Dining Out, A Perfect Blend

Boston really needed a chic Italian wine bar. That seems obvious when you see the throngs pushing into the sleek, tight spaces of Bin 26 Enoteca. On a recent weeknight, laughter reverberated as waiters carrying plates and bottles of wine wove their way through tables, past the line forming along the entrance. A couple at the bar chatted as they studied the wine selections with the bartender, and a group of young diners compared neighborhood real estate prices as others squealed when friends walked in. An urbane scene, and except for the language, it almost could be Rome instead of Beacon Hill.

Azita Bina-Seibel and her brother, Babak, opened Bin 26 in early September in the space that was formerly Torch. The two are known for their nearby Persian restaurant, Lala Rokh. But Bina-Seibel, who is the chef, has a long history in Italian cooking — she was one of the original owners of Ristorante Toscano farther down Charles in the 1970s and also owned the former Azita in the South End.

Her version of Italian has little to do with the vestiges of red sauce in the North End or even the big-plate descendants of Todd English’s original style at Olives. Instead, the dishes are sophisticated, rather spare creations meant to complement wines rather than knock you over. As Bina-Seibel says in a phone interview, the aim is a simple menu for a casual place with dishes she tries to keep to four ingredients.

Simple doesn’t mean boring. A tomato soup has chunky texture and amazing intensity despite, to my taste, being only tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and a few herbs. Four ingredients, but a great soup. One warm evening a seafood salad, with each shrimp, curl of calamari, and mussel carefully poached, sits above a pool of light tomato cream. Slightly runny mozzarella plays off its wrapping of speck (an Italian ham) that’s been crisped so that its salty taste and crunchy texture both hold the cheese and give it verve. The appetizer is so appealing that it seems to grace every table, I notice as I look around.

Two pastas are a study in contrasts. Ravioli with scallop filling and a sweet pea sauce is delicate and almost too mild, and the sauce looks like sludge. There’s nothing wrong here that more salt and a spot or two of color wouldn’t fix. But then there’s an unusual cocoa tagliatelle, a dark tangle of pasta ribbons tossed with slivers of porcini. It’s spectacular: The pasta gains a depth and texture, but no sweetness, from cocoa, and the porcini buttresses the woodsy, autumnal flavors. And then there’s the elusive grace note of nepitella, or calaminth, an Italian cross of oregano and mint. Without meat and only a few elements, this is still a rich and voluptuous dish.

Bina-Seibel’s inventiveness carries onto the main courses. Rabbit is stuffed with eggplant that’s been sliced like mushrooms, called Funghetto-style. The mild rabbit gets a boost from the eggplant, plenty of herbs, and a hint of tomato. Like the pasta, the bolder fish dishes trump the oven-baked bass with a wild mushroom crust. It’s virtuous, and the barley accompaniment nicely nutty, but too meek. Steamed monkfish wrapped in a curl of leek and sauced with a coffee-laced curry sauce is much more successful. The sauce is subtle, never overwhelming the meaty fish, but it piques interest, so that it’s necessary for me to taste it again and again, and each time I notice a slightly different nuance — a hint of spicy heat, a shadow of the coffee, a little pepper. Tuna wrapped in bacon is more straightforward, getting its strength from the natural pairing of this most meaty fish with pork.

Bin 26 has a revolving list of cheeses, charcuterie meats, and a long wine list. It would be a perfect place to stop by for just a bite, and Bina-Seibel says she sees customers return over and over. The closely placed tables and the noise against the hard surfaces can either make the place feel festive, or a little claustrophobic. But the wait staff seems to work hard to be welcoming even when there’s a crowd. It obviously does take some juggling, though, and I find myself wondering if, like Toro, the restaurant’s popularity will make it necessary to arrive at 6 or wait until the last bell.

As I ponder this, I’m tasting the ThreeRamisu, a takeoff on the ubiquitous tiramisu. Here the conceit is to split it up — a small classic tiramisu, delicious tiramisu ice cream, and a little tiramisu shake. Another dessert, a strawberry millefeuille, is pretty to look at but a little bit of a letdown in flavor. The tiramisus, though, are delectable little examples of deconstructionism. It’s worth the crush, I decide, plotting my return for some cheeses, a glass of wine, and maybe more tiramisu.

