Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bin 228, Hartford, CT March 2009

Food: A
Service: C

Joanne and Amy write:

I admit up front that I have known one of the Bin 228 owners, Alicia Roncari, since we were kids. I ate spaghetti and listened to Aerosmith in her basement at her birthday party in third grade. Over the years we pined over long-haired rock stars—she over Steve Tyler, and I over Peter Frampton—and thus we will be forever connected. But it was my job, albeit self-appointed, to put all that aside and enter Bin 228 with an open mind and a clean palate, although it was difficult to leave my bias for this type of restaurant at the door. Here I also admit that I love the concept behind Bin 228—Italian enoteca meets American bar—and have eaten here before, as has Amy.

Enoteca, wine bar, bistro, café…whatever you want to call it, I’m a fan of this Euro-style establishment where small bites and large wine lists are the norm. It’s my understanding that the owners of Bin 228 decided on the concept while traveling in Italy. Naturally! The menu is simple—categories include salads, plates (think cured meats and cheeses), bruschetta, tramezzini, panini, and risotto (of the day and only during dinner hours). A few Italian-style sweets (gelato, biscotti, even a Nutella panino) make it complete. When I perused the offerings, I was whisked back to the many slow summer afternoons I spent in Italy snacking and sipping wine at one outdoor café or another. It’s nice to have that opportunity so close to home.

The wine list shows both evidence of knowledge of Italy’s wines and thought put into matching them with the menu. There are offerings from each region that vary in price range, but none would disappoint. Since a Monday special is half-off bottles of wine, we went with the staff pick, Argiano’s Non Confunditur, a full-bodied Super-Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese that was sweet, spicy, earthy and well-rounded. I made a note to find a bottle for my cellar.

I decided to start with some bread because I was craving carbs. They have bagna cauda on the menu – four slices of garlic bread between each of which was a slice of melted fresh mozzarella. A skewer of rosemary ran through the mini-loaf: a unique twist, I thought. The rosemary infused the bread with a pleasant piney flavor that balanced well with the tangy garlic and creamy cheese. It was great and I ate all of it except the one slice I offered to Joanne. For my second plate, I chose the carpaccio. My first experience with carpaccio was in fact, in Italy, and I ordered it in the hopes of recreating that experience. I knew Joanne would give it a try; it had arugula on it after all. The portion was generous and covered the plate. The raw meat was sliced so thinly that it melted in my mouth. It was drizzled with high-end olive oil and covered with peppery arugula and parmesan cheese. A successful dish.

As Amy mentioned, throw arugula on the menu, somewhere, anywhere, and I am bound to order it. At Bin 228 there are multiple menu choices that include arugula, so I didn’t limit myself to one. I started with a simple arugula salad—a beautiful mound of arugula dressed in a lemon truffle oil with shingles of Asiago cheese on top. A sprinkle of salt was all the salad needed. Fortunately, there was salt shaker on the table, as our server was not very attentive. Four tomato wedges—that I imagine in the summer are more flavorful— garnished the plate.

I chose to follow my salad with a tramezzino, an Italian sandwich, made on white bread with the crusts removed, and cut on the diagonal. My tramezzino was essentially an Italian BLT—made with pancetta, tomato, arugula, and lemon mayonnaise. The bread was soft, the generous portion of pancetta was crispy and overall it was delicious, served with a small helping of salad dressed in a slightly sweet vinaigrette. To accompany my sandwich I also ordered an olive bowl. Too often olives all taste the same, like brine, but these are marinated in house; they were fruity and lemony and herbaceous—some of the best olives I’ve ever eaten.

For our afternoon dolce, we shared a bowl of chocolate gelato. Three big scoops of creamy chocolate gelato and two spoons arrived; an empty bowl went back to the kitchen. The cocoa flavor was not ruined by too much sugar; it was chocolate-y, not cloying, and we could tell it was small batch, as indicated by the menu. It was a nice dessert to share while sipping the last of our wine. And kudos to Bin 228 for using a local ice cream/gelato producer, J. Foster's in Simsbury.

That was the food. On to the service. A male server seated us and handed us menus but we never saw him again. Instead, several minutes later, a female server gave us a bland greeting with no facial expression. We had to ask for water, and when we asked questions about the menu, as we always do, it seemed an inconvenience. A chalkboard advertised happy hour appetizer specials. When we asked what they were, we didn’t get a definitive answer. She mentioned checking with the chef, but never got back to us. While she did seem knowledgeable about the items on the regular menu, she had no enthusiasm about the food she’d be serving. We didn’t even learn her name until a businessman was seated at the bar and we heard him address her. With him, she was pleasant and friendly, with us, not so much.

Just as it was important to put rock star fantasies aside before walking in, it seems most fair, while writing the review, to exclude the part of our experience toward the end of our meal, during which Alicia stood tableside and chatted with us, which really was a nice touch for me, a surprise reunion.

That being said, the food was exceptional--a welcome departure from troughs of pasta that all tastes like garlic and calls itself Italian. Likewise, the wine list was remarkable, a nice change from wine lists offering little more than Robert Mondavi and Rodney Strong. But our service was disappointingly…average. While it may be our bane to dine at off hours, when the school day is done and it’s been five hours since we’ve eaten lunch at 10:30, we consider it an appropriate challenge for restaurants to treat us as well at 3 or 4 in the afternoon as they would at 7 or 8 in the evening. In fact, having both been servers in the past, a lone two-top in the house seems the perfect opportunity to give exceptional service. Alas, not on this occasion.

Fortunately, the concept, the tasty food, the good wine, and the fond memories they all evoke of time spent in Italy will keep us coming back to Bin 228.

1 comment:

Tam said...

You've sold me on the restaurant simply with the comments about the wine! This place sounds great, plus I really like the name of it!
Make me a res for my next visit!