Considering food trends and the rapid pace of everything that surrounds us these days, itâ€™s not very easy for a restaurant to stay relevant. But there are exceptions. And one is Bambara restaurant in the Hotel Monaco in downtown SLC.Â
Itâ€™s hard for me to fathom that it was 1999 when I first wrote about Bambara. Chefs and managers have come and gone, and the restaurant has undergone facelifts here and there. But Bambara remains one of Utahâ€™s most appealing dining destinations. You might want to consider sipping a cocktail in The Vault before dinner – Bambaraâ€™s cozy bar. Then, before being seated, take a stroll past the restaurantâ€™s exhibition kitchen, where Executive Chef Jerry Pacheco and his very talented team turn out hotel fare that is so much better than standard hotel fare. Take in the lovely decor, as well, where travertine marble blends with brass accents and large arched windows in a contemporary but comfortable ambiance.Â
Pacheco replaced longtime chef Nathan Powers a while back as Executive Chef at Bambara restaurant and launched a mostly new menu with few tried and true staples still remaining. Chef Pacheco started his culinary career at The Copper Onion and went on to work in prestigious SLC kitchens such as Pago, Finca, Pallet, and Avenues Bistro before signing on as sous chef at Bambara. Virtually every dish my wife and I tasted on numerous Bambara visits was flawless. It appears that Chef Pacheco has found his niche.Â
I suppose you could categorize Bambara as a New American Bistro where classic bistro fare is given a modern twist. Roasted Bone Marrow ($17), for example, incorporates togarashi spiced panko and shiso yuzu koshu. Not your daddyâ€™s roasted bone marrow! The marvelous Mussels con Chorizo ($19) starter leans Latin with corn, spicy chorizo,Â huitlacoche, pickled shallots, Fresno chile pepper slices and skinny frites on top.Â
For about as long as I can remember, Bambara has served outrageously tasty house-cut potato chips served with blue cheese and minced chives ($10). Sometimes I like to nibble on those chips in The Vault bar with a craft cocktail like Bambaraâ€™s London Foggy, made with Ransom Dry Gin, Velvet Falernum, Earl Grey Tea Syrup, Thyme and Black Walnut Bitters.Â
With scrumptious starters at Bambara like the aforementioned Bone Marrow and Mussels, the Cheese Board ($21), Crispy Brussels Sprouts ($13), and a Warm Baguette ($5) with house cultured butter and Maldon salt, you could easily assemble a fine meal composed of just appetizers.Â
A couple of favorite starters of ours featured seafood: The Grilled Octopus dish ($19) is as tender as it is innovative, with Moroccan black olives, chermoula and nduja. We also adore the sushi grade Tuna Tartare ($21) served with cucumber, avocado, seaweed salad, gochujang aioli, black sesame seeds, and those heavenly house-cut potato chips.Â
Service at Bambara is, and always has been, top-notch, with seasoned staffers like Jake Bowers anticipating guestsâ€™ every need. Lean on Jake and other knowledgeable servers for spot-on wine pairing recommendations from the restaurantâ€™s extensive wine selection.Â
There is a super salad selection at Bambara which includes a Mixed Greens salad ($12), Endive with crispy pancetta, pears and Gorgonzola ($15), Flowering Kale with fennel, and the delicious â€œBeets Beets Beetsâ€ ($17) with preserved orange, ricotta, arugula, pecans, and burnt orange vinaigrette.Â
Just as impressive – and a bonanza for vegetarians – is Chef Pachecoâ€™s Gargouillou ($33). Gargouillou (pronounced gar-gu-YU) is a dish created in Laguiole, France, consisting of as many seasonal fresh market veggies as you can fit on a plate. At Bambara itâ€™s an eye-popping arrangement of veggies including beets, grilled bok choy and heirloom carrots, pickled mustard seeds, watermelon radishes, and more.Â
One of the best things I ate this past winter was the Pheasant ($39) at Bambara. I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve ever seen pheasant on a Utah restaurant menu and was thrilled to find it on Chef Pachecoâ€™s. Itâ€™s a tender, juicy, cooked-to-perfection airline portion served with arugula, figs, pickled red onion, crumbled chÃ¨vre, sprinkled with pine nuts and drizzled with a port reduction. It is a fab pheasant.
Meat eaters are well attended to with menu offerings like Elk Au Poivre ($49) with sunchokes, butternut squash, oyster mushrooms and crunchy pepitas, or New York Strip Steak Frites ($51) topped with bone marrow rillette, watercress, demi-glace, and served with thin herbed frites. I also savored every bite of the oh-so tender and tasty Grilled Filet of Beef ($55) with duck fat fingerling potatoes, leeks, celery root puree, and sauce pÃ©rigeaux.Â
My wife, who doesnâ€™t eat a lot of meat, enjoyed the King Salmon ($37) at Bambara which came with bok choy, baby carrots, pioppino mushrooms, tamarind gastrique, and pickled mustard seeds. Itâ€™s a sensational salmon dish.Â
As I suggested at the outset of this article, there are restaurants that are trendy – many of which are flimsy flashes in the pan. And then there are ones like Bambara, which are timeless. Sure, the menus change from time to time along with the decor and the management. But there are few restaurants, in my experience, that are as dependable and consistent in quality as Bambara. Itâ€™s a restaurant that is aging beautifully. So hereâ€™s looking forward to the next 23 years or so of culinary excellence.Â
Photos by Ted Scheffler
Culinary quote of the week:
â€œA restaurant is a fantasyâ€”a kind of living fantasy in which diners are the most important members of the cast.â€ â€“ Warner LeRoy
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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.
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