Bin 26 Enoteca has been a hit since the day it opened—something unexpected on Beacon Hill, where sedate behavior is the norm and the most action you’ll find is the clubby conviviality of 75 Chestnut. Every night here is a party, with the kind of beautiful people you see at Stella in the South End—ironic given that Stella’s chef-owner and the former occupant of this space, Evan Deluty, could never get his Torch to catch fire.
The spark at Bin 26 is brother and sister Babak Bina and Azita Bina-Seibel, who also own Lala Rokh. The vibe, though, could hardly be more different. Preternaturally tranquil Lala Rokh shows off the herb-fragrant dishes of Persia, while at buzzy Bin 26 what’s on the plate is meant to be a pleasant accompaniment to the real star: what’s in the glass. The décor is elegant and playful, with cork coat pegs and a cork bench near the door, and cork-patterned walls and ceiling panels that come down to meet the walls for a cave-like feeling. (They don’t do a great job at sound insulation, though.) The entire back wall is decoupaged with hundreds of wine labels; the bathroom ceilings are covered with suspended upside-down empty bottles. Created by in-demand Boston firm Office DA (which also did Mantra, still the city’s most striking interior) and local master designer Sandra Fairbank, Bin 26’s look is modern, inviting, and cliché free.
Presented in a loose-leaf binder, the list of 250 to 300 wines by the bottle and 50 to 75 by the glass is engagingly written. (The exception is the annoyingly whimsical first page offering Thunderbird and Night Train by the bottle, which is meant to show how approachable and unpretentious the place is about wine.) The lineup, grouped mostly by grape, is exceptionally interesting and includes some wines rarely seen here, like the Austrian whites that the Binas have long championed. A fleshy, off-dry Brundlmayer gr%9Fner veltliner, a wine as versatile as a great Alsatian riesling but with a bit more acidity, went with pretty much everything we ordered. If you’re feeling more adventurous, the young staffers, far more outgoing and hip than those at Lala Rokh—and outfitted in T-shirts and jeans—are good at helping you choose.
The soigné salads and cheeses and cured meats make terrific snacks to keep the wine going down (in the late afternoon, too—Bin 26, unusually, stays open from lunch straight through dinner).
Bina-Seibel is a gifted cook with a notably strong sense of food. Fresh ingredients have always been central to her cooking, and in the first courses that comes through vibrantly. Bright and peppery mixed greens ($9), lightly dressed, are nicely set off by a crisp Parmesan wafer. Beef carpaccio ($11) with aged Parmesan, baby arugula, and a lemony tarragon dressing is immaculate, the meat tissue-thin and cool. Mozzarella wrapped in pan-crisped speck ($11), a smoked ham from the north of Italy, is both simple and good: The cheese is sweet and succulent, and the sparingly spiced ham the moistest and best flavored I’ve had in Boston—maybe in memory. Soups, too, show off Bina-Seibel’s sense of freshness, particularly a vegetable soup ($9) that’s at once hearty and subtle. I did wish the cannellini soup with dill-flavored shrimp ($9) wasn’t puréed. It’s too smooth for what should be a rustic dish (and, when I tried it, not hot enough, as was true of many menu items).
The satiny Tyrolean speck ($5) is the standout, but the salami and mortadella ($5 each) are remarkable, too, for having pepper and garlic that don’t hit you over the head. Don’t miss the five-year-old Grana Padano cheese ($8), served with balsamic vinegar for dipping—another choice that shows the Binas’ preference for non-sledgehammer flavors.
The best pastas show this same sophisticated restraint. I could eat the ricotta gnocchi with cherry tomato, basil, and baby calamari ($12) every night. The gnocchi is chewy rather than pillowy, but not in the least tough; the sauce is a shocking-red smear as thick and vivid as tomato sauce should be. Linguine with local clams ($12) had just a hint of cherry tomato and a lightly pepper-spiked clam sauce with a lemon juice zing. Bina-Seibel makes the pasta herself, and she knows how to give sauce just the right coating consistency.
Cocoa tagliatelle with porcini ragout ($14), her own invention, has fast become a local favorite. I admired the robust but not overpowering mushroom sauce, with its authoritative note of garlic, more than I did the cocoa flavoring, which made a handsome complement but seemed to do little to enhance the already potent sauce. Still, I’ve seldom seen a more dramatic presentation: Bina-Seibel has found a way to grate Parmigiano-Reggiano into long, luxuriant strands that cover the chestnut-colored pasta and sauce in a lovely straw-gold blanket.
No main course I tried had the same confident clarity, and most were marked by too much salt. Steamed monkfish ($23), wrapped into log shapes with leeks and cut on the bias, came with a coffee-curry sauce that was a failed conceit—the fish dry, the sauce interesting but nothing more. But as always, Bina-Seibel’s hand with vegetables is sure. A cube of roasted and then sautéed spaghetti squash was the highlight of the grilled lamb chops ($26), served with a too-fussy cardamom-lemon-tomato-almond sauce. Probably the most successful overall entrée I tried was the chicken breast with oyster mushroom-mustard sauce ($19).
Do order in advance the chocolate delight ($9), a superior and not-sweet version of the ubiquitous molten chocolate cake. Feel free to ignore the pumpkin-orange purée, which has little to do with the chocolate; a thin caramel sauce will sweeten the chocolate for anyone who misses the excess sugar, which Bina-Seibel wisely omits. The “ThreeRamisu” ($9) is a diverting but kind of silly deconstructed tiramisu. Strawberry mille-feuille ($9) is a delight: crackling lace-cookie circles prettily sandwiched with fresh strawberries and sumptuous mascarpone cream. I get hungry just thinking about it.
As I do imagining what Bina-Seibel told me she made for a private party on New Year’s Eve: champagne risotto served in an emptied wheel of aged Grana she imports herself. What a perfect dish to fit the celebratory, discerningly fizzy mood of Bin 26. She promised to make it again at the end of the next wheel. I hope she places it in the center of the long, friendly, communal table in the bar, and makes the whole table—like the wine bar itself—a party to which everyone is invited.