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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008 12:57 am

Hope School benefit brings Boka’s brilliant chef

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Chef Giuseppe Tentori comes to Springfield Sept. 13.

When I wrote about St. Louis Chef Gerard Craft earlier this summer ["Finding a Niche in St. Louis" June 12], I had no idea that it would be the first in a series. But when I opened the invitation to this year's Hope School Celebrity Chef Benefit and saw its Celebrity Chef, I knew I'd be writing about another of Food and Wine magazine's 2008 Best New Chefs.

I'd eaten at Boka, in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, before Giuseppe Tentori became its chef de cuisine 15 months ago. I'd enjoyed it very much — both the food and the stylish environment. Since Tentori had taken over the kitchen, however, I'd been hearing that Boka's food had gone from being excellent to extraordinary, and it's been high on my list of must-try restaurants. The Hope School event provided the perfect excuse (not that I needed one) to revisit Boka.

Boka is the creation of Springfield native Kevin Boehm. (The name comes from the first two letters of his last name and his business partner's, Rob Katz.) I met with Boehm (pronounced "Bame"), who will work alongside Tentori for the Sept. 13 Hope School benefit, at their third and newest Chicago restaurant, Perennial.

"I knew when I was 10 that I wanted to open up my own restaurant," says Boehm. After graduating from Southeast High School, however, not knowing how one learned the restaurant business and lacking funding, he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a pre-law major. After two years, Boehm realized that pre-law wasn't the way to achieve the goal he still cherished.

Boehm moved to Florida, waiting on tables and "living in squalor." He laughingly says, "For some reason, I had the idea that fine dining was equated with warm weather." Eventually he opened his own six-table place in the small village of Seaside (the sign at the town's outskirts lists the population as just over 2,000 "including cats and dogs").

So did Boehm want to be a chef? "Not really," he says. "I cooked a little in the beginning — there were only two of us in the place, and so I had to help out in the kitchen when things were busy. But I've always primarily been interested in restaurant management."

When Boehm sold his tiny Florida restaurant, the contract included a no-compete clause, and he returned to Springfield to open his first full-scale restaurant, Indigo. "Springfield was a great place to learn the restaurant business," he says. The experiences he gained in Springfield helped him achieve his "ultimate dream" of opening a restaurant in Chicago. Boehm sold Indigo to his friend Jeff Griswold (Indigo's signature "Blue Dog" murals, painted by Boehm's mother, Dee, remain on the walls) and, after a brief move to Nashville to open a restaurant with his friend and mentor, well-known chef Scott Alderson, finally fulfilled his goal with the opening of Boka seven years ago.

Boka has been a popular dining destination from its inception, but Tentori's arrival moved it into the very top echelon of Chicago — and U.S. — restaurants.

It's no wonder. Tentori is a native of Lodi, located in Northern Italy's Lombardy region. Speaking not a word of English, Tentori moved to Chicago at the urging of Gabriel Viti, who'd worked with the young chef when Viti came to Milan for an internship. After a stint at Gabriel's Restaurant, Tentori moved to Charlie Trotter's, eventually becoming chef de cuisine, a position he held for nine and a half years. Just the length of his tenure there is impressive: Trotter is famously demanding — and infamously temperamental.

Boehm and Katz were familiar with Tentori's food ("His last years there, the menus were all his," says Boehm), and when they heard he was leaving Trotters, "we just cold-called him."

They were in luck. Tentori had offers from other restaurants in the U.S., but wanted to remain in Chicago. It's been advantageous for the three — and for Chicago diners as well. Tentori is not only at the helm of the Boka kitchen, but also is executive chef of the brand new Perennial.

"Giuseppe thinks about food in a little different way than anybody I've ever met," says Boehm. "When he starts out to create a dish, the first thing he does is pull out a sketchbook and sketches the way he wants it to look. There are always four or five influences on each plate, but he manages to pull them all together.

"He says he makes 'simple food,' " Boehm chuckles, "but . . . " his voice trails away and he shrugs his shoulders and raises his eyebrows.

Interestingly, my server used almost exactly the same words and gestures when describing the menu that evening. When the food arrived I could only wonder, "If Tentori calls this simple, what does he think elaborate food is?"

What was my favorite? It's hard — no, impossible — to say. I was fortunate to be given samples of many things — what my server called the "Boka bombardment."

