Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bar Ombra

David Tamarkin recently wrote a TimeOut review criticizing Bar Ombra for some issue or other that only he would think matters. As usual, he also revealed in that piece the constraints facing a writer with poor work ethic and mediocre ability. I considered doing a whole post tearing apart his review, but then I remembered that Fuckerberg readers have great taste. As people with great taste, you already know that Tamarkin has little, so I need not bore you with details. Instead, this post will be a review of what you should eat when you go to Bar Ombra, a unique and fun place with delicious food.

At its core, Bar Ombra is a cicchetti bar. You do not want to make a Tamarkin-like mistake and miss what might be the 2 most iconic items in the cicchetti universe: baccala mantecato and sarde in saor. Having prepared these things more than once, I can tell you that as simple as they seem when you eat them, they are not easy to get right. Baccala mantecato is what some people call Italian brandade, but unlike brandade, this Venetian version has no cream or potato to ease the emulsification process. A proper baccala mantecato is made from little more than good cod and good olive oil, whipped together in a highly controlled frenzy to form a smooth emulsification where the taste of the fish and the taste of the oil shine. Bar Ombra gets it right, producing a luscious, uncomplicated and delicious spread that sits atop simple polenta squares or triangles. It’s adorned with, well, nothing.

Bar Ombra’s sarde in saor is not as true to tradition as versions throughout Venice, but I may have liked it even more. Traditionally, this preparation was used to preserve the bounty from Venetian waters; when people couldn’t eat the catch quickly enough to avoid spoilage, they’d preserve it in a vinegar and onion based marinade after giving it a quick fry. At every place I tried this dish in Venice, it was served after several days in that marinade, in various stages of pickling. At Bar Ombra, the fish seemed to have been lightly fried just that day, so while it absorbed plenty of the marinade in whatever time they had to meld, it also retained much of it’s fresh-from-the-sea quality. It was easy to tell that these were terrific, oily sardines, still crisp from frying and balanced wonderfully by a sweet and sour marinade that had raisins and, thankfully, a lesser bounty of onions than most of the Venetian versions.

I enjoyed many more dishes, but three were clear favorites. Arancini neri - risotto balls with crispiness on the outside and creaminess on the inside, had a black-as-night interior color that housed the pure flavor of squid ink. Perfectly hard-boiled eggs with tonnato sauce were great too, and had the kind of tongue-tingling acid, balanced by richness, that you want to whet your palate at the start of a long meal. Simple fried smelts with fried, thin slices of lemon were wonderful too, adding Bar Ombra to a growing list of places, including The Purple Pig, that do wonderful versions of Italian-style fish fry. I was less impressed by the calamari neri, which seemed too salty and a little flat – surprising in light of how good the arancini were. The only mild disappointment of the night.

Bar Ombra has a massive menu. My ordering strategy was, for the most part, to let the owner – whom I’ve gotten to know through visits to Anteprima over the years– choose our dishes. It’s possible that there are some relative duds somewhere on the menu, but from my seat at the expansive counter, Bar Ombra was one heck of a place that I look forward to frequenting.

Bar Ombra
5310 N. Clark
773-505-8600