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Bantam Is Still the Westside’s Culinary Rockstar

Westside’s Culinary Rockstar bantam Has settled beautifully into its turf. The laid back atmosphere mirrors the menu: confidence without the fuss. Reclaimed materials and walls of glass give this restaurant an all industrial chic feel. The rest is done by the kitchen and smart service. After 10 years of exciting craft cocktails, toothsome pizza, and seasonal appetizers in this bustling Westside spot, I can still be surprised by the flavor pairings executed by the chef and founder. ben sims and company.

Still a reference to the pasta-and-pizza classics of Italian cuisine, Bantam continues to make its mark as a casual showcase for New American fare, from tangy salads to vibrant vegetarian entrees. And, of course, the strategic variety of nightly pizzas—from basic to high-wattage—keep regulars coming back for more.

But till recently I never thought that this place is a desert destination.

For $10, We Went Straight to Heaven With the First Bite of One Lavender Panna Cotta, Yes, I said lavender, orange and almond polenta festooned with nuggets of fat. The whole dish — hearty enough for two people to share but worthy of a more exciting presentation — was livened up with a sprinkling of sea salt flakes. Spoons went through layers of savory lavender-scented cream custard and incredible (inspired!) polenta infused with crumbled orange and almonds. Notes of varying flavor conspired in a brilliant new composition, like instruments in a flawless string quartet. Easily the best panna cotta I’ve tasted since a winter’s night in Bologna a few decades ago.

We sat at a high table near the front window and enjoyed the view of Bantam’s boisterous customers. The red wine seemed perfect—a Rhône blend for Jack and a Tempranillo for me. Wine turned out to be the ideal choice with everything starting with a tricolor Salad ($15). Made in a miniature Frank Gehry of deep magenta and green, the dish was gorgeous, with layers of radicchio chicory, green arugula and pale endive. With pungent flavor, lots of texture, and gorgeous visuals, the salad was generously bathed in a zesty lemon vinaigrette and dusted with wide shavings of pecorino. Our glasses of wine came to the fore throughout the meal – from the Rhône blend la cabote ($10) developing into an earthy flavor and shades of deep berries and pepper in Tempranillo, Sierra Cantabria, Rioja ($13). A soft green twilight settled outside the Bantam’s massive windows as the decibels began to rise, fueled by an influx of energetic staff and multi-gen patrons. Easy cordiality is another feature of the house.

Tempted by the evening’s entrees, we bypassed the Signature Pizza. My companion chose a deep bowl of tiny clams and fat chickpeas gathered in saffron aioli and wine broth with escarole, sprigs of dill and chervil. Crunchy potato squares deliciously accessorize this unexpected creation ($24). Unable to resist the evening’s pasta special, I feasted on plump bucatini tossed in an ultra-tender short rib ragu Garnished with spinach and dusted with Parmesan Reggiano ($24). A centerpiece coil of pasta was garnished with horseradish-infused mascarpone, which soon found its way into every bite. Rich, intense, and compelling, this dish was a love letter to scrumptious Italian-style thinking.

Bantam’s nightly menu is small, so it’s the perfect place to try dishes outside your comfort zone. Oh, and save room for dessert! You won’t be disappointed.

Bantam, 1010 Fair Ave., Santa Cruz. 831-400-0101; bantam1010.com