Blackerby eventually left Bambara and was replaced by Robert Barker (RIP), and a few other chefs came and went through the past couple decades, including the long-tenured Nathan Powers.
A recent return to Bambara for dinner was prompted by the relaunch of the restaurant and indeed, the entire Monaco Hotel, which has gotten a top to bottom makeover, including a new chef and dinner menu. New Executive Chef Patrick LeBeau’s philosophy when it comes to creating menus and recipes is to, “let the ingredients speak for themselves and to not overcomplicate the food.” He strives to provide the best products using what’s in season and local to the region, including local game, served in an approachable yet interesting way. Did I mention that he doesn’t look old enough to drink?
“We are lucky enough to work with some of the best local purveyors and farms in the area. They will help us craft a seasonal menu that speaks directly to this region,” said Chef LeBeau. “Those ingredients – bison, elk, trout – will be enhanced using a few ‘old-school’ techniques that you don’t really see anywhere else.” To wit, you’ll find local Bison Tartare ($26) on the Bambara menu, along with Dry-Aged Bison Steak Frites ($52), Coffee-Crusted Rocky Mountain Elk ($46), and Pan-Seared Idaho Trout ($36).
The open, exhibition kitchen still remains from previous incarnations of Bambara, but new are two Chefs Tables, which according to the folks at Bambara “provide guests the opportunity to experience a one-of-a-kind culinary performance. Located right next to the kitchen and bookable by OpenTable or by calling the restaurant directly, these up-close-and-personal seats bring a new perspective into the centrally located exhibition kitchen and bring guests into personal contact with the Chef throughout their dining experience.”
When Bambara opened in 1999 it was one of the most vibrant restaurants in downtown SLC, with a lot of color splashes right down to the multi-hewed salt and pepper shakers which, sadly, guests kept stealing. The new edition of Bambara is a more black and white affair, literally, with an atmosphere that seems more family-friendly – less formal, more boisterous. Most of the banquet-style booths have been replaced by large wooden tables and the new dining room is more open and airy.
The Vault – Bambara’s 21-and-over bar – is still undergoing renovation and is currently closed. I’m told that when it reopens it will feature a separate entrance and an extensive cocktail and shareable bites menu. According to Bambara, “Inspired by the moody colors of dark liquors and serving as a hub for friends, colleagues and locals, the intimate lounge will incorporate tufted leather couches, low marble coffee tables, rich velvet textiles and high-backed regal lounge chairs to set the mood. A large dark leather-railed bar will sit against a bold dark blue wall, finished with metal details and bronze light fixtures.” I’m hoping that with the bar menu at The Vault we’ll see the return of Bambara’s much-loved homemade potato chips with blue cheese which, sadly, have disappeared from the menu.
Apothecary’s Favorite Cocktail
As you familiarize yourself with the new menu, I recommend enjoying a craft cocktail or mocktail like the Salt City Classic, Cubagua, Torero, Du Mont Blanc, or the Apothecary’s Favorite ($15), which was also my favorite. It’s a luscious blend of vodka, Bärenjäger honey liqueur, sagebrush syrup, lemon and Prosecco to give it a frizzante lift.
Grilled Watermelon Salad
A lovely summertime starter is Chef LeBeau’s light and refreshing Grilled Watermelon Salad $(16), which is grilled cubes of compressed watermelon topped with basil-marinated feta cheese, pine nuts, and microgreens. Other enticing cold appetizers include a Baby Gem Caesar Salad ($15), Celery Root Carpaccio ($17), and Whipped Goat Cheese Tartine ($17).
A real stunner of an appetizer is the scrumptious Scallop Crudo ($22) – sushi-grade raw scallops bathed in a spicy Calabrian chili broth with Castelvetrano olives and lemon juice. It’s one of the best scallops dishes I’ve encountered.
Mussels & Frites
Hot appetizers include Wagyu Fat Roasted New Potatoes ($12), Caramelized Onion Tart ($14), Prosciutto Beignets ($16), House Made Brioche with bone marrow butter ($8), and a French classic: Mussels and Frites ($24). The plump, tender mussels were wonderful, steamed in a local beer broth with Fresno chiles. But what really rocked my world were the shoestring fries served alongside with fry sauce. I am an unrepentant French fry snob and rarely delight in restaurant fries. But these were sensational – perfectly cooked and crispy, not a soggy or limp fry in the bunch. We ate every last morsel.
Super Server Jake Bowers
Through the 24 years that Bambara has been a go-to dining destination in downtown SLC, one thing that has always set the restaurant apart from others is the exceptional service there. And during our recent visit, my wife and I were delighted to have our favorite server – Jake Bowers – assigned to our table. Jake is the consummate professional: uber knowledgeable about Bambara’s cuisine and wines, but also super outgoing and friendly – traits that make for superior service.
Whole Roasted Branzino
My wife, Faith, rarely passes on branzino when she spies it on the restaurant menu and, true to form, she enjoyed an entree of Whole Roasted Branzino ($50). Although it’s labeled “whole roasted” on the menu, the branzino is served sans head, tail and bones with yummy fregola sarda, smoked tomato jam, and garlicky haricot verts. Additional fish entrees at Bambara include Marcona Almond Crusted Halibut with confit of new potatoes, grilled asparagus, and parmesan brodo ($42), and Pan Seared Idaho Trout with house made sauerkraut, roasted baby turnips, Port wine and mustard vinaigrette ($36).
Scallops al la Plancha
I was strongly tempted by the Thyme Roasted Chicken ($38) with gigante beans, summer squash escabeche, Swiss chard, and chicken jus for my entree. But ultimately, I decided to double down on scallops given the fondness I had for the scallop appetizer we’d earlier enjoyed. Chef LeBeau certainly knows what to do with a scallop, as the Scallops al la Plancha entree was another downright winner. It’s a scrumptious plate of seared scallops with sweet corn puree, tomato salad, microgreens and chorizo vinaigrette – sensational scallops that come to the table looking like a work of art.
Blueberry Limoncello ‘Tiramisu’
Among the sweet temptations at Bambara are a Neopolitan Cake ($12), Seasonal Baked Alaska ($18), Black Forest Panna Cotta ($12), and the one we enjoyed: Blueberry Limoncello ‘Tiramisu’ ($12), which is house-made lady fingers, lemon curd, and blueberry jam, top with crumbled almond streusel.
Through the years I’ve seen highs and lows at Bambara, but with Chef Patrick LeBeau now in charge of the kitchen and a rock-solid new menu – not to mention a change of look and feel in ambiance – Bambara is poised to please for another 24 years or more.
Photos by Ted Scheffler/Top Photo courtesy of Bambara
Culinary quote of the week: “After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” – Oscar Wilde