I was worried. Two of my favorite restaurants, Le Lan and Boka, recently lost the only chefs their young kitchens had ever known. Good thing there's a pipeline of talented personnel coming out of Charlie Trotter's. Both spots nabbed veterans of the hallowed Lincoln Park temple, well-seasoned chefs with well-seasoned dishes that do more than carry on the theme of their respective restaurants. Whew.
Le Lan's new executive chef, Korean-born Bill Kim, rose to chef de cuisine at Trotter's, and he also learned from masters at Trio in Evanston and Susanna Foo's in Philadelphia. Now he's got two more legends to contend with: Le Lan's owners, Roland Liccioni (Le Français) and Arun Sampanthavivat (Arun's). As they did with the former Le Lan chef Andy Motto, that formidable duo worked with Kim on the new menu, melding classic French and Pan-Asian in new, inventive ways.
The first thing that hit our table, sticky buns with orange oyster sauce, was so addictive we quickly asked for, and devoured, a second round. That just whetted my appetite for the menu, starting with soups like young Thai coconut soup flavored with galangal (similar to ginger root) and lemongrass, brimming with plump olive oil–poached shrimp and bean sprouts, or a delicious take on hot-and-sour soup with crimson lentils, lump crab, tofu, taro, and egg crêpe. Chef Kim's mother consults on the dumplings. Bless her: the Asian squash dumplings with passion-fruit orange vinaigrette, bacon, and toasted garlic are terrific, and so are the juicy ones filled with vermicelli noodles, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and dashi broth.
Le Lan's entrées are every bit as enticing as its appetizers. Asian-spiced sizzling short ribs make a fine meal, served with wok-seared scallions, portobello mushrooms, and brown sticky rice, plus an Asian pear/kiwi/soy marinade passed down from Kim's grandmother. Slightly more exotic, but equally good: the tea-smoked duck breast with kumquat/star anise reduction and big cubes of very Western savory bread pudding. Or you might prefer the whole roasted bobwhite quail ballooned with a reddish Asian "risotto" stuffing that comes tumbling out when cut. It's a slam dunk with the side of caramelized Brussels sprouts.
Never really cared for tilapia-it's too bland in most preparations-but Le Lan's zucchini-wrapped number stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and minced vegetables on a bed of flageolet beans is as delicious as it is lovely. And, true to his Korean roots, Kim also offers daily house-made kimchis, which are enjoyable but so pungent they must be treated lightly, lest they overwhelm the balance of his other dishes. A delicate 2004 Gary Farrell Russian River Valley pinot noir ($65) worked overtime to keep the equilibrium.
Nicole Swarz, the new pastry chef, comes from HotChocolate. She has crafted a compact but strong dessert list; each selection features an offbeat scoop of ice cream (such as caramel coriander). The centerpiece is a meticulous pineapple napoleon layered with won tons, brown-butter custard, and thinly sliced caramelized pineapple, accompanied by a sweet-onion sage ice cream. As I was sipping the last of the wine with nibbles of the napoleon, I looked around the room. This is a pleasant setting, from the moon-shaped front window to the gorgeous dragon mural on the back wall by Sampanthavivat's brother, Noi. There's just one incongruity: the serene design gets undercut by a buzzy room that approaches noisy at peak hours-but I suppose this translates into a sense of energy and liveliness. That certainly echoes what's on the plate.
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.