I often like to say that I think of myself less as a restaurant critic and more of a dining and food enthusiast. Although I won’t sugarcoat a bad meal, I really enjoy sharing news about good and great dining experiences. And so I’d be shirking my duties if I didn’t share my recent Bambara experiences with you.
A few months ago, I learned that Dave Jones—former chef at Log Haven and more recently employed by Sysco Foods—had been named executive chef at Bambara. Frankly, my feeling was, “Who cares?” Jones is a great guy and one of my very favorite people, but he hasn’t always been one of my favorite chefs. Toward the end of his tenure at Log Haven, I felt his cooking had become somewhat convoluted. Dishes weren’t complex as much as they were just complicated. They lacked focus and logic. And I don’t think Dave would disagree. He’s told me that he was just plain burned out and needed to get out of the kitchen, which is why he went to work at Sysco for two years.
During his time away from professional kitchens, Jones fell in love with cooking all over again. He devoured cookbooks voraciously and retooled his own thinking about cooking. The excitement he’d found in the kitchen going back to his first days as a kid cooking in California had returned and, well, you just can’t keep a great chef out of the kitchen for very long.
There are tried and true classics at Bambara that preceded Chef Jones and will be there long after he’s gone: blue cheese house-cut potato chips ($6.50), crab-stuffed piquillo peppers ($13.50) and polenta-crusted calamari ($10), for example. But we were here to investigate Jones’ new additions to the menu and so began with a simple and delicious grilled Castroville artichoke ($11) served with curried crab remoulade that I could eat by the bucket. The ’choke was good, messy fun. But what really got my attention was a truly sensational starter: minced tuna tartare ($12.50) artfully presented with avocado-Thai chili, a shiro-miso “crisp,” delicate pea-sprout salad and zippy yuzu-ponzu sauce. I thought briefly that we were at Nobu.
A “salad” of elk carpaccio smoked with juniper ($12.50) came with Belgian endive, blood orange, pepper crackers and citrus aioli. Now that’s what I call a salad! For the more traditional, there’s the dependable Bambara Caesar with marinated white anchovies, focaccia croutons and shaved Parmesan ($8). Regardless of what you order at Bambara, you can be assured of top-notch service. General manager Art Cezares and managers Steve Quesenberry and Guy Wheelwright are complemented by a team of truly professional servers like Eric Douros, Lisa Davis, Jake Bower, et al. When it comes to service, I can think of no Salt Lake City restaurant that does it better.
I readily admit to being a scallop fiend; I love the marine bivalve in all shapes and form. I’m crazy about bay scallops, sea scallops, calico scallops and diver scallops. I like ’em broiled, stewed, fried, sautéed, baked, kabobed and microwaved. However, I have never tasted a better scallop dish than the one I tried at Bambara ($27.50). Jones and his sous chef Bradley Murphy hit the bull’s-eye with this one. With scallops, as with many types of seafood, less is more. At Bambara, a handful of sea scallops are flash-seared so that the exterior forms a slightly caramelized crust, leaving the inside just warmed through and translucent. They are cooked perfectly and served on an uncluttered plate with Chinese long beans, cauliflower puree and what might possibly be the best sauce I’ve ever tasted, certainly among the top five. Jones and Murphy make a somewhat lightened version of buerre blanc with wine, butter and Meyer lemons. It’s not complicated, but it tastes like what I fantasize licking Catherine Deneuve’s ear might be like. Jones and Murphy’s names are on the menu, but I think my scallop dish was made by angels.
So what are the odds that Bambara’s natural free-range chicken ($22.50) would be just as good as those scallops? Long, I’d say—but it was. Jones starts with an all-natural chicken and somehow manages to cook it throughout while keeping it moister than moist within. Even including the famous French Bresse birds, I’ve not tasted a more flavorful chicken. This champion of chickens is served as an airline breast with soft, creamy polenta, an olive-citrus tapenade and roasted broccolini with chili oil. Like many of Jones’ new Bambara dishes, it was simple and extraordinary.
There was a time when I thought of Jones’ cooking as cluttered and dark. I mean literally dark. The food was dark on the plate—dark meats covered in dark sauces with dark side dishes. But now Jones seems to have found the light, so to speak. His menu items—from pan-roasted sea bass to red wine-braised short ribs—are straightforward, uncomplicated and uncluttered. It’s as if he’d done an internship at Chez Panisse during his time away from the kitchen and returned reborn.
But don’t take my word for it. Visit Bambara yourself, and you’ll discover that it’s never been better. If there was a Comeback of the Year award for chefs, Dave Jones would win it going away.
BAMBARA 202 S. Main in the Hotel Monaco, 363-5454. Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner daily. Bambara-SLC.com