Pan Con Tomate – a largely recipe-free mixture of tomato, olive oil, salt, pepper, and sometimes garlic, spread onto bread – originated in the Catalan region of Spain as a way to utilise days old bread that “if you threw at someone would knock them out!” explained Adria Munoz, relations manager at Boca. Their homemade sourdough bread won’t send you into a daze – but the sharing concept restaurant certainly packs a punch.
Nestled between DIFC mainstays Zuma and LPM, Boca has been open since late 2014 but has settled down into its own quiet niche in an area known for a constant introduction of new “it” restaurants. The chocolate-hued venue has ambient (if slightly too-dim) lighting, lively music with a Spanish-pop persuasion, and an open layout so that from the dining area you can still see the action at the freestanding bar. Adopting a format referential to a Spanish tapas joint, Boca does not compete with the influx of tapas restaurants Dubai experienced in recent years, rather, it focuses on Spanish, Italian and French influences. However, in the midst of a foodie scene rife with fads, this is not the place for paleo, vegan, gluten-free diners, Munoz playfully quipped. Boca is all the better for it, although it does still provide options to those who prefer healthier indulgences.
With a concise but thorough menu split into five sections – Paella, Deli, Oven, Market and Original – all is market-fresh. Guided through the menu and concept by the knowledgeable staff, and making a less-than-restrained exploratory selection, junior sommelier and our server for the night Francis recommended we opt for a burrata – “a salad!” he insisted – to round out what instinct told us was a lot of food. However, experience of typical petite Dubai portions suggested otherwise.
It did not disappoint. Peeping the neighbouring table’s enormous platter of Spanish and Italian cold cuts, our table was soon covered with larger than anticipated dishes at an “arrive when ready” pace. The burrata (Deli) was accurately more of a salad – heavily dressed but not unpleasantly so, the mixture of greens, olives, cherry tomatoes and subtle parmesan garlic croutons were accompanied by the burrata. From Oven, the Pizzetta Caliente was a delightfully gluttonous mouthful of crispy dough topped with spicy ricotta, Spanish chorizo, chili and roquette. Their sourdough bread was fine, but their in-house baking skills were on more prominent display with this dish. The Original section features reinvigorated classics, and the lobster roll was fresh despite being wrapped in a tasty, but proportionally unbalanced, toasted brioche. Paired with the aforementioned salad, the zesty coleslaw and seafood with lemon aioli was a refreshing change of pace mid-meal, while the leftover brioche became another surface on which to smother the Pan con Tomate sauce – a much more flavourful and considerably less watery iteration than its counterparts in other restaurants. From Market then arrived a generous amount of calamari atop a long wooden board. Despite being a crowd favourite, it is perhaps best saved as a bar nibble, although Munoz helpfully shared that the only way to test a squid’s freshness is to bite into it – no rubbery-ness allowed.
The gnocchi and braised beef (Original) is a testament to doing a simple dish well and underlines Boca’s philosophy. The gnocchi was light, the beef fell apart, and a gentle coating of sauce completed the palette without overwhelming the existing flavours – easily the table favourite. Much of Boca’s success is through dishes like this that preserve the integrity of simple classics from a core of Mediterranean cuisine. The grilled tiger prawns in chili and garlic, rotating daily seafood specials, or black rice served with seared scallops and clams, speak to an understanding of food and enhancing its natural qualities instead of dousing it in truffle-anything.
Come the end of the meal, dessert selection is brief but still caters to a variety of desires – lemon tart, raspberry crème brulee or delicately flakey deconstructed millefeuille with vanilla or grand marnier cream, for example – but Boca’s strength lies less in its sweets and more in its ability to skillfully curate a menu that appeals to a broad range of tastes.
Despite recognition from TimeOut in 2016 and 17 for its fare, its more casual approach in a sea of high-end venues appears to have resulted in a quieter turnout than it deserves. Boca is defined by its easy, pleasure- and diner-focused vibe – whether you opt to rent its intimate downstairs wine cellar for a private party (“You tell us your budget and we will propose menus – grape tastings, grape pairing menus, set menus, tapas and open drinks, there are many possibilities” explained Munoz of the refreshingly cooperative ethos), stop by for its business lunch, or, as many of its regulars do, pop in for an after-work aperitivo and quick bite – but it’s high time that not only DIFC’s corporate crowd remember that Boca is worth a visit.