As the historic downtown Salt Lake City building that houses Hotel Monaco has been undergoing renovations for the last six months, Patrick LeBeau decided it was time for the restaurant in the lobby to change, too.
“We pretty much overhauled the entire menu with this renovation,” said LeBeau, executive chef at Bambara, which has been part of Hotel Monaco since 1999. “It just seemed like the right time, with the restaurant being shut down, to really look at what we wanted to do conceptually for the restaurant, overall, and trying to give a little bit more of an identity.”
LeBeau, who has been executive chef at Bambara since August 2022, said that it often felt that the restaurant had a “lack of direction.”
On a hot July evening, LeBeau visits seated guests at the restaurant, introducing himself and giving them recommendations from the new menu. He looks young, but speaks with seasoned confidence as he points to things customers “can’t go wrong with,” like the whipped goat cheese tartine and the prosciutto beignets.
Redesigning the menu while maintaining the things people love about Bambara has meant walking a fine line, LeBeau said.
“We had to toe not deviating too far from what we’ve done for 20-plus years and making sure that the people that have been coming here since day one still recognize and understand it, but really pushing it forward to that next level,” he said.
“When trends change, when seasonality changes, the menu should reflect that,” LeBeau said, “I don’t love dishes that are on the menu for 10 or 15 years [just] because it’s been on there forever.”
LeBeau — who is originally from Rochester, New York, went to school at The Culinary Institute of America and worked at Loews Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri — said he’s always looking for ways to make classic dishes better, to experiment and try something new.
“There’s always things that are being modernized, new techniques being developed in the culinary world,” he said.
Wellington and ‘tiramisu’
For Bambara’s overhauled menu, he said, “We really wanted to focus on Old World techniques for the menu, so a lot of European influences.”
One example, he said, is Bambara’s bison Wellington, a play on the classic beef Wellington — a deluxe cut of meat wrapped in pastry, usually with a mushroom filling.
“There’s not a lot of places that you’re gonna find locally that are doing Wellington, because it is kind of a lost art form,” LeBeau said. It’s performed so well In the past, he said, that the restaurant has made it a priority to make it a staple on the menu. Diners do need to order it 48 hours in advance, though.
“The big focus for me was also being able to find local ingredients that we can highlight in the menu,” LeBeau said. Those include local microgreens, bread, game meat and other items from such purveyors as Bread Riot Bakehouse, Brickhouse Growers and Intermountain Gourmet Mushrooms.
Finding local ingredients — and maintaining his philosophy of “let the ingredients speak for themselves and to not overcomplicate the food” — has led to a summer menu filled with Utah- and Mountain West-coded tastes.
For example, there’s a funeral potato puree served with the filet mignon, Rocky Mountain elk and pan-seared Idaho trout. The restaurant also serves a selection of Utah-brewed beers and a cocktail called “Salt City Classic” — made with wheated whiskey, local salt, demerara sugar and infinity bitters.
LeBeau said his focus on ingredients stems from the way he was brought up in the food industry. That attention is evident — each ingredient and garnish plays a particular role, and the absence of any one would result in an entirely different dish.
The summer menu is light and refreshing, perfect for a hot Utah summer.
There’s the grilled watermelon salad, a precise balance of saltiness and sweetness with heirloom tomatoes and watermelon, topped with pine nuts and basil-marinated feta.
The celery root carpaccio is subtle but thoughtful, with puffed quinoa and black garlic bagna cauda. A bite of the Marcona almond-crusted halibut, a perfectly cooked and crusted fish fit with charred asparagus and confit new potatoes, is divine.LeBeau said three of his favorite dishes on the summer menu are the bison Wellington, the celery root carpaccio and the scallops al la Plancha, which is served with a sweet corn puree, tomato salad and a chorizo vinaigrette.
It’s hard to go wrong with desserts, particularly the blueberry limoncello “tiramisu,” a summer take on the classic dessert. It’s light and fluffy, featuring house-made lady fingers, and tastes better than any regular slice of tiramisu.
Changing with the seasons
Ideally, LeBeau said, the Bambara menu will change four times a year, to match the seasons — though that depends on the Utah weather, he said, noting that Utah didn’t get much of a spring this year.
For autumn, he said he’s excited to highlight hardier dishes, featuring such ingredients as squash, sweet potatoes and peaches — which, LeBeau said, tend to come around in Utah a bit later than in other places.
LeBeau said he tries to visit the Downtown Farmer’s Market every week, or at least every other week, to get his understanding of what is in season and available in Utah.
“The difference that I’ve seen within going to the farmers market the first week versus last week, to me, it’s crazy how different the produce looks,” he said.
The renovation of Bambara will also include two chef’s tables, which LeBeau said are tables located right behind where he and the chef de cuisine work. They will give customers a chance to speak with the chef, and see how the kitchen operates in an interactive way.
The other concept Bambara will tap into is called The Vault, a venue next to the restaurant, that will feature a separate entrance and have a cocktail and bites menu. It’s essentially the bar area of the restaurant, but this is the first update since it first opened.
“One of the biggest projects from this renovation was to figure out how to make the bar into its own identity, and not have it just be another hotel bar,” LeBeau said. “We really want to be able to compete in the Salt Lake market as one of the top cocktail destinations.”
LeBeau said his hope is that everyone who comes to eat at Bambara is satisfied and fulfilled.
“I want to make sure that when you leave here, you’re happy and you don’t have any regrets that we should have chosen somewhere else,” LeBeau said.
“That’s where I get the most pleasure is taking care of people. I’ve been in this industry for 15-plus years now — started off as a line cook, dishwasher, all that stuff, [and] worked my way up. The biggest thing for me is always being able to provide that sense of satisfaction and joy to the customers.”