How Boleo Became Chicago's Rooftop Retreat
Opened: August 2016
Owners: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants
Average check: $28
Description: Peruvian and Argentine influences are tempered by Chicago sensibilities at this rooftop retreat.
It’s not enough to be a luxury hotel anymore.
The advent of Airbnb and the experience economy has presented traditional hotels with a new mandate: finding an X-factor to set them apart from the competition.
For Chicago’s Kimpton Gray Hotel, the beguiling bait came in the form of Boleo, the 15th-floor lounge that showcases South American flavors—in beverage form. Jessica Lambert, the head bartender of Kimpton Gray, was sent to Peru for research purposes ahead of Boleo’s opening. She returned with not only recipe inspirations but also a fresh approach to menu ideation.
“I was able to spend time down there really exploring the drinking and eating and culinary cultures … specifically in Peru,” Lambert says. “Their culture is centered around these moments of eating and drinking with family. I was really inspired by that, and I tried to take as much of what I learned and discovered back to Boleo.”
Housed within the 123-year-old New York Life Insurance Building in the heart of the Loop, Kimpton Gray opened last August with a robust food-and-beverage program. In addition to Boleo, the second-floor lobby bar, Vol. 39, serves caviar and top-shelf classics. Its flagship restaurant Steadfast (part of The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group) has a refined yet understated ambiance complete with an exhibition kitchen.
Boleo seems the natural offspring of the pair: Cocktails take the lead with the food and atmosphere playing supporting roles. Live Latin bands and disc jockeys often perform.
“We try to stay away from the word restaurant, because we don’t want them to assume they’re going to get the traditional type of service—the soup-salad-entrée dining experience. Even from our menu format, it really is beverage-centric in that the beverage menu is always presented first to the guest,” says Kayla Arthur, assistant director of food and beverage at Kimpton Gray. “We have created the concept around three pillars: one being beverage, one being music, and then the food.”
Compared with Vol. 39, which Kimpton Gray hails as “a nod to the ‘Mad Men’ era of drinking in America,” Boleo can be trickier to describe and categorize. Nevertheless, it’s catching on with guests and locals alike.
The menu changes quarterly, and while flavors from across South America come to light, the focus is decidedly on Peru and Argentina. It’s a somewhat unexpected pairing given that the two countries share neither a border nor much in terms of culinary traditions.
What they do share, however, is a heavy influence from nations farther afield. Peru’s substantial population of multigenerational Japanese immigrants spawned Nikkei cuisine. Lambert says she was influenced by Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura, whose Lima restaurant Maido has become synonymous with Nikkei. The resulting cocktails use Japanese spirits like sake and shochu, as well as sansho peppers and shiso leaf.
Similarly, about half of Argentina’s population has Italian ancestry so digestifs like amaro and fernet are mainstays. (Boleo sources the spirit from local distillery Fernet Lola before mixing it with house-made cola or into other cocktails.)
“You definitely see a lot of culinary techniques employed, but we’re keeping it very modern, very fresh. There’s still an element of Chicago,” Lambert says. For example, the Boleo Old Fashioned offers imbibers the option to stick with the traditional bourbon and rye or to expand their palate with a Novo Fogo’s “tanager” cachaça, which is aged in oak barrels and casks of Brazilian zebrawood.
The Boleo Old Fashioned is one of three cocktails that have found a permanent place on the ever-shifting menu. The second is the guava-strawberry variety of the Chilcano, with infused pisco, ginger, and carbonation. The third, Tanglefoot, combines reposado tequila, raspberry, basil, lime, and smoked tomato water, which is made in-house from heirloom tomatoes and seasoned with bourbon barrel–smoked sea salt.
These dreamy cocktails are further complemented by an ensemble of ceviches, tiraditos (a Peruvian take on sashimi), empanadas, and small plates. Although the original chef de cuisine, Alexis Hernandez, has left Boleo, Lambert says the creative synergy they shared will continue with his successor.
“I always make sure to create a beverage program that intertwines with the culinary side to ensure the experience at Boleo is cohesive for our guests,” Lambert says.
As Boleo continues to curry favor with hotel guests and locals, too, Lambert and Hernandez will keep mining Peru, Argentina, and other Latin American countries for unexpected flavor combinations. One item on Lambert’s wish list: more Amazonian ingredients.
“It’s been difficult to get some of those ingredients into Chicago, but it’s something that I have been actively working on,” she says. “There are so many different types of fun citrus that come out of the Amazon that you just can’t get in Chicago … but they have such cool and unique flavors, and I’ve been dying to work with those.”