Heady Combination

With an eclectic list of 200-plus wines, Bin 26 was an instant sensation on Beacon Hill. The accomplished food will keep that buzz going.

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.

Bin 26 Enoteca, Wine and Whimsy in Beacon Hill

The little space that used to be Torch has been taken over by Babak Bina and Azita Bina-Seibel of Lala Rokh. Contrary to reports, it’s been extensively remodeled and now fits 70 diners. The theme, as the name states, is wine, but the brother-sister team is as whimsical and fun with a wine bar as they are serious about Persian cuisine at Lala Rokh. The menu — initially reported to be mostly Italian, mostly small plates, and adjuncts to wine — has gotten rather innovative within those parameters. I don’t think anyone else in town serves monkfish in a coffee-based curry sauce, nor cocoa pasta with wild mushrooms. But Bin 26 Enoteca does.

Let’s start with the wine list. It’s a loose-leaf book of about 26 pages, mostly organized by grape variety. But the owners have deliberately collected some very unusual grapes, and in the catch-all category you can’t always tell whether the grapes are red or white.

Four to five dozen wines are served by the glass, or in any of these four categories: a 100-milliliter taste, a 250-milliliter carafe (two typical glasses), a 500-milliliter carafe (two thirds of a bottle), or 750 milliliters (the standard wine bottle). The wine glasses vary for reds, whites, and sparklers. All but the last are oversize to gather more bouquet. (Real Champagne flutes — not those wide Champagne toasters — are narrow to show off the bubbles.)

I had my first taste of a sauvignon gris, the 2006 Cousiño-Macul ($12/$26/$44/$58). No, it wasn’t picked last month; it’s from Chile and is a spring vintage. The grape is a pink variety of sauvignon blanc from Bordeaux, but the wine has both the full body of white Graves and some of the tropical aromas of the New Zealand sauvignon blancs. It’s definitely a grape worth exploring in the Chilean version, and is reportedly being replanted in Bordeaux as well. A 2003 Chianti classico of Castello D’albola ($7/$10/$28/$40) was smooth and rich, but somewhat monochromatic. This might be the result of that super-hot vintage, so it’s worth trying the riserva bottle. Our main bottle of wine, a Bourgogne passetoutgrains ($45) from Herbert Lignier, was an exotic combination of pinot noir and gamay, the grape of Beaujolais. This one leans toward the gamay, which makes it almost as light as Beaujolais, but also keeps the Beaujolais acidity and a little spiciness for fish dishes. The pinot noir contributes a little weight and vegetable nose, but I’ve had this blend in more Burgundian style.

Food starts with some old friends of wine: crusty Italian bread with holes and top-quality extra-virgin olive oil. Four of the appetizers are cheese platters ($6/each; $18/four). Our taleggio was a beautiful series of wedges criss-crossed on a dark tile, with walnuts, arugula, giant grapes, and thick honey — in fact, somewhat granulated and over-the-hill honey. But the cheese itself was fine, although not super ripe and smelly like some. A Tuscan pecorino, a firmer cheese, was cut into more elegant long wedges in the same presentation and had a nutty aged flavor with just a bit of sheepiness.

Charcuteries ($5/each; $16/four) include prosciutto, real Bolognese-style mortadella, fairly compelling Genoa salami, and — my favorite — speck, cut as thin as prosciutto but with plenty of smoke to it. We had all four, served with gherkins and horseradish sauce.

A white-bean soup ($9) was puréed with roasted red pepper to make it look like a thickened tomato soup. The first surprise was an effective dose of dill; the second was a pair of perfectly grilled shrimp as a kind of garnish. Soup in a big bowl loses heat, however, so some service adjustments are needed here. The carpaccio ($11) was one of the most beautiful and delicious I’ve ever had. The sliced raw beef was so uniformly pink it looked like a pool of raspberry sauce under an arugula-fennel salad.

Now about that coffee-curry monkfish ($23). The fish was chunked and wrapped in single leek leaves, adding only a subtle flavor. The side vegetables were a few carrots and quite a few slightly cooked cucumbers. But the sauce was brilliant. Coffee became an aromatic spice like cumin in an unconventional curry that didn’t taste like Indian food, but did taste spicy and complicated, without overwhelming a mild-flavored fish.

