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Midwestern Makeover

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Boca Restaurant Group leads Cincinnati’s new restaurant row with its re-opened Boca flagship and its Sotto and Nada concepts.

By Amelia Levin December 2014 Real Estate

As Chef David Falk likes to say, his goal for dining excellence is BPA. Translated for the masses, it simply means to “blow people away,” and that is the mission of the celebrated chef, founder, and CEO of Boca Restaurant Group. In addition to Boca, its recently reinvented namesake restaurant, Chef Falk’s group is the engine behind the rustic Italian trattoria Sotto as well as Nada, a funky Mexican concept.

With his old friend and colleague Jeremy Lieb, who is executive chef of the new Boca kitchen, Chef Falk is helping prove there’s more to the Queen City than five-way chili and football.

In fact, for those who haven’t visited recently, it’s easy to be blown away by the culinary expansion and development in the downtown area, including 26,000 square feet along Sixth Street that have been transformed into an unofficial restaurant row. Earlier this year, the first Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic featured more than 40 chefs from the region as well as celebrity chefs from New York and San Francisco.

The most notable part of the redevelopment, made possible by city planners and investors devoted to the cause, centers on the relocation of Chef Falk’s 13-year-old Boca restaurant from the Oakley neighborhood on the city’s North Side to the former home of Maisonette, a French fine-dining institution that was helmed by Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel.

Maisonette closed nine years ago after a 41-year tenure during which time it was recognized with accolades from across the nation and many chefs, including Chefs Falk and Lieb, got their start in its kitchen. Boca opened in the vacated space on May 6, 2013, with Sotto operating in the space beneath it and Nada located just around the corner.

“When we opened Nada in 2007, downtown Cincinnati was dead,” Chef Falk says. “Now you can see a huge, amazing transformation that is rooted in culinary passion. In 2001, Cincinnati was a small city with a small-town mindset. These days, it’s still a small city but with a very big-city mindset.”

Chef Lieb agrees: “When you look out Boca’s front window, there are six or seven restaurants across the street and even more behind us, and this [happened] just in the last six months to a year.”

Even beyond its relocation, Boca has come a long way in terms of positioning itself. “When we opened in 2001, Boca had 53 seats and 13 employees, and was very blessed,” Chef Falk says. “We were doing $750,000 year in sales. Now, we’re doing $20 million with soon to be 430 employees.”

Designing Chefs

It’s a homecoming of sorts for the chef duo. Chef Falk, 38, who realized in childhood that he wanted to be a cook, viewed Maisonette as a dream job, and Chef Lieb, 42, phoned the restaurant for six months until he was finally hired at the age of 21.

Early in their careers both chefs went on to hone their talents in loftier cities: Chef Falk worked at the legendary Spiaggia and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. Chef Lieb trained in France then worked at Daniel Boulud’s New York City dining landmarks—Restaurant Daniel and Café Boulud—before moving to Le Cirque in Las Vegas where he served as executive chef.

Ultimately, both returned to Cincinnati, and Chef Lieb joined the Boca Restaurant Group three and a half years ago in time for the reinvention of the Maisonette space as the new Boca. This entailed remaking the historic, mansion-like building that was reminiscent of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Gone are the red shutters and the front awning that closed off the place. In their places are large windows that showcase the indoor charm. A fresh coat of dark gray paint and some new planters complete the welcome, along with the recognizable bright red door of the former icon.

Inside Boca, the whole space was designed by the restaurant group’s team, led by chief creative officer Jono Fries, with attention to every detail in the dining experience: The furniture upholstering is hand-stitched and tables are handcrafted by local woodworkers. Exposed brick, natural stone, arched windows with opulent red drapes, and metal chandeliers emitting warm light create the ambiance of a modernized Italian castle.

Whether they meant to or not, Chefs Falk and Lieb have reinvented the definition of fine dining. With the new Boca, Chef Falk says, “I wanted to create a place where I could close my eyes and feel like I was eating in Italy. We try to serve exceptional food that’s been thought out for days, tested and retested, and is perfectly presented.”

This is no surprise coming from a chef trained in fine dining. But the non-stuffy attitude, playful approach, and welcoming, warm, and energetic environment come from the chef’s days spent living, learning, and cooking in Italy.

“In Italy there’s not a brigade system,” says Chef Falk. “It’s mom in the kitchen and dad in the dining room, with food that floors you. I can’t think of any other country where you experience such raw hospitality and simplicity of ingredients.”

At Boca, it’s the antithesis of the tuxedo-wearing servers, white tablecloths, and exclusive prices of the former Maisonette. As Chef Falk explains, “At Boca, we realize that fine dining is dead, but we’re very serious about quality without taking ourselves too seriously.”

In true Italian form, everything is made from scratch with the best ingredients possible and the refined techniques and precision of French cuisine.

“Jeremy and I work great together in the kitchen,” says Chef Falk. “We’re both creative and can cook, but he’s a much better technician. He’s like the Yo-Yo Ma, while I’m more like the conductor or composer. When we come up with a dish, he’s far better at executing.”

The restaurant makes 45 fresh shapes of pasta daily in a dedicated pasta room for Boca and Sotto. Salami and charcuterie are prepared in the restaurant’s butcher shop. The restaurant turns to another local landmark, Blue Oven Bakery, to source its famous sourdough bread and also sources 60 percent of its produce—including different varieties of tomatoes, beans, greens, squash, and root vegetables, as well as fresh eggs—from the bakery’s farm.

Plated presentations are colorful, balanced, and designed to make diners want to eat—with creative dishes like sweet corn agnolotti, pea and mint risotto with black pepper and pecorino, and whole poached branzino with pickled ramps and a ginger carrot broth.

Outside of the kitchen, Chef Lieb is a self-described CrossFit junkie; he’s lost 35 pounds and stays in top shape. Chef Falk has jumped on board, too, losing 20 pounds in the process. “We’re very committed to creating a healthy work environment,” he says, knowing that’s a rarity in the restaurant world.

At press time, Falk was in the process of opening another Nada restaurant, a 6,200-square-foot enclave outside his native city of Columbus, Ohio, with a target of opening by the end of the year.