In the 13 years that the Boka Restaurant Group has opened as many restaurants, it’s been a rare event when it has launched one that’s not outstanding. Number two, the late Landmark, was a sophomore slump from which the company quickly recovered, but it hasn’t faltered since. The rest, from the flagship to Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat to Perennial Virant to Balena and Momotaro, have been dependably delightful to eat at and write about, ideal syntheses of food, service, and design. And with that kind of average, I’m always confident that each new spot will meet the impossibly steep standards already set. That certainly happened in the case of Swift & Sons, Boka’s lavish steak house, recently opened in the repurposed Fulton Market Cold Storage building with chef Chris Pandel of Balena at the helm. And I certainly expected it of Cold Storage, Swift’s more casual seafood-focused sibling located in the same space, with marbled high-tops, flat-screens, and specials scrawled on the mirrored walls.
The Boka group already has a fish house, River North’s excellent GT Fish & Oyster, under command of Giuseppe Tentori, the group’s first chef, who will be getting his own eponymous steak house in the coming months. Cold Storage is Chris Pandel’s baby, but in terms of the overall menu there are some vague similarities—here too are big-ticket raw offerings supplemented by the chef’s creative interpretations of familiar seafood preparations. Cold Storage’s raw bar is producing expertly presented crustaceans at the same high level as you’ll find at the neighboring steak house: a selection of three seafood towers priced at $20, $40, and $75 per person according to size and variety, featuring, among other sea creatures, a varying selection of briny east-coast and creamy west-coast oysters, perfectly shucked and brimming with liquor, priced around $3 apiece.
Luck may vary among the daily catches, featuring fillets and whole fish, occasional snacky bits like grilled collars and fried smelts, and pricey indulgences like Santa Barbara sea urchin. I got pinched by a large $45 Irish brown crab after my trio struggled to harvest the meager, stringy flesh inhabiting its empty carapace. Meanwhile a tiny eight-ounce whole red mullet, firm and buttery, was a unforgettable morsel even at $12.
It’s in the lower sections of the menu, broken down into warm and cold plates and sandwiches, where things get interesting, for better and worse. A bowl of roasted turnips surrounding a soft-boiled egg sprinkled with orange trout roe bursting with briny, bright orange ichor is every bit as elementally satisfying as a beef tartare combined with raw oyster meat and topped with crunchy fried onions, a riff on the 50s-era carpetbagger steak, traditionally stuffed with whole mollusks. Bold oceanic flavors are occasionally tempered by dairy: a substantial bowl of crudites, radishes, fennel, rapini, etc, is drizzled with aioli and grated with bottarga, the salted, cured roe of the gray mullet (since replaced with cured tuna loin), while delicate sweet prawns are split in the shell and smothered in an assertively funky anchovy butter. A large enameled pan of steamed clams swimming in a Portuguese-style broth brimming with chickpeas, mint, hearty greens, and chorizo is a dish likely to keep one busy sopping up the brew with wedges of toasted bread long after the bivalves are gone.
On the other hand, almost as many of these dishes can be poorly executed. Salmon-skin chicharrones, a snack I’ve enjoyed plenty of times in other venues (see Yusho), tastes scorched, overburdened by a muddled spice blend, and denuded of any fat that could help it go down easy. There were similarly bitter burnt notes on the tough octopus, at least mitigated by spicy nduja. A prep cook had to have muscled a blade through the rock solid, underripe avocados accompanying a wedge Crab Louie salad, though my spindly twigs weren’t strong enough to do it. Meanwhile, a pair of sandwiches arrived on overly doughy rolls long after having expired on the pass—cold, leathery fried clam strips drowned in dill-forward tzatziki sauce on one, and an acrid walleye fillet on the other.
It’s a big kitchen that Swift & Sons and Cold Storage share, and I know the head chef can’t be everywhere at once, but I couldn’t help but notice the majority of these poorly executed dishes were served on a night when Pandel wasn’t around. (He and a number of the group’s other executive chefs were posting selfies from a Blackhawks game in Minnesota.)
Desserts by the incomparable Meg Galus feature a selection of shakes, malts, and sundaes—including a take on the brown cow with vanilla ice cream and root-beer-flavored cake and syrup whose character sneaks up on the palate—as well as a pie of the day, featuring on one occasion a thick, tall lemon meringue sprinkled with tiny white-chocolate malted milk balls for texture. Drinks are generally straightforward: there’s a selection of traditional classic cocktails and a short list of beers and wines nowhere near as vast as the encyclopedia next door.
Cold Storage is by no means a bad restaurant, but for anyone spoiled by consistent excellence of the Boka group, it’s a surprising disappointment. There is one sure bet right now: happy hour from three to six PM on weekdays for tangy, malty waffle potato chips and those pricey, perfect oysters discounted to $1 apiece. v