"A little bit of both."
In my family, that's the correct answer when offered a choice of things to eat. Cornbread or sage dressing? A little bit of both. Coffee or chocolate ice cream? A little bit of both. Red or green sauce? A little bit of both.
In Santa Fe, they call that last inclusive decision "Christmas" and it's a standard way to order enchiladas. I love that because of the bounty implied by the word, and I'm happy to notice that more and more chefs are offering "Christmas" plates. A little bit of both, though not necessarily red and green.
We ate at Bambara last night, to check out the winter menu. Bambara remains, in the talented hands of Chef Nathan Powers, one of the best restaurants in Utah. His menus seem effortlessly balanced at a precise point between comfort and elegance, so you enjoy the soothing sustenance of rich, mouth-filling flavors as well as the intellectual appeal of aesthetically edgy culinary talent.
That's where "Christmas" comes in.
On several plates, Powers presents a little bit of both. Maple Leaf Farms duck comes as a crisp-crusted confit and as a juicy red grilled breast enriched with liver butter. Sweet potatoes (not yams) and pomegranate syrup provide the sweet that duck fat demands and cress offers fresh green contrast.
A duet of Colorado bison is served as a red-centered grilled tri-tip and a shortrib braised until the fat is soft as Jell-O. A bright chimichurri provides a sharp counterpoint, broccoli rate underscores the meat's earthiness and parmesan parsnip-stuffed ravioli is a soft relief to its density.
Even the plate of excellent pan-roasted chicken differs from the usual protein-centered plate–the accompanying ham hock mac''n'cheese shares the spotlight instead of merely providing backup like the usual mash.
Of course, there are dishes that follow the more usual meat-and-three convention. Polenta and apple-fennel slaw are there to serve the solo glory of the mammoth maple-brined pork porterhouse. Really, the majesty of this meat would overwhelm any attempt at partnership.
The wines served last night, chosen to complement everyone's different menus, reflect the welcoming trend towards food-oriented rather than diva wines. A Joel Gott sauvignon blanc started tight and crisp, then mellowed as it opened, accenting the creaminess of the special mushroom soup
and signature corn bisque but also cozying up to a salad of baby spinach and pears
as well as a selection of cheeses. And the friendly Acacia pinot noir agreed wtih everything from chicken to bison.
The star of the artisanal cheese plate (now offered as an appetizer instead of dessert, because right-thinking Utahns didn't seem to embrace stinky cheese as an alternative to chocolate) was undoubtedly Snowy Mountain's new feta, less briny and more creamy than any feta I've ever tasted. (You can find it at Caputo's.)
If I had a quibble with last night's meal, it was with the final course, an inch-thick slab of poundcake topped with apple, raisin and rompopo ice cream. Even then, it wasn't the flavors that I had a problem with–those melded perfectly into one another–but the sheer size of the portion.
I know Utahns love their sweets. I know chefs get complaints about small portions. But this is one time when "half that much" would have been better than "a little bit of both." Better to fade out of the meal gracefully with cocoa and chocolate-dipped grahams, or a sip of Spanish Valley Reisling.
Still, Bambara is indisputably the star of Main Street. Chic and gracious but never stuffy, with expert cooking and service, it stands out as the peak dining experience downtown.
I'm waiting for someone to give it a run for its money.