Atmosphere and menu invite both casual and more upscale dining
By Rachel Forrest
Hampton Union Spotlight, April 10, 2014
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
There are about a dozen or so chefs in the area I follow around through the revolving doors of our restaurant scene. David Vargas, who has been executive chef at Bonta for about a year, is one of them.
I first encountered Vargas at the Vida Verde food truck in Kittery, Maine, then Cava, and now, he's making Bonta, which, for a time, seemed to have a revolving door of its own in the chef department, one of the Seacoast's upper-tier restaurants.
I've been going to Bonta for many years, through new chefs and staff, and while it's always been thought of as a fine dining, stuffy spot, it's really not. There's an elegant look to it, sure, but soon the white linen tablecloths will give way to something warmer, and kids are welcome. Friend Vicky and I saw some very well behaved kids there on one night. They're also going to do Paint Nights and Movie Nights ("Sideways!").
The ever-wonderful Al is the bar manager and often behind the bar, and the staff is very talented, down to earth and friendly all around. The menu is also adaptable to any of your moods. Want a burger? You got it. A plate of polpette (aka meatballs)? Sure. Dine as you like on food that has plenty of European flair but retains our New England need to chow down.
And here's a rarity from me — save room for dessert — they have an excellent pastry chef, Ashlee Turlow, making breads and desserts.
But Vicky and I decided to, as I like to say now, "dine like grown ups," meaning not in the fun bar/lounge or sitting at the bar like I do quite a bit now, but in the comfortable dining room, which still has Tuscan touches in color, stone and wood. We even bought a bottle of excellent wine, a super Tuscan from Banfi called Summus, because, hey life is too short to drink bad wine.
You don't need to go as far as we did to have a great bottle there — there are some excellent bottles both Old World and New World, even in the $30 range. Our server, Jeremy, was a pro all the way from wine service to recommending dishes and allowing us to babble on at him as the wine disappeared.
To start, we tried the Slow Roasted Veal Meatballs — four spongy light spheres placed atop a creamy herbed ricotta ($11). The ricotta created a rich sauce with the tomato sauce covering the meatballs. That and bread might be all you need.
Oh. Bread. Yes. A basket with small white rolls, a sweet dark bread, crisps — so many varieties come served with butter, olive oil and an olive tapenade.
Bucatini pasta (thick, hollow spaghetti) comes tossed with sweet Maine shrimp gems, fava beans, and nettles for a bit of bitter ($14), all in a light buttery sauce. The House Made Mozzarella is light and milky fresh, topped with 17-hour tomatoes, which makes them sweet and dark. Top each little layered treat with the accompanying pesto and take a bite of salty crisp pumpernickel ($10). I've also tried the Gnocchi alla Romana, which is fantastic. It's prepared in the roman style — the gnocchi are rounds or discs layered in a casserole and baked. You're served a plate of mushroom ragout to add as you wish ($16).
The pickled oysters three ways ($11) are gorgeous; one with red beet, making it tart and earthy; one with crisp diced cucumber; and then one with granny smith apple. We also tried some tastes from the Restaurant Week Portsmouth and the Seacoast menu (which is still going on so you can catch these dishes): the House Made Gnocchi (the type we're used to around here) were light and cooked perfectly, tossed with large shrimp and a house smoked bacon with sweet oven roasted tomatoes and the Casa Fatta di Vitello Salsiccia (they love sausage here) is thin discs of juicy veal sausage topped with an egg yolk poached in red wine that becomes a sauce.
On to entrees. There are plenty of pasta dishes to try, like a lasagne or black pepper pappardelle with house-smoked bacon, leeks, and cream, but we went for Roasted Pork Tenderloin with two plump prosciutto-wrapped pieces of the tenderloin, and also pork cheeks with cavatelli and kale. The cavatelli was the only miss for me — it was too chewy, but the meat and beans were fantastic in a rich sauce of stock and mellow herbs ($28). The meat is infused with a flavor that reminded me of mint and citrus.
We had the Duck Breast with beautiful cranberry beans, brussels sprouts, kale and the house-made sausage, all of the latter vegetables tossed together in a hash-like melange of different textures and tastes ($27). Refreshingly, there was not a potato to be found in either of these dishes. You can get some on the side if you like.
And dessert. Thankfully, a startlingly delicate and delicious Limone Semifreddo with almonds and shortbread cookie will migrate from the Restaurant Week menu to the regular menu. It's the perfect ending to a meal here. But so was the House Made Donut dish, the doughnuts dense and glazed, served with a little cup of almond milk and a scoop of apple butter to spread on the piping hot treats ($8). You get three of them, so share. We tried the Ricotta Crepes as well — two light crepes filled with sweet ricotta and a sauce of blood orange and champagne for light, tart and sweet combination ($8).
Bonta can be anything you want it to be. A stop for a drink and a snack (they even do pizzas in the bar), sharing appetizers in the dining room, dessert, or a special celebration with food and drink that soothes and uplifts from this fantastic kitchen team in a welcoming setting.