Saturday, August 05, 2006

Missing Boca

It's been a long and dreary summer for yours truly, stuck in hospitals for the past five weeks with one or two more yet to come, and, after the uninspiring institutional dishes I've become used to having lately, I find my mind drifting back over some of my favorite food memories.

Once upon a time, circa late winter 1996, a 60 seat storefront resto opened for dinner only in the soon-to-be-hip Northside neighborhood of Cincinnati. This small building, lovingly restored from its abandoned status by chef Dan Reis and resplendent with bright blue awnings, was dubbed Boca or "mouth" in Spanish, the culinary "baby" of Dan and his Australian wife, pastry chef Cathy Reis. Attracted to the Hamilton Avenue business district by the then-recent influx of what we would now refer to as the creative class and "urban pioneers" renovating the large, old homes nearby, Northside seemed like the perfect place to launch the Reises' venture: Cincinnati's first adventurous little place featuring contemporary, yet not fussy, American food with prices that didn't require a second mortgage to pay for. Opening to rave reviews, almost immediately Boca became the new place to see and be seen, drawing capacity crowds nearly every night. Having dined there soon became a status symbol for those who fancied themselves to be in the know.

My dear friend Rikly and I had our first taste of Boca when he treated me to a birthday dinner that May. I remember we opened with a Boca's signature "napoleon" ($6.25), described by the Cincinnati Post's Amy Culbertson as a minimalist composition layering smoked salmon and cucumber ribbons between crisp wonton squares, with translucent pale-green scallion oil dotted about the plate. For salad, we each chose the Caesar, grandly built from several unblemished full-size leaves of romaine artfully fanned across a white dinner plate and garnished with large freshly shaved slices of Parmesan cheese; the waitron, standing there at our beck and call to whip out his "Rubirosa" and add freshly ground pepper to the dressing. We also went in a big way for the grilled mahi-mahi: a generous chunk of fish, served over a crispy pancake of sweet potato and fennel with sauteed escarole ($13). I'm sure there was a slice of Cathy's delish flourless chocolate cake to cap the night off; after all, Boca is where I first found pleasure in the joy of chocolate and red wine taken together. Thanks to Cathy Reis, Boca is also where I received to my introduction to Australian wine and that noble Shiraz grape, to which I am now devoted.

A couple of years later, my friend David T., the art dealer who was then supplying artwork for the restaurant, invited me to lunch there with him. He chose to order "Boca fries" for us to share, raving about how good they were, and was he spot on on that count! Although not what we would commonly think of as fries, these were small new potatoes in their jackets, cut in half and deep-fried until brown on the outside and soft on the inside. Sprinkled with coarse grains of salt, they were served with a pre-bottled sweet, but peppery, Thai chili sauce, probably from Saigon Market at Findlay Market downtown. I ran straight out to buy that chili sauce, child, but chose to oven-roast my version of the potatoes. They're still great!!

But probably my favorite dish at Boca was a lunchtime sandwich of grilled, sliced pork loin on grilled focaccia, garnished with grilled slices of thinly sliced onion, green, red, and yellow bell peppers. There was a generous dollop of apricot chutney adding some exotic flavor to the mix and it was all served with a simple salad of baby greens doused with the house balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Oh, how I wish I could have one for dinner tonight!

Although I had quibbles with their policy of not taking reservations -- this usually required waiting diners to amble a couple of doors down the block, in the company of a beeper, to have a drink or two at a nearby gay bar while waiting to be summoned back for a table -- legend has it that a certain former director of The Contemporary Arts Center disliked it even more, once arriving there at 8 pm on a Saturday night with a party of six and, when told he would have to wait like everyone else, grandly stated: "But, don't you know who I am? I am Chuckles So-and-So and I wait for no one!" When told it was the restaurant's policy, he simply turned and walked out with his guests. What a drama queen. Oh, please, powers-that-be: let us have more evenings like that one! ;-)

The only other turnoff about Boca, and it's an important one, was the sound level. It was designed using that 80s uber-philosophy of "loud"="fun". Well, baby, it doesn't in my book! The rooms, with natural woodwork, walls painted a lovely shade of pale yellow and adorned with contemporary art works by local painters and printmakers, also featured hardwood floors and very high tin ceilings, making for an atmosphere which was less than conducive for conversation over a romantic dinner. Nevertheless, the food was to die for and my grievances were by far outweighed by dining there.

Although it was only 10 years ago, I cannot believe how Cincinnati restaurant prices have ballooned since then. IMHO, it's one thing to pay New York prices in New York, but quite a different matter to pay New York prices in Cincinnati.

For the record, here are some of prices for some selected items at Boca circa 1996-97:

Rustic antipasto: deeply flavored pickled eggplant, gingered beets, tendrils of caramelized onion, roasted orange bell peppers and a wedge of warm herbed frittata ($5.50)

Herbal mixed-mushroom risotto with caramelized onions and fried capers ($9.50)

Lemon-pepper linguine with baby tomatoes, leeks, pinenuts and Italian herbs ($8.75)

Mammoth pork chop, house-smoked then grilled and gilded with a generous serving of a tomato relish ($12.75)

Crispy Skin Griddle Chicken garnished with grilled prosciutto and house-dried Roma tomatoes on a bed of buttermilk polenta ($10.75)

Barbados coconut bread with honeycomb butter ($3.50)
Scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and chives ($7.75)
French toast with toasted pecans, mascarpone and maple syrup ($5.25)
Corn, sweet-potato and parmesan frittata with a salad of baby greens ($6.75)
Homemade granola with fresh fruit and maple yogurt ($3.50)

General Prices: Dinner entrees $8.75-$13.50, appetizers $4.75-$6.25; lunch sandwiches $4.25-$5.50; desserts $3.50-$4.25.

Note: While there is still a fine restaurant in Cincinnati named Boca it features Italian food and has nothing to do with the original one which closed several years ago.


Blogger Sam said...

Hello Willa - sorry to hear you are still in an out of hospital. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.

I know, it doesn't help you much now, but I thought you might be interested in reading this article that I found today about the improvement of food in hospitals.


10:46 AM  
Blogger Willa Frank said...

dear sam,

thanks so much for keeping an eye on me :-) you are such a busy and caring lady, i really appreciate the time you take to stop by and leave comments.

that article was interesting to me from the standpoint of being held hostage here by what seems to be nasty canned asparagus (thin and stringy, sometimes hard), foam rubber tomato wedges, and generic pre-bagged "tossed salad" mix. at least we do occasionally have fresh cantaloupe or honeydew melon chunks, strawberry halves, and grapes to break up the almost endless flow of canned pears, peaches, and fruit cocktail! maybe some day in the foeseeable future, the health alliance group here will follow in kaiser's lead!

2:01 PM  

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