Diner: A Study in Contrasts

A change in chefs turns Boca into a European oasis

Feb 14, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Vice President Dick Cheney was in town. Seemed like the perfect time to avoid the downtown traffic and head to Northside for dinner. I don't think this scrappy and hip neighborhood is home to many Republicans who can afford $1,000 a pop for the opportunity to have their picture taken with the VP. We'll just eat.

If you went to Boca before last September, you need to go again. Chef David Falk bought the Hamilton Avenue highlight late last year. Prior to this entrepreneurial effort, we've enjoyed his touches from the kitchens of Nicola's, Daveed's, the Palace and the Maisonette. Not bad for local work after his stint at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.

The Scene: Falk's skills are clearly apparent from the time you enter the trendy Tuscan revival that feels genuine. You could almost feel the warm umber tones of the walls more than perceive them in the early evening glow.

The lighting and wall colors contrasted nicely with the well-worn floors and are punctuated with the comfortably colorful upholstered chairs.

The diners that weeknight varied from a large table of suburbanites celebrating a notable birthday to a gathering of soccer mom's sans kids (as evidenced by the school talk and SUVs in the parking lot), to locals who appeared to have strolled from around the corner and other couples coming from different directions.

Of particular note was that in spite of full occupancy and an enthusiastic crowd sipping wine at the bar, Boca didn't have the high caliber din of many other restaurants. I'm not sure if it's the wood, tablecloths, upholstery and no tile, but I thoroughly enjoyed the crowded scene without ear-splitting cacophony.

The Scoop: As I waited for my guest, I found myself smiling and nodding over the fascinating, varied and immodest wine list. The prices ranged from modest $20-range bottles to Christal champagne, all sectioned into interesting groupings suitable for the novice or the expert.

After we had made our selections, our server returned with a suggestion from Falk for a wine that would complement both our meals. He recommended a lovely Cotes du Rhone that encouraged lingering over the meal.

We chose to indulge in the Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras ($15) to discover if Falk was also the goose liver magician of Daveed's. I think so. The beautifully seared delicacy was served with a sweet compote of quince (a relative of the apple and pear) and drizzled with a tart black pepper sauce. Served with a glass of Muscat, this was a joyful start. As a total contrast, the Grilled Diver Caught Sea Scallops ($10) sported bold grill marks on the large mollusks nestled over caramelized Brussels sprout wedges tossed with a rich and earthy vinaigrette with truffles and topped with large scrapes of fresh Parmesan. No wonder Falk's quote was included above these selections: "These are musts on my menu." Definitely.

We chuckled when we saw Gnocchi ($16) on the menu. We were reminded of a memorable trip to Lake Como and the singsong hostess describing the nightly variations. Boca's light potato dumplings were smooth and non-gummy in texture and served with a flavorful sage broth made with trumpet mushrooms. Dusted with grated Parmesan, these puffs of heaven were better than Signora Laura's. The Grilled Ahi Tuna ($17) was a surprise, arriving in a large soup plate. The slices of rare fish were fanned over kimchi, a Chinese cabbage relish and squares of caramelized eggplant, a succulent surprise. At the base of the bowl was a savory and slightly spicy brown broth.

Some of the other entrées included Fresh Tagliatelle Pasta with red snapper, porcini and a truffle sauce ($19), Chicken Breast with caramelized carrots and lemon risotto ($18) and Grilled Salmon with spinach and leek compote with anchovy-garlic white wine emulsion ($16).

Desserts change regularly with a few standards. For the chocolate lover, you'll need to try the Boca Negra ($6), a dark chocolate flourless cake powdered with cocoa. There's so much caffeine in all the chocolate, I don't think decaf coffee will help you sleep any better. Plated on a dark chocolate sauce, this creamy confection will surely meet approval. The Pear Tart ($6) had a thick and flaky crust layered with slices of pears, dotted with hazelnuts and highlighted with crème fraiche. Dark and light, our desserts provided another study in contrasts.

The Sizzle: Go with one or more of your best food fans and sample a few things. In spite of the bustle of this trendy spot, it feels like a European oasis to sip and sup at leisure, reveling in the study in contrast. Parking available in the rear on side lot.

Go: 4034 Hamilton Ave., Northside

Call: 513-542-2022

Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.

Prices: Entrées range from $16-25

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Several non-red meat and non-meat options throughout menu

Other: Special features, such as addition of black truffles to orders when we visited