If this were a spoken-word review, it would have to be whispered. Because this is a place part of me would like to keep a secret.
And we all know how hard it is to keep a secret these days. Even the most out-of-the-way Sichuan hole in the wall or off-the-grid Portuguese social club can be found with a little determination and Google sleuthing.
This time around, the location is anything but a dive or a far-flung spot — although, to be fair, Hotel Marlowe shares a few dive-like qualities. It’s stashed behind a mall, sees zero foot traffic, and the restaurant inside — Bambara Kitchen & Bar — fronts a scenic view of East Cambridge traffic.
And in spite of the Kimpton chain’s effort to make each of its hotels unique and funky, it’s still . . . a hotel. By their nature, hotel kitchens must accommodate a wide swath of needs; the food they produce can be ordinary and anonymous.
So we arrive on a Saturday night with tempered expectations. After passing through the Marlowe’s lobby — it hovers in a cloud of diffuser-launched “proprietary scent,” which the front desk describes as “soft citrus notes that give way to green tea and the spiciness of black pepper and clove wrapped in a blanket of musk” — we are seated next to a chilly slab of window. The room is half-empty. The musk blanket — it isn’t working.
We ask for a warmer spot. The
maître d’s swift response is a portent of good things to come. He whisks us to an interior booth and graciously resets our table. One upside to hotel dining is that it often comes with well-trained, knowledgeable, hospitable service.
The first thing to hit our table is cocktails. One called Mr. Hooper’s Requiem sounds promising — vodka with toasted sesame, grapefruit, and bitters — but it tastes odd and flat and cloyingly sweet at the bottom.
Bambara’s epitaph begins writing itself in my head before I’ve taken a bite.
Then the oysters arrive. Dug in Barnstable, the Beach Points are dosed with Meyer lemon granita and chive crème fraiche. For $3 more, you get a spoon of caviar. It sounds like overkill. Then our table throws back the shellfish like shots of tequila and everything changes. Really changes.
The oysters are amazing. I can’t remember an oyster I’ve enjoyed more than this helping of near perfection. No single player subverts the plump, briny star. Instead, each component elaborates, elevates. It begins to dawn on me that we are in the hands of a pro.
That pro, it turns out, is chef David Bazirgan. He’s a native of Newburyport who was chef de cuisine at No. 9 Park from 1999 to 2003 alongside Barbara Lynch, and earlier worked with Todd English and Stan Frankenthaler. He spent the last decade cooking around the Bay Area, where he was identified by the San Francisco Chronicle as a “rising star,” returning to helm Bambara in August.
What follows makes good — and then some — on the promise of those oysters. The Wagyu beef tartare is one in a string of revelations. It’s also an excellent example of Bazirgan’s daring when it comes to tapping far-flung cuisines, an uncommonly seamless combination of pickled hon-shimeji mushrooms, fried shallots, red curry, dollops of coconut-milk gel, the yolk of a quail egg. In the wrong hands this might look like bombast, something you’d knock back with a staggering drink at one of our local palaces of
macho umami. Here you get a powerful yet expertly restrained confluence of flavor.
Octopus surfaces on the menu of just about every serious restaurant around Boston. Bambara’s is a step beyond. The octopus is braised in olive oil for five hours, then seared on cast iron, creating a crisp exterior and wonderfully soft interior. Charred eggplant puree on the plate is made black with squid ink and spicy via Morocco. It’s finished with celery vinaigrette and sour cherries that Bazirgan dehydrates. (He repurposes the pits, powdering them to use in his last-meal-worthy Armenian bread, choereg, a nod to his heritage.)
The charcuterie plate is easy to miss, but a meal unto itself and reason enough to visit Bambara. Along with outsourced dry cures (mortadella and Serrano ham), Bazirgan adds in a rotating cast of his own. We eat his chicharron, pate de campagne, head cheese, chicken liver mousse, lardo, andouille, and pickled daikon radish. The radish throws off an ineffable, insane funk. Hopping from one delicacy to the next feels like a carnivore’s orgy on a plate.
The roasted sunchokes are another innocuous menu item that proves to be stunning. Bazirgan renders his house-made ’nduja sausage, made from Vermont-bred Mangalitsa pigs, which gets swirled with lemon, shallots, cayenne, a buttermilk emulsion, and pickled sunchokes mixed with roasted ones.
It’s worth pausing to remark on Bambara’s actual dishes, which add yet another layer of beauty and craft, and signal sharply that this is not your standard hotel experience. The speckled stoneware is made locally by friends of Bazirgan’s — Jeremy Ogusky in Jamaica Plain, and David Becker, chef-owner of Sweet Basil and Juniper.
The salads, in particular the mixed chicories and a Caesar made with boquerones and tahini, are crisp, balanced, flawlessly dressed. And each of the three pastas is pitch perfect. Fettuccine with lobster couldn’t be simpler, evidence that Bazirgan knows when to decelerate. But then his triple-cream tortelli is majestically dressed with black trumpet and oyster mushrooms, hazelnuts, and brown butter.
We hesitate to order something as pedestrian as chicken breast when there are offerings like the tremendous dry-aged rib eye, which comes with turnip gratin, mushrooms, smoked potato foam, and sauce Diane. But we dutifully do, and are rewarded. Here is one more round of symphonic excellence, crisped and tender, joined by carrots, parsnips, the grain freekeh, and a biting salsa verde.
The desserts are good — our table wolfs down the blackberry beignets — but not on par with what’s come before.
Certainly not on par with the burger. Order it. It will be among the best you’ve ever eaten. The butter-toasted bun, the harissa aioli, the crisp lettuce, the thick-cut fries, the aromatic dry-aged beef. Every shred of it has been deliberated over.
The fanatic in the kitchen worked months on this. Like so much at Bambara, it’s just right. And a secret far too good to keep.
BAMBARA KITCHEN & BAR
25 Edwin H. Land Blvd., Cambridge, 617-868-4444, www.bambara-cambridge.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $8-$20. Main courses $17-$46. Desserts $10.
Hours Mon-Fri 6:30-10 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Sat 8a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-11 p.m. Sun 8a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m.
NOISE LEVEL The hush of a hotel
What to order Choereg bread, Beach Point oysters, charcuterie plate, Wagyu beef tartare, roasted sunchokes, confit octopus, triple-cream tortelli, fettuccine with lobster, rib eye, chicken breast, burger, beignets.
Ted Weesner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.