Stars Align at Bontà




In the restaurant business culinary staffers seem to be constantly on the move - sometimes that change is good. *** You could easily drive by Bontá Restaurant in Hampton. You might turn your head to take in the rambling Tuscan-style building, but keep on driving. In its out-of-the-way location on Rte. 27, it looks quiet and sophisticated, like a private club, but be reassured, you will be welcomed by the staff and warmed by the gracious interior design. Bontá Restaurant is a really nice facility. The original interior design was done by a Boston firm - Peter Niemitz Design Group - and the rich, inviting style needs little updating. High ceilings with graceful beams, tall paned windows and a stone fireplace in the center offer plenty of reason to sit back and stay awhile. At one end the bar spills over into additional seating at high-top tables surrounded by windows. It's the kind of look that good national chain restaurants try to emulate, but come off looking commercial. Here the look is genuinely homey and inviting. Paul Montrone and several associates developed the restaurant in 2001 so they would have a nice place to enjoy after work or to bring visiting clients. He has since retired but he still owns the restaurant, along with Paul Meister. They recently hired Steve James and John Tinios of Galley Hatch Partners as consultants to focus on the future. James spent 21 years at The Balsams as executive pastry chef, earned credentials as a Master Baker and oversaw the Culinary Apprenticeship Program, mentoring many future chefs and bakers. Tinios has been part of his family's Galley Hatch restaurant for more than 36 years. Together they partnered to develop Popovers On the Square in Portsmouth, melding financial strength and a working knowledge of what good food should be. The Galley Hatch in Hampton is a family restaurant with an excellent bakery, and Popovers is a full service café in Portsmouth with outstanding desserts. You could order a salmon entrée, with the eponymous popover, but you can't leave without giving into more temptation. The pastry case, filled with carefully constructed jewels of pastry art, is simply riveting. Together, Tinios and James have been excelling at providing good food for a good value, but they also understand that the restaurant business is all about people. As an instructor at The Balsam's in Dixville Notch, James trained hundreds of chefs and watched as they went on to forge their own careers. When he finally left in 2002, about 17 staff members left with him. Many of those who left The Balsams in 2002 found their way to the kitchen at Popovers. At the heart of the bakery is pastry whiz Jennifer Beach, one of James' star pupils. And more of his prodigies have turned up in the kitchen at Bontá. James says, "If people don't follow a chef, then something is wrong." Back at Bontá, the James and Tinios team are starting to make their mark. The front of the house staff, many of them long-time devoted employees, were kept on. In the kitchen James brought in Chef Matt Holland, 26, to be executive chef. Holland had been sous chef at the Mt. Washington and trained at The Balsams. James says, "I like young chefs; they have something to prove." Holland says of his former teacher, "Chef James is very demanding, everything has to be perfect." Seems the student and teacher have a lot of respect for one another. The pastry chef, Andy Rose, is a former instructor at Southern New Hampshire University's culinary program and was a journeyman at The Balsams just to work under James. As a bread baker, Rose learned well from his mentor - the bread is fabulous. Tinios brought in Bob Phair as general manager. His people skills and corporate fine dining background make him a perfect fit. At the bar is long-time employee Al "Coach" Neri, who keeps things hopping, especially on Thursdays - Martini Night. Seems as though, at this point in time, the stars have aligned at Bontá. James has combed through the Bontá menu and made adjustments to return to the original concept - Mediterranean. "I just couldn't justify having Asian nachos on the menu," he says. A few menu items reflect James' and Holland's love of classic dishes. One of his favorites is the roasted Atlantic haddock with a lemon-caper aioli crust, the perfect foil for the fish. ($28) With roasted fingerling potatoes, English pea and leek sauce, it sounds like a classic hotel dish - with updates. And so goes the rest of the menu - very classic-sounding dishes, but with interesting counterpoints in flavor. One dish that has been on the menu since day one is the signature chicken under a brick. Thankfully, you don't see the brick. It is just a device to compress the chicken so it cooks evenly and finishes with a nice crisp skin. It works - the breast and thigh were nice and moist and the "natural" chicken had a nice flavor complemented by the accompanying roasted tomato polenta and maple-roasted fennel purée. ($26) Sundays bring a special brunch menu with salads, updated New England classics and the Bontà Benedict with poached eggs, lump crab cake and petit filet mignon. ($28) One could complain that the prices are a bit high for entrées ($24 to $34), but the new team has made sure the serving sizes are adequate and consistent. There is a consensus in the kitchen that the best dishes let the food speak for itself - overloading ingredients with complex flavors would mask the real taste of the quality products used here. The restaurant has two kitchens, and the lower level facility is used for prep work, including all the pastas that are made from scratch daily. With Chef Andy Rose as a full-time pastry chef, all the breads, along with a short list of inventive and classic desserts, are made from scratch. An array of flatbread pizzas are also offered on a separate bar menu. The bottom line is that James and Tinios do not underestimate what it takes to have a successful business. "It's a people business, and when you understand that people need to be appreciated it works out best for everyone," says Tinios. The new team is working out well. Energy is up and with the new improvements Bontá will be on the map with a big star. It is definitely not a drive-by.

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