Outlet 360: Boca, DIFC

Mediterranean outlet Boca shares its green concept

From Crate & Barrel and Blue Ribbon
From Crate & Barrel and Blue Ribbon
Assorted beef cold cuts, grilled sourdough, homemade pickles.
Assorted beef cold cuts, grilled sourdough, homemade pickles.

Mediterranean outlet Boca shares its green concept

Front of House
In October 2014, a Mediterranean concept opened its doors in a prime location in DIFC. The 140-seat Boca stretches across two levels, including a terrace, with the main restaurant and tapas area, along with the central bar, on the upper floor, with the private cellar and kitchen on the lower level. The space was originally an art gallery on one floor with double height, so a total refit took place, including building a new floor.

Boca’s rustic wine cellar on the lower level has a collection from across Italy, France and Spain. Boca general manager, and one of its co-founders from local start-up Foodworks, Omar Shihab says: “We wanted to be a tapas restaurant and a wine bar as well. We are limited in what we can get here in terms of wines, but we wanted to offer people the chance to pick different wines based on taste and flavour rather than price. That’s why we have 23 wines by the glass and a majority in the mid-range price point.

“The cellar is definitely a USP; it’s a smart use of the space and once you step in, it’s not a VIP room… it’s a social, casual space with one long oak table, it’s very communal.”

The overall inspiration was the modern tapas restaurants of Barcelona, and the concept creators extended that to include the French Riviera and the Italian coast as well. The name “Boca” was then chosen because it means ‘mouth’ in Spanish, and in Italian albeit with a different spelling. Shihab says: “The O in Boca’s logo represents a mouth, but also represents an olive. The colour of the O also represents the olive.”

The interior design was created by UAE-based Bishop Design Associates, with a heavy focus on the art scene of DIFC. A whole wall and part of the ceiling is dedicated to art. Fann-A-Porter Art Gallery places works from artists it represents, and changes it every month.

The aim was to fill the gap between fine dining and casual. “People want that high quality food and service, but we removed the fluff.” The music is equally casual and upbeat, with DJ Marko Smokingroove and David Craig from Mais Musica creating the playlist.

The restaurant’s audience has organically grown through word of mouth and referrals, and does anywhere from 150-250 covers per day, depending on the day of the week.

Shihab says that while people assume that being in DIFC automatically translates to cash registers ringing, that’s not always the case. “Being in DIFC is a little bit tricky; it’s not really applicable to plug and play. You’re surrounded by established brands.”

When asked whether Foodworks would consider expanding the concept into multiple locations, Shihab says: “It’s very tempting to say it’s something we will replicate, but finding the right space to offer all the elements for a successful restaurant is really tricky in Dubai.”

Back of House
Boca’s menu is reflective of the Mediterranean region, with fresh, market-selected seafood and seasonal produce alongside signature items, which have been complemented with multiple olive oils originating from various Mediterranean soils.

Boca head chef Maxime Le Van is from Nice, and found that the concept fit with his style of cooking. He says: “I really like the concept because it’s talking about the Mediterranean in small portions, a sharing concept. This is a standalone restaurant where you serve modest food, and surprise people with good quality ingredients.”

Le Van has been a champion of local produce, and says the main local ingredient used is fish. He explains: “We go to the market every morning to get fresh fish — as much as we can use, we get. You have beautiful seafood [here] and I think it would be a shame not to use it. Some fish that we cannot get here like scallops or octopus, we source from abroad.

“Some of the vegetable we source from abroad to get good quality ingredients. We get items from all over Europe. It was a challenge at the beginning but now we have a good relationship with suppliers so it’s getting easier and easier.”

He continues: “We don’t try to be fine dining. It’s creative enough to surprise people; the quality is there because we put a lot of heart into it and people understand it.”

Three months after opening, Le Van already started creating a new menu, with specials planned every day. He is also insistent that the menu will change with seasons, and adds: “I’m slowly working closely with the suppliers to get new products.”

For food supply apart from the fish market, the team works with Kibson for main fruits and vegetables; Fresh Express and Lootah for a large range of special import products; Admiral for meat; products from Italian Dairy Products in Sharjah; Foodsource for Mulwarra lamb; Chef Middle East, Classic Fine Food, Made in Italia, Repertoire Culinaire, Cassinetto, Golden Grain, JM Food for a range of dry, dairy, meat products; and Promar for cheeses.

Shihab also highlights the bar, which is at the heart of the restaurant. “It’s a great space to receive people as well. We wanted the entire menu to be along the same lines [as the food]: artisanal, hand-made, right from our ginger beer to all the dried fruits that we use for garnish. And we have invested in very creative people behind the bar.”

Boca beverage manager Jan Liska is one of the creative people Shihab is referring to. Liska says: “Cocktails are not about molecular, but it’s not like we create them in a simple way either.” His team has created 16 signature cocktails for the menu, and he says they all “have the Mediterranean spirit but not strictly with Mediterranean ingredients only”.

And to cater to the local audience, the team has also created six signature mocktails. One of them, called Miss Loren (with raspberries, yuzu and house ginger ale), is a bestseller, with Liska saying it sells more than a mojito, “which is very rare”. He adds: “I paid a lot of attention to mocktails because we get a big crowd for lunch and a lot of locals as well.”

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