Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dish on Dining: Bar Bambino

Sophisticated Italian in a Neighborhood Setting
2931 16th St., San Francisco
Mission District
PH: 415.701.VINO (8466)
Open Tue.–Thu., 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Fri., Sat., 11 a.m.–midnight; and Sun., 5–10 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

You know how a restaurant opens up and gets so extremely popular and then you can’t get around to going to it so a few years pass and then when you check it out it’s like a totally new restaurant to you? Well, that’s how I felt walking into Bar Bambino for the first time recently.

Bar Bambino is a tiny Italian-style restaurant that opened in 2007 in the opposite end of the Mission neighborhood, away from more bustling spots along Valencia and Guerrero Streets. When it opened, it attracted the hip crowd with its sleek interiors and the food styling of Chef Elizabeth Binder. Like all hot spots, they didn’t take reservations so people had to wait and create more buzz in the front.

When I arrived a couple of weeks ago, the place was quiet and it was like I was entering some undiscovered neighborhood gem. Despite being open a few years, everything looked sparkling new.

I met my friend David for an early dinner, and I told him about the patio seating and how it would be cool to check it out. Apparently, it’s so cool that you need a reservation to eat outdoors in the back of the restaurant. We didn’t think we needed reservations when dining so early, but David was able to convince them to seat him in the patio before I arrived.

The patio is a pretty large space with warm wood panels running across the walls and a plastic covering, which makes it a usable space any time of the year. Unfortunately, the day we dined in the patio was when we had the heat spell in the Bay Area (we’ve had some funky weather lately) so the plastic covering acted like a greenhouse effect. (I’ll explain how this affected dinner later.)

We were greeted by our server, who was enthusiastic—both in the way he greeted us and his apparent love and knowledge of the wine and food menus. It was clear that he had a deep knowledge of Bar Bambino’s eclectic all-Italian wine list and how diners should properly appreciate its Italian-inspired menu.

While at times I found our server’s “enthusiasm” a bit like being lectured on the proper way to dine at Bar Bambino, I did appreciate how accommodating he was in helping me select a wine by letting me have a few tastes. And later when I inquired about the oddity of having an olive oil tasting with dinner (you pay to try different Italian olive oils), he brought out some trays of olive oil for me to understand the experience.

As for the food, David and I shared a few dishes. We started with the Fava Bean and Pea Tendril Salad ($8), which was this bright and beautiful ode to spring. The pea tendrils mixed with the truffled pecorino and were brightened by the honey vinaigrette that had a welcomed tartness for balance. It was like an extra zing in the salad. The fava beans all ended up at the bottom of the plate, but there were enough of them to enjoy the freshness of this seasonal ingredient.

Next came the Egg Bruschette ($11.50), which was two pieces of grilled bread topped with soft-poached eggs and Parmigiano-Regianno. I liked the fact that there was a slight acidic taste in the bruschette, which really helped to cut into the egg and cheese. But the poached egg was inconsistent in texture. One egg was nearly hard boiled and the second was more like soft boiled. (I ate both because David avoided the egg yolk and stuck with the whites.)

After our starters, we ordered some pasta. David really wanted to try the pasta with broccoli rabe because he makes this a lot at home and wanted to see if a restaurant version could be any better. I was dying to try the rabbit sugo because I love rabbit and anything slow cooked. So we ordered both.

Bar Bambino’s pasta dishes are on the small side, so it’s the perfect portion if you decide to have a pasta course before your entrée. (I wouldn’t recommend just the pasta as an entrée since 1) that’s not how they do it in Italy and 2) it’s not large enough to fill you up unless you order a bunch of other small dishes.)

The Pappardelle with Sugo di Coniglio ($14.50) was full of flavor and well worth trying. The house-made pasta draped the braised rabbit ragout so well, acting both as a complement to the meat and a vehicle to carry it on your fork.

The Bucatini with Heirloom Rapini ($12.50) was equally enlightening, but in a different way. The cooked rapini—did you know rapini is the same as broccoli rabe? I just learned that from David—clumped together in a good way so that it could cling to the thick bucatini. This dish was both comforting and hearty.

At this point, David and I were questioning our decision in having two pasta dishes. While both were good, the heat of the hothouse garden made it a bit difficult to have much of an appetite. (In fact, several people came and went because they decided they couldn’t eat in the patio with the heat.) So when our final course of the Puglian-style Braised Lamb Shank ($18.50) arrived, I was ready to stretch out and take a nap.

The lamb shank was very Flintstone-like with the huge bone, and it was served with nocellara olives, which David declared “the best olives I’ve ever tasted.” I don’t know if he was joking or not because the olives were pretty good but then I noticed on the menu that in the description of the dish, the restaurant states that the dish is “finished with the best olives you’ll ever taste.”

Either way, it was pretty darn good, and the lamb shank was fall-off-the-bone tender. Still, I wasn’t blown away with the flavors. Braised in white wine and cinnamon, the tastes were generic to me, like I’ve tasted them in other braised meats before.

We actually took home several parts of our dinner. (We also ordered a side of pan-roasted artichokes, $6.50, which were perfectly cooked with pancetta.) So this meant there really wasn’t any room for dessert.

Despite skipping dessert, our meal at Bar Bambino was very satisfying. I enjoyed the surprise flavors in our pastas and starters, and appreciated the care taken in providing a genuine Italian eating experience. Bar Bambino looks more like a hip Manhattan spot rather than a rustic Italian restaurant, but the food gives it its Italian creds.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (California twist to Italian)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Bar Bambino on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

You've had lamb braised in white wine and cinnamon before? Not me. I thought it was perfectly cooked and deee-licious! By the way, I thought the server was totally annoying. -- David

Single Guy Ben said...

The cinnamon wasn't that strong to really detect it and stand out as a flavor, so mostly just tasted like lamb braised in wine, which I've had a lot of. I do love lamb, I just felt the flavor wasn't as complex as the other dishes.

BTW, I forgot to mention about the waiter about how he almost had a fit when he found out that a pasta came out without cheese grated on top. The bus boy who brought it out recognized it right away and took the dish back, but when the server came to explain it, you would have thought it was a national crisis or something. They take their pasta seriously, that's for sure.

Carolyn Jung said...

The pastas look divine. But no dessert?? There's always room for dessert. And it doesn't have to be Jell-O. ;)

mark said...

mmm bruschette looks tasty...

foodhoe said...

too bad about the heat, couldn't they remove the plastic? looks like a great meal tho and the prices seem very reasonable. The papardelle looks very appealing to me right now! dunno about the egg bruschette, did the yolk form a sauce in any way or was it too firm.

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, it was like a plastic tent top so it might be a bit of work to remove, but would definitely be nice to have without it in the summer so you can enjoy the blue skies. The egg bruchette was the least successful of everything we ate, and like I said mostly because of the firm yolk. The softer one just barely had enough ooze but not enough to create a sauce.

Passionate Eater said...

Haha, I have to agree with Foodhoe, and I am going to say something that you might judge me for, but I leave the temporary plastic covering on my cellphone and electronic devices! But your experience has motivated me to try out this place, especially the Egg Bruschette with the eggs cooked two ways (although that probably wasn't intentional).

Single Guy Ben said...

PE, I take it one step further than you! I actually buy those stupid plastic shields for your cellphone display and end up paying $10 for three sheets.

jazme said...

The ambiance both inside and outside is simply superb and so catchy.
The food looks delicious and tasty.

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