Molto bene! Bontá rates off the chart

Bontá Restaurant and Bar

287 Exeter Road, Hampton, 929-7932,

By Rachel Forrest, About the Food Critic
The Hampton Union, October 31, 2003

Two years ago it was all talk about Bontá surrounded how unwelcoming it seemed - that it was actually a private club and if you walked in they'd make sure you'd feel unwelcome. So people kept asking me, "So what's up with Bontá? What do you know?"

Gossip. Gossip. Gossip.

But in the past few months I started hearing other rumors -that it was under new ownership, that the atmosphere had changed and that the food was really great. From the moment I called to make my reservation - under my alias - I knew things were going to be fine. I had to call a few times to change the reservation and both times they made me feel special and happy that I was coming.

The restaurant is lovely, with those little white lights all through the trees outside, an even lovelier, gracious lady to greet you, and a warm and classy feeling to the decor. Over to the right is a large lounge and bar area where my companion and I sat to have a pre-dinner drink. There's a great martini list (although I thought that almost $20 for two specialty drinks was a bit much), and a friendly bartender named Al who made us feel like we were the specialty that evening.

But more on the bar later.

We were seated in the dining room at a booth - well - one side was a booth of sorts and the other a chair, a strange combination. At each booth there is a calming painting of a Florentine woman in a gilded frame. On each table sprigs of fresh orchids (my favorite) in yellow or deep burgundy. All lovely touches. And the large stone fireplace in the center of the room adds to the aura that this is a place for a special dinner, but not one where you need to completely dress up. It's my kind of place. Classy yet comfortable.

But it gets better.

Our waitress Emily Clapp has been here for two years and has seen many changes since the place was bought by Houssam Aboukhater, in September 2002. He's a former Fisher Scientific exec who bought the place from a whole group of the same. He's made it more welcoming.

Another change is the Executive Chef, Bob Enigk, who first applied here as a bartender but then came in as a dishwasher two years ago and is now the Head chef honcho. I know. Strange, right? But man oh man, this guy was born to cook. It's in his DNA.

The menu is primarily Italian and Mediterranean in theme of course, but with the added attraction of a small Steakhouse model menu with prime steaks (filet mignon, and what has been described to me as the best NY Strip around) with the traditional sides (creamed spinach, Tuscan fries, and a variety of traditional and untraditional sauces to choose from). I did later chastise Enigk for not including Béarnaise, but hey, I don't own the place!

We started with an antipasto for two - assorted cold cuts like sopressata, delicious green olives and fresh parmesan and tomato on two skewers so we each got one ($10). There was also a pile of layered hot grilled vegetables and a great bruscetta on the plate as well.

We went on to a course of pasta. There are six pastas on the menu, all of which can be ordered as a half-sized app. I had the Lobster Ravioli, four homemade pockets filled with fresh lobster (not just some mixture light on meat) and topped with a pumpkin sauce and fresh whole claw meat in the middle. The sauce was incredible - a bit spicy, smooth, coating the pasta just right, and the lobster was sweet and fresh ($8 for the half size).

My friend tried the Penne Vodka with sun-dried tomatoes and asparagus in tomato vodka sauce ($7 for the half order, $15 for the whole). Our expectation was that the tomatoes might be chewy, but they were not. All the flavors and textures were perfect in this hearty dish.

There's also a Papardelle Bolognese and a Linguine Vongole with littleneck clams - something for everyone.

There are many salads to try like a Mesclun and Hazelnut with gouda and other appetizers like Carpaccio and Grilled Calamari and Octopus both reasonably priced at $10 and $11.

Entrees include traditional Italian fare like Veal Picatta with parma prosciutto and fontina cheese at $25, Osso Buco at $27 and Chicken Milanese at $23.

We opted for Long Island Duck served with Hudson Valley foie gras and roasted yams ($30) and Lamp Top, a tender grilled lamb loin served Mediterranean style with curried eggplant and spinach ($25).

Both were extraordinary. The duck, served sliced and fanned as was a sweet red onion accompaniment had a tangy orange glaze that accented the crisp crust. The meat was medium and so tender and tasty I made the "food face" of ecstasy. I loved the spiced yams - a great choice for the season.

The Lamp Top loin was encrusted with Mediterranean spices, a hint of cumin and augmented with the curried eggplant that was still just firm enough to the bite. Another wonderful dish. There are also fish specials daily.

For dessert we had to try the pumpkin creme brulee topped with pepitas and an apple crisp with vanilla ice cream. Both were delicious.

And of course they have an award winning wine list with fine selections in the $33 - $55 range, and a great reserve list as well for special occasions.

And now back to the bar. Thursday nights are martini nights where the martinis are half price from 5:30-7:30 p.m., and a nice Italian bar menu with specialty brick oven pizzas. The bar crowd all seem to know each other, but welcome you into the fold warmly. There's also piano music on Friday nights, and a very enticing wine dinner coming up in November.

Whatever "cold" reputation Bontá had before - forget it. Enigk is in the kitchen working his magic and Aboukhater, who walks around and talks to everyone is a kind, friendly person who has made Bontá a warm, welcoming place to dine well and have fun at the same time.

Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner, world traveler and free-lance writer who lives in Exeter. Her "Wine me, dine me" column appears Wednesdays in the Portsmouth Herald's iT section, and Fridays in iT's Portsmouth.

Food **** 1/2 A very talented chef is preparing wonderful pasta dishes and creative entrees here. He's continuing to "push his own envelope." Some dishes I thought were a bit pricey for the portion.
Service **** Attentive, welcoming and personable. Excellent flow of service. Wonderful phone experience, too.
Ambiance **** The new owner makes sure you feel you don't have to be all gussied up to dine here and he's pulled it off. Yet the space retains the "class" needed to make it a special occasion destination. The bar is really fun.
Overall *** 1/2 I know, I know. I can't help it. The overall experience from phone to finish was wonderful.

About the Ratings ***** - Excellent, **** - Very Good, *** - Good, ** - Fair, * - Poor