot so peculiar. The boys lured red-hot Lee Wolen from his post at the four-star Lobby in the Peninsula Hotel and offered him a partnership. Then they lowered the prices and transformed Boka’s forgettable decor into a dark and bustling adult playground that includes a huge wall of mosses and ferns and a portrait of Bill Murray as some sort of maritime captain. It’s a lively vibe far closer to, say, Girl & the Goat than to the Lobby.

Yet Wolen’s creations, clean and beautiful as they may be, aren’t especially playful. The genre is contemporary American (that is, Tiny Food on Big Plates)—and the subtlety that is so suited to the Lobby’s beatific ambiance can feel like a distant abstraction in this cocktaily environment.

That said, the guy could teach a seminar on balancing flavors. Wolen loads his menu with intricate showstoppers such as gorgeous salt cod ravioli with artichokes, arugula, fava beans, and lemon zest in a foamy cream sauce of milk, herbs, and garlic. A precisely chopped salad of calamari, preserved blood oranges, artichokes, capers, and olives pushes robust flavors into a killer slow-cooked loup de mer. Three-star excellence in a one-and-a-half-star atmosphere.

Of course, good food doesn’t need tablecloths and wine stewards. What it needs are fine ingredients and well-executed ideas, and Wolen and his squad have both in spades. They slow-grill a terrific beef short rib for 58 hours, and what comes out is closer to a juicy little steak. A mass of hen of the woods mushrooms and nubs of corned beef tongue fortify and amplify the meat. A magnificent duck breast, juicy and rich, brings together implausible accompaniments—mustard, prunes, heavily roasted fennel—in a way that makes their union inevitable. The artichoke soup with crispy smoked sturgeon and browned shallots, an explosive marriage of contrasting textures, is nothing short of brilliant.

But sometimes Wolen’s kitchen flies too close to the sun, as with a log of foie gras pummeled into submission by breadcrumbs, walnuts, a blood orange, celery ribbons, and soggy spice bread. Great, if you prefer your foie hidden between layers of nonsense. And pastry chef Genie Kwon, who worked with Wolen at New York’s Eleven Madison Park, also brings the precious in elaborate desserts such as orbs of yuzu custard with black sesame cake, pineapple sorbet cubes, and caramelized buckwheat. Tough sell, caramelized buckwheat. The bar program fares far better; I could envision myself drinking frothy Cold Shoulder cocktails (dry gin, Gran Classico, egg white, lemon, bitters) on the welcoming patio all summer.

As at all of Boehm and Katz’s restaurants, service remains gracious across the board. On one visit, the hostess kept her cool even when President Obama’s motorcade sent Lincoln Park into a gridlocked rage and rendered my party, and countless others, absurdly late for our table. On another, I marveled at the army of breezy servers who appeared to genuinely enjoy taking care of strangers.

Lee Wolen overflows with talent, but does that make him the right chef for Boka 2.0? If the partners want to draw more than pretheatre and celebratory diners, I’m not convinced. Wolen’s food seems custom-built for special occasions, but the eclectic space is engineered for something else entirely. Boka underwent a bold metamorphosis, but instead of revealing the restaurant’s true identity, this evolution only deepened the mystery.

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