Depending upon the calendar you use or the time-space continuum you inhabit, City Weekly is entering its 15th year as a weekly publication. John Saltas started producing the Private Eye as a newsletter some 22 years back, but the Private Eye became a weekly'and then ultimately City Weekly'roughly a decade and a half ago. I wouldn’t have known this had I not received an invitation to a really fun bash at Port O’ Call: the City Weekly 15th anniversary party, aka “The John Saltas Memorial Toast & Roast.” A fun time was had by all'except perhaps for John, who was skewered almost as brutally as the drubbing he gives Rocky Anderson. But that’s another story.
It amazes me to think that I’ve been with this paper for most of those 15 years; I’m now in my 13th. I’ve never held another job as long, and even my marriages petered out quicker than the short-lived Salt Lake Observer. I figure over the years I’ve written more than a thousand columns for City Weekly. That’s a lot of food and wine. I don’t even want to think about the calorie count all those meals add up to! I owe a debt of gratitude to John Saltas for giving me my dream job.
Despite the occasional embarrassments that go along with sharing part of one’s life in public'dinnertime, at least'when it comes to food and drink and the restaurants that serve them, I hope I’ve gotten it mostly right. Although as I like to say when it comes to restaurant experiences: Your mileage may vary. That’s certainly the case with the misguided fellow who recently accused me in a shotgun blast e-mail of being on the payroll of local restaurateurs'oh, how I wish! I can handle the vitriol; it comes with this job. But it’s an injustice to hardworking, honest, professional restaurateurs to suggest that they need to buy positive reviews. So save the misplaced anger and venom for important stuff like unjust wars, hungry children, bigotry, the sad state of health care in this country and a lack of a cure for AIDS. We’re just writing about food and wine here.
Sensing that City Weekly’s 15th anniversary party would be a boozy one, I thought it prudent to put on a good food foundation beforehand. Thus I found myself at Bambara restaurant prior to the party, with no intent at all to review the place. I was technically “off duty,” but every now and then you happen upon a really terrific meal, and you just want to let someone know about it.
Over the years, I’ve found the food and service at Bambara to be somewhat uneven. But if recent experience is an indication, chef Robert Barker and his staff are firing on all cylinders at present. It begins with a receptionist/hostess like Betty, who asks customers making reservations, “Are you celebrating a special occasion?” Damned straight: It’s City Weekly’s 15th anniversary!
Then, walking into Bambara, I always feel a special buzz and energy, thanks to the sizzle and flash of the full exhibition kitchen. A server'in this case, Jack'quickly delivers menus and a wine list and then gives us time to ponder them. Thank you, Jack, for not reciting the specials or asking for a drink order the moment we meet. Indeed, service throughout the evening and in other recent visits has been impeccable at Bambara, a credit to new general manager Art Cazares and his solid, experienced crew.
Showing the kind of restraint I’m rarely known for, I passed this time around on what is one of my favorite all-time starters: Chef Barker’s bleu cheese “house-cut” potato chips ($5). Hoping to look thin for the City Weekly party, instead I ordered the Wagu beef carpaccio and arugula salad ($12). Tissue-thin rounds of raw Wagu beef are topped with peppery baby arugula, shreds of Parmigianino Reggiano, and a very subtle herb shallot vinaigrette with just a hint of truffle oil. This is a superb salad, although someone with a sweet tooth might have preferred my companion’s: arugula and radicchio tossed with bleu cheese, candied pecans, Anjou pears and a lovely sweet-tart Meyer lemon-honey vinaigrette ($7.50).
Zeroing in on a brand new Bambara entrÃ©e to try, I ordered what turned out to be an exceptional dish. Chef Barker wraps a thick halibut filet in paper-thin prosciutto, then quickly sautÃ©s the jacketed fish and serves it atop a crispy cake of Yukon gold potatoes with tender bits of lobster lurking within. My prediction: Barker’s halibut will become a big hit with Bambara customers.
Sampling an orgy of desserts'most of which were remarkable'the winners were Bambara’s lavender crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e, an outrageous flourless chocolate cake, and my hands-down favorite, the pleasingly light and airy panna cotta.
Wandering back to the Hotel Monaco for a nightcap after the City Weekly bash, I spied a taco stand in front of the Rose Wagner Center and did what any self-respecting food writer would do after a big meal and a party: I ordered a plate of carnitas tacos. I didn’t realize'until the taco vendor wouldn’t accept my money'that I had accidentally crashed a “backstage” after-show party of SB Dance, where tacos were served. Oops. They were fabulous. Thanks, guys.
Happy anniversary to us.