March 2010: Tastemaking: Reinventing Bina: Donna Garlough: Bina Osteria

Can a new chef help a hard-luck eatery reclaim its magic?

By Donna Garlough | Boston Magazine |

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.

  • mark

    The old Chef’s food fit the room very nicely. Why did he leave? The gnocchi, and the carbonara were awesome. The moscato dessert was my favorite in Boston. Everything seems to be in a state of confusion there. Even if you use the restroom you’re not sure if you are getting on the subway or if you are in an Osteria.

  • Lou

    If they spent so much on opening the restaurant to begin with, why didn’t they get it right the first time. What will 3.0 be, a burger joint?

  • Ars

    Actually, I think Brian Konefal left because all his customers died of cardiovascular complications.
    Garlough has got it completely wrong: The restaurant is spot on with the new chef.

  • max

    Boston Magazine and this writer should be ashamed of themselves. The Bina’s success as restauranturs spans nearly three decades in this city. I have loved all their restaurants and how they have changed the eating scene. LOVE the new menu at their osteria.

  • Ernie

    Try to be a little less obvious if you’re going to post from the kitchen. I think this was pretty gentle actually. Last time I was there the food was nearly inedible. To be fair, I haven’t been there since the new chef. Might try again since it was so unbelievable when the former chef was there, but I’m pretty gun-shy after my last experience.

  • Ars

    In other words: you have no idea what you’re talking about concerning the content of the article. Great! P.S. It’s not from the kitchen; just another customer who likes to eat at the bar.

  • John

    Given that this column is normally more like an ad and I can’t recall it EVER being critical of an establishment it profiled, I was surprised to read this. Did you like the food, Donna, or did that not matter to you? Have you ever met an accomplished chef who is thrilled when a customer walks into their restaurant and says they are not interested in anything on the menu and would like a special order? I don’t think so. What sets BiNA apart from most restaurants in Boston is that they will do it, whether they like it or not, without attitude, because they care about their customers and want them to come back!

  • John

    While I feel the food at BiNA was never bad, no one can argue that “menue 1.5″, put in place after Konefal’s departure, was certainly uninspired. It never left me wanting more, so I stopped going. After hearing BiNA had a new chef, I stopped in for dinner, dragging along a friend who was still feeling the sting of a bad experience on his last visit. The new menu has some of the old favorites, like the steak tartare, and lots of new additions, with several vegetation options. We ordered a little of everything and waited, not knowing what to expect. We were both thrilled; the food-in my opinion very different from anything they served in the past-was excellent from start to finish! And it didn’t hurt that the price seems to have dropped across the board. The service, however, still does not match that of the Bina’s other restaurants: Bin 26 & Lala Rokh.

  • Ernie

    How is this a critical or unfair article? It seems to me that it is a simple discussion of a relaunch, asking questions around whether the owners are on the same page. And that doesn’t even happen until almost the end. I read it as a very long question. Certainly not “DISGUSTING.” Rawwwrr!

  • Ars

    I do have to agree with both John & Ernie. “Disgusting” is certainly an overstatement. Pointless article would me more like it. What the article does, it completely misses the point in my opinion. Guadagnin, the new chef, worked for a few years at “Aimo e Nadia” in Milan which is certainly the best Italian restaurant in Europe (I ate there three times a couple of weeks ago). Wasn’t Garlough even a little bit curious to try his food? I can’t believe that it would have been a totally different article if she had sampled half a dozen dishes from what now looks like an enormous menu (especially if you compare it to Konefal’s menu, which, to put it mildly, was extremely limited); and, it now is a menu that really is unlike anybody else’s. Personally, I think the food is spectacular.
    Since, as I said before, I mostly eat at the bar, I can’t speak to the service: although, when I’ve invited a dozen or so people, the service has been stellar. I’m taking 40 people at the end of April and will

  • Mark

    When is Devra going to re-review it. Her opinion is about the only one I trust. The food is not even close to what it used to be. I’ll go back again when I’m not going to be disappointed. Bin 26 and Lala Rohk are not good restaurants, but they are good concepts. They over reached with Bina.

  • Ars

    If you think those are not good restaurants, you probably adore Burger King. Must be a member of Yelp

  • Mark

    I didn’t Lala Rohk and Bin 26 were bad did I? Just not what I would consider good. Toro, Butcher shop, Rialto, Salts, Hungry Mother, Coppa, trattoria Toscana, Craigie. Those are pretty good places to name a few in Boston. The other two restaurants we were talking about simply do not compare.

  • Ars

    That’s exactly what I expected when I read your previous comment. If you think that those places serve outstanding food, there is no point to have a dialogue. You’re mired in deepest provincialism, as those places are. You’re quote is “Bin 26 and Lala Rokh are not good restaurants.” yesterday’s food section of the Globe essentially said, coincidentally, “there’s Lala Rokh and then there’s everybody else.” I was going to suggest we meet at the bar at either place & I’ll give you an education, but, we don’t speak the same culinary language

  • Ars

    Why would you trust Devra First instead of your own taste?

  • Mark

    We’ll get one thing out of the way quickly, I just happen to think Devra is the best reviewer in Boston that’s all.
    Yes, clearly we don’t speak the same “culinary language” I guess you wouldn’t consider me a provincialist if I had the same opinions as yours. I prefer a culinary education that is learned in the kitchen, not at the bar. I can’t believe that you consider Tony Maws, Gabriel Bremer, Jamie Bissonette, Ken Oringer, Barry Maiden to be “mired in deepest provincialism” You must be a serious badass. Oh yeah and why are you so hostile.

  • Lou

    This restaurant fall short on every front because it is a half baked idea. They hired a top notch architect, a world class chef and pastry chef, an experienced management team and yet, they couldn’t