Bina Osteria makes tasteful, subtle changes
When Bina Osteria opened in 2008, reaction fell into two camps: 1) The food is incredible! 2) The food is expensive! The restaurant didn’t look stereotypically upscale. It was modern, sleek, not too formal. Some found the decor stark. The menu, however, was sophisticated, offering quail cooked in hay, suckling pig confit compressed into rich ingots, and some of the dreamiest gnocchi I’ve ever eaten. Perhaps it was hard for diners to wrap their minds around opening chef Brian Konefal’s elegantly interpreted Italian cuisine, served in a room that felt relatively casual, resulting in a check that could equal one at the city’s best occasion restaurants. Perhaps the economic moment was just wrong. At any rate, Bina soon changed its concept, embracing less-expensive, simpler fare. Konefal moved on (he was last spotted in Flagstaff, Ariz., at the Piano Room).
It took a while for Bina to regain its footing, but it has. Will Foden, previously chef de cuisine at Dante in Cambridge, stepped into the kitchen a year ago. His menu is hearty but not heavy, balancing rich and light. There are appealing snacks to accompany drinks after work or before a show or movie: bresaola with melon, lamb meatballs in creamy, tangy goat cheese fondue, bruschetta topped with truffled lardo and chestnut honey.
Some appetizers are hits, such as the rich coins of cotechino sausage made in house, teamed with Brussels sprouts, walnuts, salty ricotta salata, and a runny egg. Others are misses. Tomato-braised octopus tastes fishy and is chewy and tough, although the greens, preserved lemon, and black chickpeas are striking companions. Bottarga - the salted, dried fish roe that is a specialty of southern Italy - is a wonderful ingredient, but if it’s in this dish as the menu states, I can’t taste it.
A section of Foden’s menu is devoted to off-cuts such as oxtail, sweetbreads, and a sweet little tripe dish, the cow stomach tender and mild in tomato sauce with pickled vegetables and grilled bread.
Pasta is the strongest part of the menu. An entire fall picnic is contained in the tortellini with smoked hen ragu, walnut sauce, apples, and the sheep’s milk cheese calcagno. The rustic flavors and silken pasta come together beautifully. Stracci are “rags’’ cut from a sheet of pasta dough made with chestnut flour, their hint of earthiness driven home by mushroom ragu and truffle-spiked pecorino. Ricotta gnocchi are pudgier than those Konefal created, but this is folk dancing compared with ballet, two different forms. The dumplings are satisfying served with hubbard squash, guanciale, fried sage, and ricotta salata, another example of Foden’s ability to play complementary flavors off one another.
Hake pulled from Maine waters makes a fine main course, its sweet, flaky flesh offset with assertive flavors: caramelized fennel, pickled celery root, salty little clams, and piquant salsa verde. Rabbit cacciatore pillowed by polenta is wonderfully flavorful but far too salty; preserved lemon brings welcome acidity. Grilled skirt steak comes with hen of the woods mushrooms, topped with slivers of more truffle-y cheese. It’s quite a small portion, which is to say about the amount of beef we humans should really eat on any given day, and the sort of serving that doesn’t please the typical person ordering steak in a restaurant in America. This is not the kind of Italian restaurant that exhorts “mangia, mangia’’ while loading your plate. That’s mostly a good thing, but this particular dish needs beefing up.
Dessert doesn’t distinguish itself. Ricotta cheesecake is grainy, for instance, although garnishes of pine nut brittle, Meyer lemon confit, and honeycomb are lovely. The surprise is the affogato, not the standard espresso-over-ice-cream dish one expects from the name (and one of my favorite ways to end a meal). Bina’s version involves layers of hazelnut gelato, espresso granita, and zabaglione flavored with Pernod. I’ll take it.
The wine list focuses on terroir but not solely on Italy; there are selections from Austria, France, the United States, and more, along with several wines created for co-owners Azita Bina-Seibel and brother Babak Bina (they also operate Lala Rokh and Bin 26 Enoteca). There’s a tempting beer list, as well, offering everything from Italian lager to Belgian tripel to Maine stout. In concert with cocktails such as the nicely balanced Fashionably Late (bourbon, orange liqueur, and ginger syrup), it helps pull in a steady after-work clientele.
Bina Osteria is doing everything it can to win customers confused by the series of changes in concept and chef. There is the solid bar program. The restaurant serves lunch during the week and a late-night menu on weekends. It offers discounted movie tickets, free parking at the Ritz-Carlton garage, Monday-night menus for $22 including a glass of wine, and a next door market, Bina Alimentari, selling prepared foods and specialty ingredients.
Yet Bina is still sometimes emptier than it should be. Perhaps there is a problem of perception. Recently, another Italian restaurant, Salvatore’s, opened down the street. It’s more casual, more in the “mangia, mangia’’ vein, with a menu of fried calamari, chicken broccoli Alfredo, and steak with Gorgonzola and Port wine reduction. It telegraphs accessibility with everything from its decor to its font. Bina is more stylish, the food more delicate, the feeling more upscale. But in terms of price, the two are not wildly different.
In other words, Bina is not out of diners’ league as a regular, everyday haunt. If this review were a movie, the restaurant would be the beautiful girl who would date the nerdy guy if only he’d work up the courage to go talk to her. Go talk to her. If you are looking to have a nice meal around Downtown Crossing, there is no reason not to have it here.