Many years ago, when I was a little boy, I frequently came to Salt Lake and stayed with my big sister who was a school teacher here. She often took me downtown and we would buy cheesy bread at ZCMI Center and stroll down Main Street to peer into the window of Andrian and Emily’s. So the moment I walked into the lobby of the Hotel Monaco, I felt I was transported into another time and place. The hotel is grand, elegant, eclectic and so not Utah.
I was graciously met at the entrance of Bambara by the maître d’ who swept me into a beautifully appointed booth (I love booths). Again, I felt like I was having a New York or San Francisco moment — such an escape from my normal life and a can of soup heated in a microwave. The restaurant has the same high ceilings as the hotel and the kitchen is open with all the chefs busily in view. A handsome waiter name Chrit stepped up with a winning smile and welcomed me. I ordered a glass of the “house” white but was told they serve many of the wine selections by the glass (a nice touch I thought), and soon a glass of Pine Ridge Chenin-Viognier was in front of me. The wine is refreshing and clean, yet complex enough to enjoy and sense the marriage of both grapes. (I find in many restaurants that aninexpensive and pedestrian wine is poured as the house wine, not the case here.)
Chrit has obviously worked in restaurantsfor many years and has the ability to explain the food in a nice, non-pretentious manner.
The ingredients were simple but of the highest quality, and later the Chef, Nathan Powers, explained to me that each day he personally trains the waiters and the kitchen staff about the food being prepared, and that they hold a contest on who is the best at explaining the dishes.
Since it was my first trip to Bambara in three years, I asked the staff to choose my order for me. Soon a bowl of bisque appeared, glowing with the most gorgeous golden color, and beautifully and simply garnished: A blend of roasted corn and poblano chilies topped with crab and cilantro oil. The texture was so creamy — it had to be laden with butter and cream, but certainly the most delicious I’ve had in a long, long time. Chrit explained to me that a true bisque should be thickened with rice but that Chef Nathan thickens this soup with roux. (First time I’ve known a waiter to be savvy enough to know what a true bisque is.)
As with many restaurants who serve lunch, the bread was not real memorable, but it did come with a nice hummus of Italian white beans and red peppers, topped with fine olive oil.
Next came a salad flanked on one side by a fan of Fugi apples. The greens were mixed with hand-cut Belgian endive which had been soaked in lemon water to make them sweet, and the dressing was an elegant Champagne vinaigrette. What I really loved were the large chunks of Maytag blue cheese. Nutty, salty, Roquefort-like — a great discovery for a cheese lover.
In the ’70s and ’80s I had my own restaurant and served a beautiful, fat trout from North Ogden, Utah. When I learned that Bambara had a Northern Utah trout I couldn’t believe it and, of course, had to try it.
The chef served a “fat” small portion which was delicately breaded and fried. The skin still on, it was delicious and added moisture to the fish — Julia Child said, “Always eat the skin on trout since it is the only fish worthy of such pleasure.” The plate was drenched in a shallot/brown-butter which was close to being awesome. Chef Powers explained to me that Bambara is dedicated to using fresh local ingredients, like the trout, and he carefully selects the produce and other items available locally — this dedication was evident in his cuisine. The trout came with mashed potatoes laced with leek — a trick I often do myself, and a classic reference to the French — I was impressed.
I was served a glass of Dr. K. Frank Dry Riesling, a wine from the Finger Lakes region of New York. This wine reminded me of a delicate, Marcel Deiss Alsatian wine: crisp, clean and simple, yet classy.
In between these courses I was served two huge and meaty Prawns in herb butter which I liked but I was briefly disappointed in the risotto. It was loose and pasty, and lacked the nuttiness I’m used to. Chrit mentioned their risotto was not made with stock and I could tell.
For me, the pièce de résistance came in the form of a “Lamb Slider.” This succulent lamb patty did not need its negligible bun. The lamb was topped with spectacular julienned, marinated veggies and a triple-herb pesto. On the side I was wowed by a beautiful cornet de frites served with a light yet simple aioli — I thought I was in Brussels at La Grande Place. The fries were crisp and ethereal and piping hot, almost like pastry. They were served in a paper cone like at the fairs in Europe, and I just loved the wood plank it was all served on. The wine too, flattered the lamb — an ancient vine Mourvedre by Cline.
Chef Powers also talked about how “green” he is in his expectations of the restaurant business. Bambara uses only the most eco-friendly products for cleaning and using water, etc. He had a somber, yet warm temperament and I truly enjoyed talking with him — he is a CIA graduate but has had enough experience to really know and care about what he is doing.
Bambara is an oasis surrounded by a downtown culinary scene that has become trivial and predictable. If you haven’t been there recently, it’s well worth the trip — I enjoyed my “escape” to Bambara and you should escape there soon, too.
As a reviewer, I have to say I was invited; they were expecting me so no secrecy here, but that said, taking a note from the wine world — I give it 91 points. (By the way Chrit — you don’t pronounce the “H” in haricots verts!)
Chef Drew H Ellsworth, M.A., C.E.C.