Lee Wolen knows how to exhibit art on the plate. After all, the Cleveland-born chef has worked everywhere from Moto, the now-defunct Chicago restaurant specializing in high-tech molecular gastronomy, to New York fine-dining spot Eleven Madison Park, known for its showstopper dishes.
At his Chicago restaurant Boka, however, presentation is considered, but taste is primary. "Yeah, we like [food] to look nice and impress guests, but when it comes down to it, the most important things at Boka are flavor, texture and deliciousness," Wolen says.
The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner, located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, executes these elements well across the board, but its poultry dishes in particular have become favorites among local diners. Wolen credits his success in part to his tenure at Eleven Madison Park, where he worked as a sous chef from 2008 to 2012, during which time the restaurant earned numerous accolades. "I can thank Eleven Madison for a lot of things that I've learned with cooking fish and meat," Wolen said. "I think they do an amazing job of it."
Wolen, who jokes that he "pretty much only eats chicken," naturally recommends a classic roast chicken—a mainstay on Boka's menu—for the winter holiday table. Not the parts, he emphasizes, but the whole bird.
"I think it's really important, when you can, to cook things whole," he says. "They are more delicious, rest properly, and there's a visual effect to seeing a whole roasted chicken, rather than just a boneless skinless chicken breast on the plate."
But this isn't your average roast chicken recipe. Mushrooms, sautéed celery root and pickled mustard seeds add extra moisture and flavor, while wet-brining the chickens, then letting them sit and dry for 24 hours or so, promises a perfect golden-brown color.
"I know it's a bit [much]," Wolen says, "but if it's possible to dry them for two days, it makes a big difference when you do roast."
The effort of planning one to two days ahead for the chicken is compensated for by a quick side dish: honeynut squash salad with bitter greens, honeycrisp apple, goat Gouda and an apple cider vinaigrette.
"I don't like peeling butternut squash," Wolen says. "[Honeynut squash] is really easy to work with; you don't have to peel them because you can eat the skin."
For wine pairings, Wolen looks to Boka's general manager Jon Leopold and head sommelier Alisandro Serna for guidance. For the roast chicken on its own, they recommend a fruit-forward Rhône red like the 2015 Georges Vernay Côtes du Rhône Ste.-Agathe. "[It works] especially with the oyster mushrooms that are on the chicken, which have a little bit of a grilled touch to them; it adds a nice complement to that sort of smokiness," Leopold says.
For the full meal with the honeynut squash salad, Leopold and Serna recommend a California white, the 2015 Arietta On The White Keys, which consists mainly of Sauvignon Blanc, with some Sémillon. "You get some green elements from the Sauvignon Blanc, but it's mostly a big, full-flavored wine with some nice, round melon flavors," says Leopold. "The oak just really [makes] a nice complement to the flavors of the squash, the apple and the Gouda."
Below, Wine Spectator shares recently rated selections of similar Sauvignon-Sémillon blends and Rhône reds.
Though it's certainly not the first time Wolen will be making these dishes for the holiday table, this year will bring a fresh new take to his traditions. He reveals, "It's our son's first Christmas."
Roast Chicken with Celery Root, Mushrooms and Pickled Mustard Seeds
For the chicken
- 1 cup salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 gallon warm water
- 2 whole 3- to 4-pound chickens
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- Sautéed celery root (recipe follows)
- Roasted mushrooms (recipe follows)
- Pickled mustard seeds (recipe follows)
1. In a large pot or brining bag, combine the salt and sugar with 1 gallon warm water, then transfer to the refrigerator to cool completely.
2. Add the whole chickens and submerge. Cover and refrigerate overnight, for a total of 24 hours.
3. Remove the birds from the brine, pat them dry and truss them using kitchen twine. Place in the refrigerator uncovered on a roasting rack for another 24 hours to dry out the skin for best color while roasting.
4. Preheat oven to 475° F. Pull the chickens from the refrigerator and rub the 3 tablespoons of butter on the skin.
5. Place the chickens on a rack in a roasting pan, breast-side up. Transfer to the oven and roast for 35 to 40 minutes; as the skin begins to turn golden-brown, rotate the pan to ensure even cooking. When a meat thermometer inserted between a leg and a thigh joint registers 160° F, remove and let rest for at least 30 minutes.
6. Place the celery root and roasted mushrooms on a platter. Carve the chickens into quarters and serve on the platter with the vegetables. Finish with the pickled mustard seeds and the chicken pan drippings. Serves 4.
For the sautéed celery root
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 2 heads celery root (celeriac), peeled with a vegetable peeler and grated on a cheese grater
- 3 tablespoons butter
- Salt, to taste
- Lemon juice, to taste
- 1 cup chopped chives
1. Heat a small saucepan over medium and add the caraway seeds. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until toasted and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Let cool, then grind in a spice grinder. (Alternatively, use a mortar and pestle; or, in a pinch, put them in a plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin or heavy pan).
2. In a medium sauté pan, on low heat, add the butter and cook until melted and beginning to foam. Add the celery root and slowly cook, stirring until tender and the butter becomes brown.
3. Transfer celery root to a medium bowl and season with salt, lemon juice and caraway seeds. Finish with chives, and reserve.
For the roasted mushrooms
- 1 pound king trumpet mushrooms, cleaned
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
1. Slice the mushrooms into quarters.
2. In a medium pan, warm the butter over medium heat until foamy and starting to turn brown, then add the mushrooms and thyme. Cook until tender, and season with salt to taste.
