American trumps Argentinian at revamped Boca
by Christina Mueller, Marin Independent Journal
As summer gave way to fall, Boca Steak gave way to Boca Tavern. Gone are the wagon wheel lamps and cowhide banquettes. So long matador in the bar and leather placemats. The upscale steak house has transformed, in ways subtle and stark, into a more casual dining experience.
“We wanted to be more of a neighborhood restaurant,” managing partner Shah Bahreyni says.
Bahreyni, who is also involved with Boca Pizzeria in Corte Madera and Novato, understands the upscale casual concept. At Boca Tavern, Bahreyni and his team deliver a well-run restaurant where the food is more seasonally driven and the toned-down style features natural wood and warm lighting, not golden glamour.
The revamped menu includes a few carry-overs from the restaurant's beefy steakhouse days. The 12-ounce rib eye ($30) comes with apple horseradish butter and the hanger steak frites (22) with shiitake mushroom sauce. The tavern house blend burger ($14) is still 35 percent brisket, 65 percent chuck with traditional accompaniments. A cool, medium-rare at the center with a bit of char on the edges, the burger was perfectly cooked and juicy. It remains a can't miss menu item.
Where once there were Argentinian influences and wines, Boca Tavern tilts in favor of the diaspora of American flavors. Jeff Burkhart, the Marin IJ's Barfly, helped redo the bar menu (all handcrafted cocktails are $10), refreshed as American classic cocktails with a twist. Moscow Mule comes in a stout copper mug that glows with revolutionary tradition. Makers Manhattan comes with a flip-phone-sized cherry ice cube. As gimmicks go, these work to bridge old and new. They do not feel out of place in this Tavern. On the wine list, there is an occasional Argentinian such as the Alamos Chardonnay ($11), but more local choices, like the Peter Paul Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley ($13), are the new norm.
Chef and partner Sam Ramadan oversees the menu, but executive sous chef Matthew Curry gives the menu his own flavorful stamp. Roasted pork belly ($10) was first seared in the wood-fired oven, then baked, cooled and seared again. Firm textured, yes, but it was the impact of savory and sweet flavors, first chipotle and molasses, then raspberry and thyme, followed by jalapeño and the tang of mustard, that energized my palate. A leafy sprig of basil coyly concealed the seasonal bounty of a Mediterranean salad ($12). Chunky late-season tomatoes and cucumbers were tarted up with apple cider vinaigrette; goat cheese added warmth.
Clams casino ($13) are a best-seller here, but it is in cioppino ($24) that the fresh clams and other sea creatures strut their stuff. Bathed in a chili-spiked, creamy sugo of fire-roasted tomatoes and fennel, Curry's version of the real San Francisco treat spoke of its Italian-via-the-Bay heritage.
Service on a busy Friday took care of myriad details without falling behind or rushing the table. A hostess heard a child's lament and brought more drawing paper and crayons.
Boca Tavern gets a lot of things right. There are numerous small plates to share or to compose a light meal. The bar added a second 60-inch TV so everyone can see the important game. With tavern-esque and heritage San Francisco dishes, the mostly new menu seems familiar, but is seeded with small, engaging touches. Welcome back, Boca.