The cocoa tagliatelli ($14) was less exotic. Cocoa without sugar in pasta provides more color than flavor, creating a brown pasta that complements the woodsy appearance and flavor of wild mushrooms (mostly porcini with some shitake). A peppery undertone finished a flavor spectrum likely intended for old cabernet-based or Rh%99ne wines.

Sea bass ($20) was one nicely filleted chunk, perhaps a New England tautog or black sea bass, served on barley risotto. Hangar steak ($21) is a nice version of the bistro specialty (like a thicker skirt steak from another part of the diaphragm), rare as ordered, with sautéed broccoli rabe.

The dessert list is short, and perhaps intended to go with dessert wines, of which there is a long list. If you have wine left, you could always go back to a cheese plate. “ThreeRamisu” ($9) is one classic tiramisu, a shot glass of tiramisu-flavored egg nog, and a scoop of espresso-flavored gelato. Strawberry milles feuilles ($9) actually had about trois feuilles (leaves), but was a lovely little strawberry shortcake with lots of flavor for the season. Molten chocolate cake ($9) was just that, with a fun pumpkin sauce.

Service in a suddenly very popular room was pretty good; servers were decently patient while customers navigated the complicated wine list and menu, and left a gap after appetizers. However, coffee didn’t come until after the desserts. The space is darker than Torch, but the background music (Cesara Evora, early) is still torchy. The décor features wine bottles hung sideways on long racks, interspersed with granite-pattern laminate, which also makes some bench seating. The back wall is wine labels — the kind of wall it would take a home hobbyist years to assemble. I’d rather taste wine in a less distracting environment, but the big glasses make up for that, and the food is a treat even if you don’t drink. If you do, the wine list will keep you fascinated for years, and by then they will have found even weirder selections.

Best New Wine Lists ’07

The second beacon hill venture from brother-sister team Babak Bina and Azita Bina-Seibel is a wine bar that offers 60 by-the-glass choices, along with whimsical bottle selections like Thunderbird and Boone’s Farm. But this small- producer-heavy, 200-plus-selection list is decidedly un-Thunderbird-like in its quality, with entire sections dedicated to top importers, like Spanish specialist Jorge Ordoñez and grower-Champagne maven Terry Theise—good choices for Bina-Seibel’s eclectic Italian menu. Details 26 Charles St.; 617-723-5939.

 

Simple’s the New Fancy

Babak Bina and Azita Bina-Seibel’s Persian hot spot Lala Rokh has been a romantic Beacon Hill destination for years, and with good reason—where else in the city can you get haute Iranian cuisine served in a modestly elegant setting? I go for the pickled baby eggplants alone. Still, no one (myself included) could have guessed that a pair of chef-owners who have spent the last decade with palates firmly planted in the Middle East would be able to convincingly pull off an Italian enoteca. But pull it off they did, complete with 30-page wine bible (helpfully indexed), an electronically controlled pouring system (microliter accuracy), and a knowledgeable wait staff to boot. The wine list is crafted to feature exotic grapes and combinations that most people probably haven’t tried, so after you spend the first half-hour of the meal reading through the detailed descriptions in the bible, you should give up and let the waiter help you decide.

For example: the buttery and toasty 2006 Moris Vermentino from Toscana ($7/100ml, $40/bottle) that came matched with the whole Mediterranean sea bass perfectly brought out the richer flavors of the generally mild fish that a dryer, more acidic wine would have missed. Branzino (as the fish is called in Italy), with its single-serving size, good flavor, and minimal bone structure, has become a popular menu staple at high-end rustic restaurants, but simple rustic preparations often reveal the inadequacies of the cook: if all you’re doing is stuffing it with thyme and lemon and grilling it, your grilling technique better be spot-on. Fortunately, at Bin 26, it is. The skin is rendered into a crispy, salty, smoky, melt-in-your-mouth sheath that easily pulls away with a puff of steam to reveal the subtly perfumed flesh underneath. A smattering of sautèed haricots verts form the obligatory garnish for the plate, and a swirl of red-pepper coulis completes the Mediterranean theme, but neither one is necessary — this fish speaks for itself. Here’s a hint if you’re sharing the dish: poke the tiny cheeks out with the tip of your fork to steal the best bite.

