Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Bar Buca

Bars are not what they used to be. Witness Bar Isabel. The Carbon Bar. Momofuku Milk Bar. And now — oh joy — Bar Buca.

Son of Buca is the ne plus ultra of the process that started when restaurants lost their white tablecloths. Along with losing comfy chairs, reservations and any semblance of welcome. And what a wow that when the super-smart guys at the fabulous Buca opened a branch, they had the savvy to maintain the key elements of hospitality, rather than aping all the other spinoffs in town with too-loud music and scant grace.

Bar Buca’s chairs are comfy even though they’re at communal high-tops. The music is not too loud to carry on a civilized conversation. But most of all it’s about the service (really a lost art in most of our hot restos — like, for example, my recent meal at The County General — son of Splendido — where we ordered apps and mains and they all came at once, after which nobody ever offered us dessert).

Bar Buca’s servers resemble the servers at Buca in all the right ways: They’re beautiful, they’re gracious, they describe what they’re serving in mouth-watering detail, and they pace the meal like a genteel minuet.

In a bar!

It may morph into an actual bar with loud music and intrusive singles after the dinner hour. But that’s so past my bedtime I couldn’t care less. Especially not when they ply me with nutty little chunks of snazzy parmigiano reggiano and hot sausage upon arrival. It’s a cool tall space decorated with steel wine racks and an open kitchen, with an Italian menu that’s deceptively casual but built on fine ingredients.

Bruschetta of duck yolk with beech mushrooms and truffles is what happened when tomato sauce got classy. Vongole alla carbonara is perfectly cooked clams jazzed with guanciale and knit together with egg-enriched sauce. Spiedini (aka skewers) come in various protein permutations but my heart belongs to mozzarella. They skewer ultra fresh balls of mozzarella with lemon leaf and half-dried tomatoes and run them under the salamander (hot hot flame) so fast that the outside goes golden while the heart melts. But does not get drippy.

They do warm focaccia sandwiches, the most fun of which is porchetta: Lean roast pork (for once!) with apple mostarda for sweet, mascarpone for creamy and agliata (garlic and vinegar sauce) for punch. And for the adventuresome, big heat comes from crostini of salty fermented baby smelts with chili and bur rata.

But don’t stop there. Now that L’Unità’s cannoli has lost its soft touch, here is the best cannoli in town: Delicate, crispy and filled with addictive creamed ricotta flavoured with candied orange and chocolate. Inhale, and don’t lose hope — if this is the future of Toronto restaurants sans tablecloths — then we’re safe.

BAR BUCA, 75 Portland St., $45 Dinner for two

Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine.

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