Boca – when sharing concepts work
It’s probably no secret to regular FooDiva readers that I’m no great fan of sharing concept restaurants. Recent reviews here have found me encouraged by the food, but baffled by the attempt to force a sharing concept on Frioul’s southern French cuisine, or struggling with some of the more ambitious fusion elements on Asia Asia’s menu. And in a comment on FooDiva’s own recent article on local food trends, I was fairly open about my suspicion that the popularity of sharing concepts in Dubai (where “the food will arrive when it’s ready”) is the product of lazy catering covering for inexperienced staff. So I’m likely as surprised as anyone to find myself writing that Boca, the new Spanish, French, and Italian restaurant in DIFC Gate Village doesn’t just pull off its sharing concept, but proves to be a welcome surprise.
Boca (Spanish for ‘mouth’) succeeds in large part because it remains true to the spirit of the Mediterranean cuisines that underpin its well-thought through and tightly organised menu. The savoury sections of the menu are divided into Deli, Original, and Market, each containing ten to eleven dishes. The Deli section contains basics such as freshly-baked bread, mixed olives, socca, or a salad Niçoise. Here I ordered the socca de Nice and a rabbit terrine. Socca is probably not, I’ll admit, going to take the global foodie trendsetting scene by storm. It is what it is – an unleavened olive oil and chickpea flour pancake. But the version at Boca is well-made and wafer thin, and a really good sauce-mopping alternative to bread. The rabbit terrine comes with rosemary and fig toast and some pickled vegetables. By itself, the terrine is tasty but unspectacular, but the bread and pickles are excellent matches for the rabbit. It’s a dish where combining the separate elements actually improves the whole.
The Original section of the menu is supposed to offer interesting new twists on Mediterranean classics. Padrón peppers – fried in oil and with a dash of salt – are a personal favourite tapa. Most of the peppers are very mild, but about 10-20% are fiery hot – and there’s no way of telling which is which without eating one. Despite sitting in the Original section of the menu, there was nothing particularly unusual about Boca’s version of the dish. The menu mentions ‘crispy rosemary’, but this wasn’t a prominent accompaniment. But – and too many Dubai restaurants forget this – a dish doesn’t have to be original to be enjoyable. Boca’s peppers were well-cooked, and a good representative of a classic Spanish tapa; if none of ours were spicy hot, then that’s always pot luck. The grilled hanger steak was also well-made. The outside of the steak was just slightly too charred for our tastes, but it was otherwise perfectly cooked to medium, and the little bites of snail and cherry tomatoes offered both richness and sharpness across the dish.
The Market section of the menu is designed to highlight Boca’s attempt to use “fresh, market-selected seafood and seasonal produce” (food trend!) where practical. Not all of this is local (the label rouge chicken is presumably French) but at least some of it is; the chef apparently visits Deira fish market every morning. With that in mind, we ordered the grilled sardines on sourdough crostini. Like so many of the other options at Boca, it was a skilfully made version of a fairly traditional Mediterranean dish. And this is where a lot of Boca’s success lies. It’s not trying to reinvent the culinary wheel, it’s not trying to play around with fusion cuisine, or dazzle diners with an ‘exciting original concept’. Instead it focuses on a well researched, tasty, focused, traditional core menu of Western Mediterranean European classics that are entirely appropriate to the central sharing concept. When it does play around slightly with those classics, it stays entirely true to their spirit. A fair number of Dubai restaurateurs could probably learn a lesson or two from Boca here.
Our efficient and friendly South African waitress – who clearly knew her way through the menu – had told us that each serving size was about half a ‘normal’ dish, so five orders worked out to two and a half dishes each for a table of two. It’s probably no surprise that we could only manage one dessert between us, but the pistachio and olive oil torta (with lemon curd, citrus, and a raspberry granita) continued the menu trend of thematically consistent well-made dishes. The only off-note was some accompanying pistachios that weren’t so much toasted as charred. Several nights a week Boca also has a special deal of a glass of Spanish wine and five pintxos for AED75. Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas, and while an essay could probably be written on the differences between the two, the Basque version is typically single-serve mouthfuls, often skewered to a slice of bread with a toothpick.
I’ve already mentioned our excellent waitress, but the front-of-house staff was also very good, with a friendly young Spaniard showing us to our seat and talking us through the menu theme. The wine list is not extensive, but like the main menu is tightly focused and well-chosen, with all the attractively priced wine options available by the glass. The restaurant’s own PR stresses “value for money” and the aim to offer a quality dining experience “without the familiar ‘hit to the wallet’ we’ve grown to expect out of Dubai’s increasingly high-priced scene”. They’ve succeeded. Dinner for two (excluding drinks) can be had for a very reasonable – given the quality of what’s on offer – AED300.
For all those positives, Boca isn’t quite perfect. The up-tempo dance music was a good fit for the venue, but was far, far too loud. More worryingly, on a Thursday evening the restaurant was too empty to create any real atmosphere. The outside tables seemed to be doing fairly well – though were hardly packed – but I only saw two occupied tables in the extensive interior in the entire time I was there. The staffing levels – like the music volume – seem to have been designed for a much busier restaurant, so at times there were multiple staff members floating around disconcertingly without actually doing much (though our waitress was focused and helpful throughout). I also suspect that diners hiring the downstairs private wine cellar room might be slightly put-out to find out that it’s right next to the toilets.
Boca has been open a couple of months, but its alcohol licence arrived a month ago, so likely the atmosphere will improve over time. For now it’s three and a half FooDiva knives from me, but the quality of the food, the tightness of both menu and concept, and the good value of what’s on offer hold considerable promise. If Boca can convince more of the DIFC crowd to give it a try, then the restaurant could well become one of Dubai’s sleeper restaurant hits. At which point I’ll likely be waxing lyrical about when Boca hadn’t been discovered by Dubai’s trendsetters… sometimes a restaurant reviewer just can’t win.
Do you have any recommendations for ‘hidden’ Dubai restaurant gems? Are there any Dubai restaurants that pleasantly surprised you?
The Man in the White Hat.
So who’s FooDiva’s anon guest reviewer, The Man in the White Hat? He has an abiding interest in both history and food; his holidays tend to combine an intriguing local cuisine with a UNESCO World Heritage site, and he’s eaten his way across some 50 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australasia. He currently lives in Dubai, where he edits a couple of academic publications.