BOKA Grande

A downtown restaurant so L.A. you can almost smell the smog.

BOKA is red. Lighted red panels frame the booze at the bar. Red display cases shine on the walls. The diners in the back booths are outlined in red light, looking like a still from the movie version of Chicago, or perhaps Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Focus on your food for a while and then look back up, and BOKA will suddenly be blue. Blue bar. Blue display cases. The Bob Fosse dancers in the back booths will have morphed into Hollywood Squares contestants. If the restaurant's chain-mail, cherry wood, and velour surfaces aren't clue enough, nor the spray of glass bamboo that marks the vortex of its social swirl, BOKA is not about being natural, it's about creating a scene. The BOKA scene is just part of a larger dose of Los Angeles–style glamour that Hotel 1000, on the corner of First Avenue and Madison Street, is slipping to downtown Seattle. The name of the restaurant is not a misspelling of the Spanish word for "mouth," it's an acronym for "Bold Original Kitchen Artistry." That's about as brazenly ambitious as it gets. And the restaurant is a little like Harvey Weinstein: flawed, to be sure, but savvy enough to succeed without polishing its flaws away, and always entertaining as hell. It was only appropriate that BOKA's owners hired Seis Kamimura as executive chef. Kamimura spent five years as a sous-chef at Spago in Los Angeles, and made a splash here at Bada Lounge in Belltown before climbing out of the deep end of the restaurant biz to establish Les Cadeaux Gourmets in Queen Anne with his wife. Les Cadeaux went Internet-only so Kamimura could return to the kitchen to shrink pigs in a blanket and gussy up pasta primavera with pea nage and lobster meat. Kamimura's M.O., which also seems very L.A., is to reformulate American classics as "urban cuisine," an apt way of describing his meticulous, cosmopolitan food. The most mundane staples get gentrified, even bread, served on an oblong plate with a whipped blend of olive oil and butter and a sharp balsamic jelly. The starters he calls "urban bites" come two to the plate: two teensy pigs in a blanket ($4), biscuits filled with pulled pork in a smoky chipotle-flavored sauce. Two Dungeness crab cupcakes ($5), crustless mini quiches packed with crab meat and crowned in a pouf of crème fraîche icing. If they hadn't sat around in the kitchen long enough to become soft and lukewarm, both would have been exquisite. The chef fused the highbrow with the low most successfully with the lobster croquettes ($5). Not only did he riddle mashed potatoes with chunks of lobster meat, roll the croquettes in panko crumbs, and deep-fry them—always a gesture to warm the cockles of my heart—he also drizzled the crisp-creamy nuggets with a discreetly perfumed black-truffle aioli. In short, the perfect cocktail snack. Another high-low mash-up that worked was Kamimura's "shake and bake" chicken ($19), which re-created the breaded, roasted weekday staple as a juicy chicken breast coated in herbed breadcrumbs. Its two-veg side was a fava-corn succotash, with all the sweetness of early summer and the clean, floral note of marjoram. Some of his dishes play it more straightforward. A watermelon gazpacho ($4 cup, $7 bowl) used cucumber to fuse the flavors of melon and raw tomato, so you could barely tell where one left off and the other began. A cream-free roasted tomato bisque ($4 cup, $7 bowl), its concentrated flavors torqued by drizzles of an equally bold basil oil, tasted like summer on overdrive. "My father-in-law's lamb" ($26), gorgeously presented with a mound of apricot-studded couscous on a Jetsons-worthy triangular plate, was rubbed with Moroccan spices, mint oil discreetly spooned around the pink-centered meat. And a summery crème fraîche cheesecake with a pistachio crust and peaches was given a twist—a tangle of candied fennel on top—that elevated a good dessert into a brilliant one. Chef Kamimura's palate skews sweet. Sometimes it worked: The "rubies and pearls" salad ($8) paired satiny roasted beets with Israeli couscous in a raisin- caper vinaigrette that lit up the beets' sugars without causing a blowout. The same thing couldn't be said of the glazed cherries on the shredded duck meat and pistachio waffle bites ($4), the candylike vinaigrette on an arugula salad that accompanied deliciously unsugary roasted figs ($8), and the syrupy red-wine-veal-stock reduction sauce that detracted from a beautiful New York steak ($29). The service skewed tart. On my first visit, some friends and I descended on BOKA along with everyone who was staying in the hotel for Seafair. Not only was the place cramped, but the servers were having a hard go of it, dropping drinks orders and complaining back to customers. A later weekday trip, though, brought us to a calmer room, with eagle-eyed waiters and even sightings of the chef and front-of-house manager. If you want to make a scene at BOKA, like the restaurant, go Hollywood. Put on your best tailored white shirt or bitsy black dress. Grab a bar table under the bamboo. Order a round of lemongrass drops ($7) and urban bites. If you're not attracting enough of an audience, demand your own lighting: a 6-inch- tall wedge of red velvet "birthday cake" ($8) topped with fresh berries and a slim, flickering candle.

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