It’s hard for me to believe that I first wrote about Bambara restaurant when it opened, some 21 years ago now. Time flies. Bambara opened its doors simultaneously with the Kimpton Hotel Monaco, in which it is housed. The Hotel Monaco is, in my opinion, Utah’s finest boutique hotel. It’s where many famous rock bands and performers stay when, in more normal times, they’re playing concerts in SLC.
For much of that time – since the winter of 2008 – the supremely talented Nathan Powers has served as Executive Chef at Bambara, supported by a strong team that includes longtime servers such as Jake Bowers. Bowers, Powers, et. al. are a force to be reckoned with, even or especially during times of stripped-down staff and service due to a pandemic. But, while the menu is currently slimmer than normal and the hours have been trimmed a bit (dinner is served Tuesday through Saturday), the cuisine at this New American bistro is as gratifying as ever.
For those who may have forgotten, Chef Powers was trained at the Culinary Institute of America and served time at renowned restaurants like Jeremiah Tower’s famous Stars restaurant, Hawthorne Lane, The Grand Café, and Farallon in San Francisco. I like that Powers doesn’t do smoke-and-mirror cuisine; his is clean and straightforward cooking, allowing superb ingredients and solid technique to steal the stage.
Tommy Girrbach, Monaco’s General Manager of Food & Beverage, told me that in addition to rigorous safety measures in place at Bambara – their “Approach to Clean” – they spent $4,000 on an ionizer which is sort of a hand sanitizer for the air. We felt safe and secure dining at Bambara. But if you prefer to dine at home, the restaurant offers delivery via Doordash.
If you enjoy watching professional chefs work, be sure to request a table across from Bambara’s lively exhibition kitchen. A longtime favorite starter of mine and a mainstay on the Bambara menu is House-Cut Potato Chips ($9). These are perfectly cooked, crispy homemade potato chips topped with melted blue cheese and minced herbs. Warning: these spuds are fiendishly addictive.
Other attractive items to start a meal with include Tempura Portobello & Green Beans ($14) with yuzu soy, green onions and chili aioli; or perhaps Crispy Calamari ($17) with baby peppers, grilled lemon, harissa and saffron aioli.
The salad selection at Bambara is very appealing and I always enjoy the classic Baby Romaine Caesar ($15) with Spanish anchovy, Zuni Cafe dressing and parmesan crostini, as well as the Bambara Wedge ($17), which is a wedge of butter lettuce with Point Reyes blue cheese, bacon, and marinated vegetables. But for this visit my wife and I chose an end-of-summer salad which probably won’t be on the menu for much longer. It was Summer Heirloom Tomatoes ($16) with “baby” mozzarella balls, arugula pesto, watercress, and fried brioche croutons. The summer salad couldn’t have been fresher or more delicious.
Bambara’s excellent beverage list does not seem to have been paired down, and offers a wide selection of wines, spirits, cocktails, and beer on draught and in bottles. There are some unique and rare whiskeys available such as Yamazaki 12-year Single Malt, Orphan Barrel Forager’s Keep, and The Macallan Rare Cask. As mentioned, the wine list is extensive and well-selected, with wines ranging from $11 per glass to $1,350.00 for a bottle of highly-vaunted Harlan Estate 2013, Napa Valley Bordeaux blend that I wish I could afford. Instead, we chose a more economical Italian Chardonnay: Citra Terre di Chieti to sip.
Even with a smaller selection of main courses available during COVID-19, there are some great options on the menu. For example, Grilled Beef Filet ($49) with fingerling potatoes roasted in duck fat (YUM!), leek puree, mushrooms, black truffle aioli, and Madeira gastrique. Powers once told me of his “lifelong devotion to all things Burgundian,” and the grilled filet is ample proof of that. On the slightly lighter side is an entree of Grilled Loin of Elk ($47) with tapenade, pea shoots, heirloom tomatoes, grilled croutons and smoked bleu rillette. And of course, the Durham Ranch Wagyu Burger ($21) with white cheddar cheese, pickle slaw and fry sauce is always a good call.
I’ve always thought that Chef Powers has a way with fish and seafood and you can’t go wrong ordering his Local Trout with cherry tomato and olive couscous and cucumber tzatziki ($29). For her main course, my wife chose Scallops ($37), which was beautifully seared, tender Maine scallops served with fingerling-smoky bacon-poblano-sweet corn hash (quite the tasty melange!) and green chile creme fraiche.
As for me, I opted for a classic French-inspired dish who no one does better than Powers: Steak Frites ($46). Cooked perfectly medium-rare as requested, this was a very generous portion of sliced, seared, wonderfully tender steak with flawless frites (cut fairly thin) alongside, and topped with watercress, bodacious bone marrow butter (which tastes a lot like foie gras), and balsamic drizzle. Ooh la la, steak frites just doesn’t get any better. And service doesn’t get any better than that provided by a seasoned pro like Jake Bowers and his colleagues either, some of whom have been with the restaurant since opening or close to it.
I wrote that Bambara was an excellent dining destination in downtown Salt Lake City some 21 years ago. It still is. In fact, I can think of very few restaurants downtown that demonstrate the consistency and quality that Bambara does, year in and year out. It’s about as close as you can get to an iron-clad guarantee of culinary excellence and outstanding service.
Photos by Ted Scheffler & Courtesy of Bambara
Culinary quote of the week:
“Condiments are like old friends – highly thought of, but often taken for granted.” — Marilyn Kantor
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.