March 2010: Tastemaking: Reinventing Bina: Donna Garlough: Bina Osteria
Can a new chef help a hard-luck eatery reclaim its magic?
There was a time when Bina Osteria had the hottest tables in town. Following its splashy October 2008 debut, the Downtown Crossing restaurant appeared to be Boston’s most promising new culinary destination. Diners and critics swooned over chef Brian Konefal’s hay-roasted quail, Meyer lemon gnocchi, and cerebral presentations he had picked up cooking at New York’s Eleven Madison Park. But just six months later, Konefal and his pastry-chef wife, Paola Fioravanti, departed the restaurant, leaving Bina to become the city’s youngest has-been. The more-casual Italian menu introduced in their wake didn’t measure up, and positive buzz died down fast.
Consequently, owners (and siblings) Babak Bina and Azita Bina-Seibel—who say they spent "millions" on the launch—have decided to reboot. In late January, they brought on a chef with Michelin-starred skills: Bruno Guadagnin, formerly of Milan restaurant Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia and Ristorante Le Vele in Trieste, Italy. They’re hoping his arrival will mark a new beginning.
But how do you relaunch a 16-month-old restaurant? It’s more like a course correction, the owners maintain. They had envisioned an osteria "like the ones in Milan," Bina-Seibel says, and Konefal wasn’t delivering that. "We put a pizza oven in the kitchen, but there wasn’t a single pizza on the menu," she says. The $26-to-$39 entrée prices were too high, says Bina-Seibel, and the food wasn’t Italian enough: too much butter, too much lard, and not enough traditional technique.
Defining a new identity isn’t as easy as installing a new chef, though. And when the owners discuss Bina 2.0, it’s clear there are gaps in the business plan. On one hand, it’s supposed to be a neighborhood spot, says Babak Bina—the kind of place you can call for takeout. Under the former chef, he says, "people didn’t think this was that kind of place." Among other décor changes, they’ve done away with tablecloths to create a more everyday mood, he notes. "We’re here to serve the neighborhood. If someone wants pasta aglio e olio but it’s not on the menu, we’ll make it."
But Bina-Seibel doesn’t seem to share her brother’s crowd-pleasing mentality. Discussing her target market, she unfailingly circles back to her desire to serve what she deems "true" Italian cooking (read: less salt, less garlic). "When people comment on Yelp that our food is underseasoned, I want to ask, ‘What are these commenters’ favorite restaurants?’" she says. "People say, ‘Take a lesson from Teatro or Via Matta.’ But if they like that, why do they need us?"
As vocal as the siblings are about what they will and won’t dish out, what kind of place they will run remains murky. And that, more than the prices, décor, or chef, may have been Bina’s problem from the start.