Every Day with Rachael Ray

Gossip over one of 60 wines by the glass at Bin 26 Enoteca, a playful bar with cork walls and wallpaper made of Italian wine labels. The liquor license requires customers to eat while they drink, so share a cheese plate or a lobster salad.

Wine…and Dine

Harvard MagazineHarvard Magazine

In Italian, enoteca denotes a special shop where patrons sample wines from nearby vineyards by sniffing and sipping as they nibble on small meals or snacks designed to complement specific vintages. Such is the idea behind Bin 26 Enoteca on Beacon Hill. The brother-sister team of Azita Bina-Seibel and Babak Bina (who own Lala Rokh, a very good Persian restaurant nearby) has crafted a convivial spot where boldly flavored Italian-inspired food is served with 223 wines, including more than 70 available by the glass. That’s many more than most restaurants, thanks to a machine that preserves shelf life by filling a partly empty bottle with nitrogen to preclude entrance of the dreaded spoiler, oxygen. through the detailed descriptions in the bible, you should give up and let the waiter help you decide.

Somewhat confusingly, glasses come in four sizes, from 750 milliliters (an entire bottle) down to 100 (about a third of a standard wineglass). The owners provide a wonderful variety, including organic wines and offerings from smaller vintners, and the system allows diners at any level of oenophilia to mix and match (and learn about) exquisite wines. As wine appreciation in the United States grows, Bina explains, “palates are understanding that there are so many wines to enjoy without prejudgment.” (Be warned, though: numerous tastings can prove expensive.) through the detailed descriptions in the bible, you should give up and let the waiter help you decide.

We began with a semi-fizzy Basque country wine, Txakoli Arabako Txakolina “Xarmant” Amurrio 2007, which played well to the crispy grilled sardines ($16) wrapped in grape leaves and served with a rich mèlange of orange and yellow peppers and onions (along with a particularly tasty Tuscan olive oil). Another starter, the chef’s strangely cold and flavorless homemade pâtè ($8), proved the only downside of the evening. through the detailed descriptions in the bible, you should give up and let the waiter help you decide.

The fusilli with wild boar bacon, pancetta, and onion in a tomato sauce ($15) looked like a pile of worms in red clay, but was absolutely delectable—especially washed down with the Gamay Domaine du Vissoux “Cuvèe Traditionelle” Beaujolais, 2006. Also rewarding was the thickly cut duck breast with snippets of rhubarb and cubed turnip ($27). The veggies were a bit undercooked, just as we like them, and the turnip’s earthy, bitter heart and the rhubarb’s springy sourness balanced the rich meat. So good was the “horsy, barnyard” essence (so said our waiter) of the accompanying Brucher Pinot Noir, Aubaine Vineyards, California, 2004, that we later went on line to order our own case. Downright airy (next to the duck) was Mediterranean sea bass ($29) grilled with lemon, thyme, and asparagus: an honest dish lured to the wild side by a seductive red-pepper coulis. through the detailed descriptions in the bible, you should give up and let the waiter help you decide.

For dessert, don’t fail to try the chocolate berry “stack” ($9): two squares of dense, mousse-like cake with a scoop of tangy raspberry gelato. (Let’s just say we licked the plate clean.) The lime cream tart ($9) boasted a fine custard with shortbread, accented with pine nuts and rhubarb steeped with sugar and strawberries. through the detailed descriptions in the bible, you should give up and let the waiter help you decide.

The loving care taken with both food and wine is evident throughout this unexpectedly refined local bistro. The place seats about 65 people in two small rooms and a nicely incorporated front bar; it’s cozy, not overcrowded. But sparseness rules; any decorative touches are wine-related: coatracks of cork, a wall decoupaged with hundreds of wine labels, and wine racks affording privacy. At Bin 26, even the bathrooms are worth a visit. Just look up.

National Geographic Traveler Blog

IT—Inside Traveler, by Jessie Johnston and Emily King
…I had some particularly delicious meals in Boston, beginning with a late dinner at Bin 26 Enoteca on Charles Street. The new wine bar (it opened several weeks ago) was packed when we sat down for dinner at 9:30 p.m. We enjoyed our Italian-inspired, locally sourced food—as well as the bottle of Prosecco—and they catered to the special requests of my picky friends: No sauce on the fish for Jenn and a very well done hanger steak for Jess. I enjoyed my favorite Italian pasta dish, linguine with clams.