I write about restaurants and I work in a restaurant, so it should come as no shock that most of my conversations with others (and, if I'm being truthful, with myself) revolve around the local dining scene. Earlier this year, I became kind of obsessed with Bamba Bistro, located in a little brick castle on the fringes of the East End. I had never been there, and no one in my vast and fearsome network of informants could give me any dish on the place, because they hadn't been there either. Yet someone is clearly dining at Bamba, otherwise it wouldn't have stayed open for so long. So who goes there? And what do they know that I don't?
"We have a big repeat customer base," says Christine Wright, general manager at Bamba, "but we don't seem to be reaching many new customers. Special events are what keep us going right now, to be honest; if it wasn't for them, it would be very difficult."
Bamba opened 10 years ago in place of the decidedly more upscale Rio Bamba, when the late Robert H. Hurlbut became the sole owner after being a silent partner in Rio Bamba. "He bought Bamba Bistro because he wanted to give back to Rochester," says Wright. "He didn't want it to be just for the stuffy and the elite; he wanted it to be for everybody."
And though the vibe may be relaxed, the food — which boasts Italian, French, and Asian influences — is not. "Fine dining in a casual atmosphere" is how Wright describes Bamba. The elegant building has housed restaurants since the mid-1940's, but was originally constructed as a single-family home in 1880 by a doctor as a wedding present for his daughter. A stately staircase greets you at the entrance, followed by a big, robust bar as you veer to the right. The main dining room is relatively new construction, added on in the 1970's and featuring a series of swooping archways over dark wood furniture that is beginning to show its age.
There are several constants on the Bamba menu, which changes along with the seasons, and my visits straddled spring and summer. The outstanding French gnocchi ($11/$18) is Bamba's signature dish, and it is unlike the ricotta, potato, and semolina incarnations to which you may be accustomed. Made from the same pâte à choux dough that typically finds its way to an éclair, the French gnocchi are lightly sautéed after a quick boil then served with peas, mushrooms, and summer squash in a subtle garlic sauce redolent of earthy, voluptuous truffle. French gnocchi is not as filling as its denser cousins, and the smaller size made for a superb shared starter.
The duck wings ($7/$12) are a winner, too, fried and tossed in what was billed as "sweet and sour sauce" but seemed to be more along the complex lines of hoisin. The popular Chinese condiment also served as a dipping sauce for the fresh spring rolls, the contents of which change daily. One fragile composition starred crabmeat, noodles, carrots, cucumber, and fresh herbs ($7), the clean yet unassuming flavors a good vehicle for the surprisingly spicy hoisin. Squid fans should appreciate Bamba's take on calamari ($11), the lightly battered and beautifully tender pieces served in a piquant, tomatoey puttanesca, with roasted red peppers and slow-cooked onions, as well as capers and kalamata olives that provided necessary brininess.
Unfortunately, an utter lack of salt ruined an otherwise promising grilled chicken and baby bok choy soup, which was packed with protein and vegetables but somehow made it to my table without seasoning. Happily, however, a grilled quail salad ($8/$12) was on deck, the poultry piping hot, perfectly prepared, and bedded down in crisp watercress and frisée with a scattering of plump raspberries and blueberries, plus two small hemispheres of pepper-crusted goat cheese, which I cozied up to the quail in order to take the chill off of them. The raspberry vinaigrette also seemed slightly underseasoned, the vinegar a little too assertive, but if you like pretending to be a giant, tiny quail legs are crucial.
Bamba's classic crab cake ($12) is unique in that it's shaped into a tallish cylinder rather than the traditional patty, meaning less surface area for crust aficionados but more unadulterated seafood for crab lovers. You can taste a hint of lemon among the delicate blue crabmeat, which gets a bit of crunch from cornmeal and is accompanied by micro greens and remoulade, a classy, decadent relative of Thousand Island dressing. And by now you've probably noticed that I'm not a big entrée girl, but I adored the expertly frenched pork chop ($25), the hot juices mingling with the sweetness of the caramelized onion sauce and the bitter broccolini, which had been kissed with crushed red pepper and paper-thin slivers of garlic.
The excellent service at Bamba is attentive without being obtrusive; your silverware is frequently replaced, your water is kept full, and your napkin is folded when you get up from your table. And after a year in the Bamba kitchen, Chef Rick O'Hearn is now at the helm. (When asked what he has in store for the fall menu, the Caledonia native played coy: "Surprises.") Meanwhile, as Hurlbut's son, Robert W. Hurlbut, dives into his new ownership role ("He says he's having fun," according to Wright) Bamba maintains its popular Lucky Hour weekdays 4-7 p.m. and recently instituted a Dine & Dash program that features appetizers not found on the usual menu.
I didn't sample anything from a wine list that appeared to be both comprehensive and reasonably priced, but I began one visit with a lovely cocktail known simply as Fresh ($8), made from Tanqueray Rangpur gin, lemongrass simple syrup, strawberries, and champagne. As for the other end of the meal, I'm usually wary of a descriptor that contains quotation marks, but the coconut "sushi" ($7) was a satisfying dessert, both basic and brilliant: housemade vanilla ice cream rolled in toasted coconut and drizzled with harmonizing chocolate and caramel sauces. The ice cream was almost too hard to get a spoon through, but it was worth it. And on the upside, the freezer at Bamba Bistro kicks ass.