One late night last week the fat togarashi-vinegar-and-malt-powder-dusted steak fries that accompanied an order of battered cod fingers at GT Fish & Oyster came to the table in a cone tightly folded from page 22 of the April 14 Reader, which happened to recommend 15 of our favorite seafood spots.
I'm not sure if that's a comment on the value of the print medium or a confident statement about the competition. But it so happens that the same issue contained my review of Lakeview's new Fish Bar, and I wish the timing had been right to review both side by side. That's because it and this latest project from the ever adaptable Boka Restaurant Group are very similar in concept, but oceans apart in creativity and execution.
In contrast to the cramped and schlocky Fish Bar, which is seemingly designed to maximize turnover, GT is a smarter abstraction of the panregional seafood shack that contains subtler references to the nautical cliches associated with the form (well, let's say someone opens one more—then it's a form). It's candlelit and carefully appointed with wood paneling hung with shark's teeth and framed oil paintings of tall ships in distress, and though it's perpetually mobbed by a spirited crowd taking its time at having a good time, there's plenty of room to breathe.
For former Trotter's chef de cuisine and current Boka exec Giuseppe Tentori—who supplies the G and the T—it's a significant step away from fine dining, but not an overstep. The complex, even challenging dishes familiar to his fans are balanced by smart updates of domestic and international classics, ranging from clam chowder and crab cakes to squid paella and miso-glazed cod.
He doesn't mess so much with the most hallowed of these—a modestly sized $22 lobster roll, which abounds with sweet chunks of shellfish in a buttery roll next to buttermilk-battered frazzled onion, nested like a disassembled Awesome Blossom.
But even most of the familiar dishes have tactical improvements that don't let you forget you're not dealing with mere journeymen. Deep-fried brandade nuggets yield to an almost fluffy interior of steaming salt cod and potato sitting atop bracing fennel-orange salad. Grilled mahimahi—dressed in chipotle aioli and a sprinkling of chicharrons and swaddled in corn tortillas—successfully straddles the political divide that separates partisans of crispy and soft fish tacos. And a glistening red puck of tuna poke—as luxurious as formed fish butter and freshened with translucent sliced cucumber, drops of mango puree, and pickled mango shavings—barely resembles the old warhorse .
Even unadorned sea creatures are accompanied by careful accents. Terrifically fresh and skillfully shucked raw oysters in three varieties from each coast come with cocktail sauce emulsified with sweet apple; steamed Alaskan crab legs are perfumed with lemongrass, oranges, and lemons.
Some snacky small cold plates show the kitchen's creative range: for example, a vertical construction of crispy taro chips meant to scoop up dollops of cool, smoky haddock dip sprinkled with radishes and pine nuts, or a deep-sea-green sunfish ceviche brightened with jicama and chimichurri.
It doesn't get anymore beautiful—or heartbreaking—than a foie gras and lobster terrine that falls apart as soon as it's disturbed from its bed of bone-dry brioche. And the potential seasonal springiness of fava beans and crawfish tossed with creamy cannellini-bean-stuffed tortellini is lost amid all the salt imparted from aggressive additions of prosiciutto.
But for the most part the more ambitious dishes are every bit as appealing as the simpler ones. The real reward of ordering a whole chorizo-stuffed squid is a saffron-stained bed of rice you couldn't find in any paella pan in town. And you have to admire the sheer cojones of putting out something as visually challenging as the pitch-black squid-ink gnocchi and fiddlehead ferns, a primordial-looking bowl of pasta and greenery I'd throw down in front of anyone with even the slightest taste for confrontation.
This willingness to create a menu that blends near-provocation with beautiful simplicity extends to the dessert menu by Boka pastry chef Kady Yon, whose key lime pie is a sweet-and-sour Molotov cocktail in a jar containing lime curd layered under crumbled gingersnaps and meringue. It's an aggressive but terrific version of the classic, on the opposite end of the pastry spectrum from the rounded fattiness of her broken-up carrot cake with candied buttered pecans and cream-cheese gelato.
Repeatedly lassoing talent like Yon in support of its stars is one of the Boka group's greatest strengths, and this extends to the army of crack servers and barkeeps, such as head mixologist Benjamin Schiller, whose cocktail program ranges from old favorites like the warm-toned, spicy, bourbon-based Old Money to the fruity, boozy Italian Ice, apricot eau de vie, Bols Genever, and fresh mint layered in a tall collins glass like the Italian flag. His range matches that of the restaurant—see what he does with seaweed in this week's Cocktail Challenge, our new drinks feature.