Moving the bar was a brilliant idea. Not just moving it, but making it a focal point of the room. It certainly worked for Prato just down the block.
It was Prato that came to my mind the first time I saw the renovated space that is now Boca and that has been a half dozen or so other restaurants over the years, Matilda's the most recent. (I won't run the whole list of names, but I mentioned them in this article.) The bar-central scheme may be one of the reasons that Prato is always packed. It just passed its three-year mark and I don't think I've ever been in there when I haven't had to jockey for a position at the bar just to get a drink — never mind getting a seat. Boca was enjoying the same sort of busy-ness when I visited for dinner recently. My dinner companion remarked that he couldn't remember when he'd seen so many people in that space. It's really wonderful to see, and I hope that it continues and Boca packs them in for a good, long time.
To that end, it would do well to emulate Prato in another area: its food.
I don't mean that it should copy the menu, be Italian, or even install a killer imported pizza oven. Boca has equipped the kitchen with some pretty mean gear itself. But as I sit here going over the items that I sampled, I'm trying to remember just one thing that stood out, that would make me want to go back there to dine again, as I do occasionally to Prato. And I just can't come up with anything. Nothing I had was totally unacceptable, it just wasn't praiseworthy.
The menu has sections titled "Tastings" (appetizers), "Market Specials" (entrees), and "Flatbreads" (somewhere in between). There are two salad sections, one for regular salads and another called "Off the Wall" that are prepared using greens from "our in house vertical garden." Hmmm, where else in the neighborhood have I seen a vegetation wall? (To be fair, Prato's plant wall is not for eating.)
I was intrigued by an entree item called Staff Meal. As most people who have worked in a restaurant know, the staff meal is what the chef or one of his cooks throws together to feed the kitchen and dining room crews. It's rarely something from the regular menu, and usually something like a casserole or other dish that can be served family style from a dish or platter. The staff meal isn't supposed to be haute cuisine, but most cooks take pride in preparing something they themselves would want to eat. I thought the idea was cute, and it was one of the few things on the menu that went with the restaurant's theme of being a "kitchen, bar, market." It allows the guests to feel part of the kitchen experience.
I don't recall what the Staff Meal was the evening of my dinner visit. I only recall that after my server had described it I asked her if she liked it. She said she hadn't tasted it. So, we're calling it Staff Meal why?
I ended up having the Better Than Mom's Meatloaf, which I take as an affront to motherhood. That's too harsh. It's an affront to meatloafhood. A thin slice, it was topped with a barbecue-like glaze of tomato and Worcestershire sauce, the predominant flavor. The meat was sitting atop mashed potatoes that didn't seem to have much flavor at all (or maybe the flavor disappeared next to the barbecue sauce). Tri-colored carrots balanced the plate.
My companion had the Cheerwine braised short rib, which was served on a dollop of vanilla infused parsnip puree and drizzled with a sauce of reduced Cheerwine, the cherry flavored soda. Cauliflower, also tri-colored, though I saw only two colors, was the veg. Here, the meat felt overly fatty in the mouth instead of simply tenderized from the braising.
By the way, both entrees were beautifully plated, certainly a feast for the eyes.
For starters, or Tastings, if you prefer, we had the blistered shishito peppers, which, although promised to be sprinkled with Hawaiian black salt and definitely covered with red pepper coulis, were remarkably bland. The Boca smoked salmon, with creme fraiche, pickled onions and dill, was nicely done but creatively uninspired. The Brussels sprouts ordered as a side dish were hard and chewy.
On a lunch visit I had the OMG burger, which was impossible to eat in the usual way of a burger. When I tried to pick it up to take a bite, the patty slid out the back end. Yes, some of that was due to the, um, lubrication from the juices. It was also because it was too highly stacked with the meat, thick tomato slice, pickled onions and dill spears that trying to get a grip on it and to get one's mouth over it was too much. Less OMG and more WTF. However, as far as a satisfying food item, this was the best of what I sampled here, although I thought the truffled fries were a bit too oily.
During the lunch visit the doors were all open making the space more al fresco. This corner space hasn't looked so nice and inviting for decades. That bar I mentioned above is particularly well designed, a thick slab of beautiful wood with a kick plate of bark. I think there's supposed to be something of a market in the rear of the restaurant space, but it was pretty meager when I looked back there. Service is in a developmental phase.
The people behind Boca took on a lot at once. Besides this restaurant, they also opened Atlantic Beer & Oyster in the small space in back and a speakeasy style lounge upstairs. At the same time they were dealing with a legal issue involving a former partner in their Tampa area restaurants. (They continue to own and operate a Boca in Hyde Park.) And just getting this restaurant open was fraught with numerous hurdles. Still, there should be better signs of experience here.
But everyone, including me, is wishing them well. Park Avenue has once again become another Restaurant Row for the area. The market is far from saturated, and there will always be room for another fun, smart place to go.
Boca is at 358 Park Ave. N., Winter Park. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone (which, by my experience, is answered sporadically) is 407-636-7022.