Diner: Anatomy of a Meal

The body of evidence points to Northside's Boca

Apr 15, 1999 at 2:06 pm

Boca means "mouth" in Spanish, but in Cincinnati it means food. Good food. When this restaurant first opened a few years ago in its Northside location, eyebrows raised and nostrils flared at the thought that an upscale restaurant would have the cheek to stick its neck out in an untrendy neighborhood. Well, the body of evidence suggests that Boca was ahead of its time. With both feet firmly planted on Hamilton Avenue, this friendly, casual eatery has elbowed its way to the forefront of Cincinnati dining spots.After nosing around some of the quirky shops that are neighbors to Boca, we amble in on the first warm evening of spring. An old storefront facing a busy urban sidewalk, the dining room is painted a soft buttery yellow with large posters on soaring walls. Simply designed cork-topped tables complement the large wooden bar presiding over the left side of the room, and the place fills with neighborhood regulars and more occasional diners.

We eye the menu for a few minutes and start with our knowledgeable waiter's suggestion of Zucchini, Mint and Pink Peppercorn Pancakes ($8.50), a mouthful to say and a delight to consume. Tiny vegetable pancakes are topped with smoked salmon and créme fraîche for a different take on the usual smoked salmon appetizer. A second starter, the Tuscan Toast ($7.25), is a platterful of thick toasted country bread surrounded by mounds of roasted garlic, unctuous anchovy mayonnaise and a black olive tapenade redolent with rosemary.

This is enough for a meal in itself, and our waiter says that many folks stop right here.

We, however, are here to eat, and armed with knife and fork, order the Boca Salad ($6.95), greens lightly tossed with fennel, onion, sun-dried tomatoes and olives. This is my one disappointment, as the onion overpowers the delicate lettuces. But we shoulder on to the main courses.

While Boca is still offering its winter menu the night I dine there, there is something springlike in its Atlantic Grilled Salmon ($15.75) with fennel and sweet potato fritters on a bed of sautéed escarole. The interplay of flavors is heightened by a lemon vinaigrette reminiscent of warmer temperatures even though these are winter vegetables.

There are hints of summer in the varied tastes of the Crispy Skin Griddled Chicken ($14.95). The sensation of grilling and outdoor dining may be evoked by the oven-roasted tomatoes and the creamy corn of polenta, spiked with Swiss cheese, that are a base for the chicken, or it could just be the chicken, moist and tender with its crispy skin and the tangy salty flavor of prosciutto strips that top it off. Whatever it is, it works and makes for good eating. We polish off our plates in anticipation of dessert.

As is often the case, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, and we can only manage to eat one dessert, the Warm Date and Ginger Pudding ($5.50), which is definitely rib-sticking comfort food. A thick, cakelike wedge of sweet, spicy richness, the pudding comes with butterscotch and mascarpone cream to add to our pleasure as well as our hips. Of course, the Boca Negra ($5.50), an intensely chocolate-flavored cake laced with bourbon, wouldn't be any lighter, but as tempting as it is, we decline.

Boca has a full service bar, including liquors and cognacs, and a very small, select wine list to accompany your meal, as well as an unusual Moroccan Mint Tea ($1.85), an exotic blend of mint, cinnamon, lemon and honey with star anise.

You might need it to soothe your head from the noise. Boca's big problem: way too loud. Due to the room design, it's difficult to carry on a conversation when the dining room is full, so if you want to chat with a tableful of friends, avoid busy Friday and Saturday evenings unless you are willing to shout.

It isn't a flawless 10. No restaurant is, and, face it, the wine list, unlike my waistline, could use expanding, but Boca is heads above most of the restaurants in Cincinnati, with a combination of flavorful, inventive food, amiable service and a pleasant dining room, marred only by bad acoustics. I don't care. My mouth is happy.

Go: 4034 Hamilton Ave., Northside

Call: 542—2022

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Moderate to expensive

Payment: Visa, Master Card, American Express

Vegetarian Friendliness: Among the appetizers, salads and several entrées are vegetarian choices.

Other information: Parking is on the street.