A first course of sweetbreads and exotic mushrooms came with a tiny cake of soba noodles and a Moroccan spiced barbeque sauce made — I think — with apricots. A gorgeous duck and portabella terrine wrapped in chard leaves was the centerpiece of a still life, garnished with a salsify purée and tiny shelled quail eggs nestled upright in mounds of black amaranth, their yolks still liquid. A sweet corn soup, velvety yet light because it was made without any dairy, sported crawfish tortellini shaped like wrapped candies. A roasted heirloom tomato petal came with chips of coppa ham, dried olives and buffalo ricotta, and tiny pearls of basil gelée. There were more — but you get the picture. And that was just for starters!

The two entrées I sampled were equally innovative, delicious, and beautifully presented. First came trout, crispy on the outside, with a prawn and potato "brandade" purée sandwiched between the two filets with a shellfish and saffron foam emulsion. Next was roasted pork belly with a ginger-prune sauce and Israeli couscous. A trio of delectable sides showed up on the table, most notably a scrumptious "Mac and Cheese" with edamame flavored with truffle essence.

I didn't think I could manage dessert, but when pastry chef Elizabeth Dahl's chocolate eggplant terrine (yes, eggplant) garnished with bitter orange sorbet appeared, along with tiny buckwheat yeast cake with buckwheat honey ice cream, blueberries and a sorrel sauce, I had to try them. Like everything else at Boka, they were gorgeous, distinctive, delicious, and different. Dahl is featured in this month's Food and Wine magazine.

I'm glad Boehm told me about Tentori's sketchbook. Because I was looking for it, it was obvious. Tentori's success is due to far more than his ability to compose pretty presentations or utilize unusual ingredients. There are lots of terminally trendy chefs who throw whatever ingredients are "in" at the moment on a plate and call themselves "cutting edge." It takes someone with Tentori's skill to take disparate elements that have visually appeal, textural contrast, and delicious flavors and create a harmonious whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

As for Boehm, he's clearly reveling in the fulfillment of his lifelong dream: "I'm doing exactly what I want to do," he says.

Boka Restaurant, 1729 N. Halstead St., Chicago 312-337-6070, www.bokachicago.com

For information about Hope School's 14th annual Celebrity Chef benefit, call 217-585-5437.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com

Food and Wine asks the winners to submit recipes for their Best New Chef issue that are accesible for home cooks. Tentori's quinoa salad fulfills that requirement: it's quick to make, and even though it's not as elaborate as the "simple" dishes on his menu, the salad contains the pleasing variety of tastes and textures that is a hallmark of Tentori's cooking style.

GUISEPPE TENTORI'S

QUINOA SALAD with PICKLED RADISHES and FETA

1 cup red wine vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

4 medium radishes, very thinly sliced

1/2 pound thin green beans

1 cup quinoa*, rinsed

1 large English (burpless) cucumber — halved lengthwise, seeded, and cut into ?(one fourth) inch dice

3 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

6 ounces Greek feta cheese, thinly sliced

In a small saucepan, bring the red wine vinegar to a simmer with the sugar. Remove from the heat and add the radish slices. Let stand until cool, about one hour.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, bring 1 3/4 cups of water to a boil. Add the quinoa, cover, and simmer over low heat until all of the water has been absorbed, about 12 minutes. Uncover and let stand until cool, about 10 minutes.

In a medium bowl, toss the cucumber with ? 1/2 tablespoon of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Drain the radishes and add them to the quinoa along with the beans, cucumber, and feta. Toss well and serve.

The quinoa salad can be made and refrigerated for up to three hours ahead. Serves 6

*About quinoa: Quinoa has been eaten for more than 5,000 years in the Andes mountains in South America. The Incas called it the "mother grain." Technically, quinoa is not a grain, but the seed of a plant that's related to spinach, beets, and chard.

The United Nations designates quinoa as a "super-crop" because is a complete protein, with all nine essential amino acids as well as other beneficial minerals. Quinoa has only been grown and eaten outside its native habitat since the 1980s, when it began being raised commercially in Canada and Colorado.

Quinoa has an outside coating, saponin, that protects the seeds from birds and the high-altitude sun. It has an unpleasantly soapy taste, that is easily rinsed away. Quinoa is usually pre-rinsed before being sold, but it's a good idea to give it another good rinse before cooking to wash away any residue. Run under water until no soapy bubbles remain.

Quinoa is available locally at Food Fantasies and some supermarkets..

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