When chef Lee Wolen announced that he was leaving The Lobby to take over at Boka, the Chicago dining community was excited to see what would happen. Boka underwent a thorough renovation in January, closing for a month, and the interiors and menu were completely revamped.
My high expectations were met, even exceeded, when I dined at the new restaurant opening weekend. This is Wolen's first time opening a restaurant, let alone a restaurant where he is the executive chef and a partner. Still present were Lee's familiar roast chicken and the same elegant plate compositions he was known for at The Lobby. Here, though, the vibe of the restaurant is less formal and more intimate, darker and sexier. With more independence than he has previously had, Wolen's food seems a little more spontaneous to match.
This single vegetarian entrée ($20) might have been my favorite dish of the evening. On the menu, it reads simply "roasted cauliflower, quinoa, grapes, pistachios, chili." These are all flavors I've seen paired with cauliflower in the past, and I might have mistaken it for a side dish if it weren't labeled otherwise. Our waitress described it as a "cauliflower steak."
It comes out a thing of beauty. The big chunk of vegetable is charred on the outside and tender on the inside, topped with toasted red quinoa with chopped pistachios mixed in. Slightly dehydrated red and green grapes are still juicy, with a concentrated pop of sweetness and a texture between that of a fresh grape and raisin. The sweet grapes are balanced out with a chili sauce distributed in several dollops across the dish. The smoky charred bits are my favorite parts—earthy, smoky, and nutty. Instead of just drenching the cauliflower in a creamy sauce or frying it, Wolen's subtle hand coaxes more flavor than you might expect from this humble vegetable.