I’ve used up a lot of words describing the dissatisfying state of ramen in this city. So it’s somewhat disgruntling to admit that I think I met the best ramen broth around at the newly revamped Boka—and it’s not employed in a soup. It’s in a grilled Spanish octopus appetizer. The precisely arranged tentacles rest in a shallow pool of roasted-pork broth that so effectively apes the collagen-rich sumptuousness of a proper tonkotsu broth it’s a shame chef Lee Wolen hasn’t thrown his hat in with the legions of ramen pretenders that have proliferated in the city these past few years. He could teach them a thing or two.
Instead Wolen was busy handling things at the Lobby, the restaurant at the Peninsula where he made his name with an outstanding whole roasted chicken presented with the pomp and circumstance of a royal baby’s arrival. New York’s Eleven Madison Park, our own Moto, and the late Butter were also stops on the tour that led him to Boka Restaurant Group’s decade-old flagship, which has been given a sharper, darker redesign to welcome the new chef.
While Boka remains, under Wolen, an easygoing special-occasion restaurant, with Motown on the soundtrack and gilt-framed portraits of Bill Murray and Dave Grohl on the walls, the menu is formal and focused. There are no shareable plates or seafood towers to distract the table from the manageable selection of salads, starters, and entrees. That celebrated whole roast chicken has been scaled down to serve one—but more about that later.
My meals at Boka began with an amuse-bouche that foretold one of my very few complaints about the current winter menu. A small cup of cauliflower soup topped with a drizzle of curry oil was a rich beginning that almost sabotaged my appreciation for dishes that are similarly weighted with butter, cream, or animal fat—sometimes at the expense of subtle flavors. We’re all looking forward to the end of winter, but Boka’s opening menu seems geared toward enabling the accumulation of hibernation weight.
Still, it leads to some powerfully delicious food. The artful plating of a salad of roasted broccoli florets, preserved lemon, ham, and Marcona almonds is fattened with yogurt and a snow shower of Parmesan. Served with a large flaky cracker that tastes like a Parmesan Cheez-It, the dish tastes simultaneously virtuous and debauched, the same way hearty greens and a poached egg are mined with iron-rich deposits of blood sausage, or ribbons of smoked arctic char are draped over roasted potatoes lightened by the sweetness of pears and acidified by Meyer lemon.
These are substantial early bites to warm up for even sturdier ones: a thick, warming onion soup of almost veloute-like viscosity is poured over a hash of smoked sturgeon, apple, and crispy potato bits. A frothy, creamy sauce wells up among plump salt-cod-stuffed ravioli, with fava beans and artichoke hearts contributing some needed greenery. Bulging ricotta gnudi with the airy texture of steamed buns glisten with butter, snuggled among tiny mushrooms atop a bed of sweet pureed squash.
Among the entrees, most diners will gravitate toward Wolen’s roasted chicken. Like its antecedent at the Lobby, the bird has skin of burnished copper, a thin crispy jacket covering a layer of soft, sweetish brioche bread crumbs. I’m told the single breast served with this dish is cooked on the chicken carcass, as it was at the Lobby, yet somehow the one I ate was surprisingly dry, and the stuffing squished messily out from under the skin.
There are more-reliable dishes in this category: a meltingly tender hunk of lamb shoulder crusted in a vadouvan-seasoned granola and accompanied by charred cauliflower alongside a single coin of merguez sausage; chunks of seared monkfish bathing in a foamy sauce concealing piles of creamy flageolet beans; scallops luxuriating in a rich lemongrass-scented curry.
A progression of any three of these fat-saturated preparations will present a challenge for even the strongest of appetites. That’s why one entree in particular stands out as a promise of what Wolen can do with a lighter touch: a dish of silky fillets of loup de mer and tender rings of calamari, garnished with artichoke hearts and capers and buoyed by blood orange preserves, has an intensity of flavors that’s muted in some of the heavier offerings.
This isn’t the case with the desserts by pastry chef Genie Kwon, also a veteran of Eleven Madison Park, who presents abstract arrangements like shreds of moist black sesame cake among gobs of soft yuzu custard, candied buckwheat grains, and diced pineapple, or cheesecake filling smashed across the plate, piles of crumbled crust scattered haphazardly among an apricot sorbet and a pistachio-crusted marshmallow.
A decade is a long life for a restaurant. But the Boka group’s principals have become expert recruiters of outstanding chefs, and with Wolen they’ve ensured their flagship’s continued relevance for a long time to come.