Boston really needed a chic Italian wine bar. That seems obvious when you see the throngs pushing into the sleek, tight spaces of Bin 26 Enoteca. On a recent weeknight, laughter reverberated as waiters carrying plates and bottles of wine wove their way through tables, past the line forming along the entrance. A couple at the bar chatted as they studied the wine selections with the bartender, and a group of young diners compared neighborhood real estate prices as others squealed when friends walked in. An urbane scene, and except for the language, it almost could be Rome instead of Beacon Hill.
Azita Bina-Seibel and her brother, Babak, opened Bin 26 in early September in the space that was formerly Torch. The two are known for their nearby Persian restaurant, Lala Rokh. But Bina-Seibel, who is the chef, has a long history in Italian cooking -- she was one of the original owners of Ristorante Toscano farther down Charles in the 1970s and also owned the former Azita in the South End.
Her version of Italian has little to do with the vestiges of red sauce in the North End or even the big-plate descendants of Todd English's original style at Olives. Instead, the dishes are sophisticated, rather spare creations meant to complement wines rather than knock you over. As Bina-Seibel says in a phone interview, the aim is a simple menu for a casual place with dishes she tries to keep to four ingredients.
Simple doesn't mean boring. A tomato soup has chunky texture and amazing intensity despite, to my taste, being only tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and a few herbs. Four ingredients, but a great soup. One warm evening a seafood salad, with each shrimp, curl of calamari, and mussel carefully poached, sits above a pool of light tomato cream. Slightly runny mozzarella plays off its wrapping of speck (an Italian ham) that's been crisped so that its salty taste and crunchy texture both hold the cheese and give it verve. The appetizer is so appealing that it seems to grace every table, I notice as I look around.
Two pastas are a study in contrasts. Ravioli with scallop filling and a sweet pea sauce is delicate and almost too mild, and the sauce looks like sludge. There's nothing wrong here that more salt and a spot or two of color wouldn't fix. But then there's an unusual cocoa tagliatelle, a dark tangle of pasta ribbons tossed with slivers of porcini. It's spectacular: The pasta gains a depth and texture, but no sweetness, from cocoa, and the porcini buttresses the woodsy, autumnal flavors. And then there's the elusive grace note of nepitella, or calaminth, an Italian cross of oregano and mint. Without meat and only a few elements, this is still a rich and voluptuous dish.
Bina-Seibel's inventiveness carries onto the main courses. Rabbit is stuffed with eggplant that's been sliced like mushrooms, called Funghetto-style. The mild rabbit gets a boost from the eggplant, plenty of herbs, and a hint of tomato. Like the pasta, the bolder fish dishes trump the oven-baked bass with a wild mushroom crust. It's virtuous, and the barley accompaniment nicely nutty, but too meek. Steamed monkfish wrapped in a curl of leek and sauced with a coffee-laced curry sauce is much more successful. The sauce is subtle, never overwhelming the meaty fish, but it piques interest, so that it's necessary for me to taste it again and again, and each time I notice a slightly different nuance -- a hint of spicy heat, a shadow of the coffee, a little pepper. Tuna wrapped in bacon is more straightforward, getting its strength from the natural pairing of this most meaty fish with pork.
Bin 26 has a revolving list of cheeses, charcuterie meats, and a long wine list. It would be a perfect place to stop by for just a bite, and Bina-Seibel says she sees customers return over and over. The closely placed tables and the noise against the hard surfaces can either make the place feel festive, or a little claustrophobic. But the wait staff seems to work hard to be welcoming even when there's a crowd. It obviously does take some juggling, though, and I find myself wondering if, like Toro, the restaurant's popularity will make it necessary to arrive at 6 or wait until the last bell.
As I ponder this, I'm tasting the threeramisu, a takeoff on the ubiquitous tiramisu. Here the conceit is to split it up -- a small classic tiramisu, delicious tiramisu ice cream, and a little tiramisu shake. Another dessert, a strawberry millefeuille, is pretty to look at but a little bit of a letdown in flavor. The tiramisus, though, are delectable little examples of deconstructionism. It's worth the crush, I decide, plotting my return for some cheeses, a glass of wine, and maybe more tiramisu.