The Westside’s culinary rockstar Bantam has settled beautifully into its turf. The understated cool ambiance mirrors the menu: Confident without fuss. Repurposed materials and glass walls provide all the industrial chic this restaurant needs. The kitchen and smart service do the rest. After 10 years’ worth of exciting craft cocktails, toothsome pizzas and seasonal appetizers in this boisterous Westside space, I can still be surprised by the flavor pairings executed by chef and founder Ben Sims and company.
While still making references to pasta-and-pizza classics of Italian cuisine, Bantam continues to forge its identity as a cozy 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—keeps regulars coming back for more.
But I never figured this place to be a dessert destination until recently.
For $10, we went straight to paradise with the first bite of a lavender panna cotta; yes, I said lavender, festooned with fat nuggets of orange and almond polenta crumble. The entire dish—large enough for two to share but worthy of a more exciting presentation—was sparked into overdrive by a sprinkling of sea salt flakes. The spoon went through the layers of salted lavender-scented cream custard and into the incredible (inspired!) polenta crumble inflected with orange and almonds. The individual flavor notes conspired into a voluptuous new creation, like the instruments in a flawless string quartet. Easily the best panna cotta I’ve tasted since a winter’s night in Bologna a few decades back.
We sat at one of the high tables by the front window and enjoyed the view of Bantam’s eclectic clientele. Red wine seemed right—a Rhône blend for Jack and a Tempranillo for me. The wines proved to be ideal choices with everything that came next, starting with a Tricolore salad ($15). Composed into a miniature Frank Gehry of deep magenta and green, the dish was lavish with layers of radicchio chicory, green arugula and pale endive. With tart flavors, lots of texture and gorgeous visuals, the salad was generously bathed in a zesty lemon vinaigrette and dusted with wide shaves of pecorino. Our glasses of wine unfolded throughout the meal—the Rhône blend from La Cabotte ($10) evolving into a plummy flavor and the Tempranillo, Sierra Cantabria, Rioja ($13) into shades of dark berries and pepper. A soft green twilight settled into dusk outside Bantam’s huge windows as the decibels began to increase, fueled by the energetic staff and influx of multi-gen patrons. Easy camaraderie is another house specialty.
Tempted by the evening’s entrees, we bypassed the signature pizzas. My companion chose a deep bowl of tiny clams and fat chickpeas gathered in a saffron aioli and wine broth with ribbons of escarole, sprigs of dill and chervil. Crisp potato squares deliciously accessorized 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 laced 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 luxurious 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