For the pickled mustard seeds
- 1 cup yellow mustard seeds
- 2 cups white balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup salt
1. Add the mustard seeds to a large pot of cold water. Bring to a boil and strain. Repeat this process 3 times.
2. In a separate bowl, combine 1 cup water with the vinegar, sugar and salt, and bring to a boil. Add the mustard seeds and cook for 10 minutes. Pour into a heatproof container, cover and transfer to the refrigerator. Chill overnight to let the mustard seeds bloom and absorb the pickling liquid.
Honeynut Squash Salad with Bitter Greens, Honeycrisp Apple, Goat Gouda and Apple Cider Vinaigrette
For the squash
- 4 whole honeynut squash, quartered but not peeled
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Pinch of salt
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Preheat the oven to 400º F. Toss all ingredients in a bowl. Place the squash on a parchment-lined cookie tray and roast for about 15 minutes or until tender. Set aside.
For the cider vinaigrette
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup good-quality apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons minced shallots
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 cup canola oil
- 1 tablespoon chopped thyme
- 1 tablespoon honey
1. Set a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the butter and let melt, swirling pan occasionally. Butter will foam and then begin to darken. When butter is brown and fragrantly nutty, remove from heat.
2. Combine all ingredients with a whisk. (This creates a "broken" vinaigrette that can be whisked lightly back together, if needed, just before serving.) Reserve at room temperature.
For the salad
- 3 heads endive
- 2 heads Castelfranco radicchio
- 1 head escarole
- 2 heads Little Gem lettuce
- 2 Honeycrisp apples, sliced
- 1/2 cup chopped chives
- 1/2 pound goat Gouda cheese
Tear all the lettuces into bite-size pieces and combine with the apple, roasted squash and chives in a large bowl. Dress to your liking with the cider vinaigrette and place on a platter. Using a Microplane grater, finish with a heavy topping of goat Gouda. Serves 4.
12 Recommended Value Wines
Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good red and white wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
Full-Flavored Sauvignon Blanc– and Sémillon-Based Whites
CHÂTEAU LATOUR-MARTILLAC Pessac-Léognan White Lagrave-Martillac 2016
Alluring, with white peach, brioche, wet straw, honeysuckle and meringue notes all gliding through in lockstep. Shows lovely feel and length. Drink now through 2019. 1,500 cases imported.
RODNEY STRONG Sauvignon Blanc Northern Sonoma Charlotte's Home 2017
Distinctive, opening with a smoky, toasty note that melts into marmalade, yuzu and pomelo flavors, with vibrant acidity, spice accents and a terrific sense of harmony on the finish. Drink now. 90,000 cases imported.
CHÂTEAU DE CAROLLE Graves White 2017
This offers a mix of plump nectarine and tangerine notes offset by zippy floral, citrus pith and quinine accents, which all marry nicely through the finish. Sémillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle. Drink now through 2020. 1,500 cases imported.
CHÂTEAU DE LAGARDE Côtes de Bordeaux St.-Macaire White Cuvée Prestige 2015
A plump and friendly style, with orange curd and yellow apple notes mixed with fennel, honeysuckle and salted butter notes. A crowd-pleaser. Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Drink now. 1,250 cases imported.
GROTH Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2017
Distinctive, with an overtone of marmalade and honey and a whiff of smoke and white pepper to the core of lemon-lime flavors, on a juicy body. Drink now. 31,000 cases imported.
MAHANA Sauvignon Blanc Nelson 2015
Honey, nut and floral notes add a richness to the core of peach, apricot and pear flavors in this white, with a lushness to the full body and fresh acidity. Drink now. 1,645 cases imported.
Côtes du Rhône Reds
BOUTINOT Côtes du Rhône-Villages Séguret Les Coteaux Schisteux 2015
Inviting, with a mix of blueberry, raspberry and blackberry pâte de fruit flavors scored with a licorice note on the finish. A light-handed apple wood note gives this a frame. Grenache and Syrah. Drink now through 2022. 3,333 cases imported.
CHÂTEAU DE MANISSY Côtes du Rhône Oracle 2016
The lovely dark plum and blackberry fruit is inlaid with singed mesquite, tobacco and dried lavender notes. Shows subtle grip through the finish. A solid wine, with character. Grenache, Carignan and Counoise. Drink now through 2019. 10,000 cases imported.
CLOS DU MONT-OLIVET Côtes du Rhône Vieilles Vignes 2016
This ripples with delicious cherry paste and plum preserve flavors, inlaid with light violet, incense and lavender notes. The fleshy finish lingers. Drink now through 2019. 1,000 cases imported.
GUY MOUSSET & FILS Côtes du Rhône 2016
Shows the vivid ripeness of the vintage, featuring a blast of blackberry and boysenberry confiture flavors. Stays focused and racy, with black tea, anise and graphite notes sparkling throughout. Drink now through 2019. 4,000 cases imported.
HALOS DE JUPITER Côtes du Rhône 2016
Ripe and inviting, with warm plum and raspberry puree flavors backed by light tea, anise and fruitcake notes. Offers a fleshy, open-knit finish. Drink now through 2019. 2,000 cases imported.
PIERRE AMADIEU Côtes du Rhône Grande Réserve 2016
Ripe and juicy, with a beam of black cherry and plum compote flavors driving atop a graphite spine. Reveals a flash of tobacco on the finish. Drink now through 2019. 2,000 cases imported.