Bonfire has always been my idea of a model neighbourhood bistro, the kind of place every neighbourhood should have. Small, cosy and unpretentious, with a spare but stylish decor -- accented mainly by some colourful prints -- and, not least, moderate prices. The only problem in the past had been the space, which was minuscule and cramped, and the fact that they didn't take reservations. They still don't take reservations, but now it's less of a problem since a second room has been added, more than doubling the seating.
There's a bar with extra seating in both rooms, and banquettes line the walls in both, but the tables seem to be more generously spaced in the new addition.
To go with the expanded space the menu also covers more territory -- still relatively short in its printed form but with several daily specials listed on a blackboard. There are a few permanent meat entrées (two of beef tenderloin and a half rack of lamb) but chef Shaun Ursell's greatest emphasis is on seafoods and pastas. A few are prepared in classic form, but most have a contemporary spin.
The risotto I loved in the past is long gone, but in its stead there's paella -- one of the classics, and a rarity in these parts. And, when found, rarely as good as this near-perfect version (perfection would be chicken on the bone instead of slices of the breast). Liberally tossed with slices of chorizo and a mixture of shellfish, it comes to table in the skillet it was cooked in, with a wonderful layer of crispy rice at the bottom -- be sure to scrape it all up ($21.95).
A fillet of steelhead trout -- pink-fleshed, like its salmon cousin, and moist -- was simply but impeccably pan-roasted, although I thought the zingy basil and balsamic reduction overwhelmed its delicate flavour ($19.50). It was partnered with fresh asparagus and beets, and particularly tasty herb-flecked basmati rice.
Many of the dishes use a combination of clams, shrimp, scallops and fish, and there's a little flotilla of them, along with slices of fennel, in one of Bonfire's long-standing top specialties, the elegant, saffrony cioppino ($16.50). Another marvellous offering with a similar mixture of seafood turns up in a sumptuous dish of linguine with the lightest possible marinara sauce -- tomatoes in many of the dishes are more often an undertone than a powerful presence ($16.95).
Daily specials have included braised octopus, stuffed calamari, cornmeal-crusted red snapper and pickerel with aioli. Some of the other pastas on the regular menu are rigatoni with Italian sausage, fettucini with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes, vermicelli with fire-roasted vegetables, whole-wheat fettucini with spicy eggplant and other veggies in a garlic and olive oil sauce and spaghetti with Bolognese sauce.
The antipasti are available at lunch as well as at dinner. Many of them are bread-based (some form of flatbread with a spread or topping). Not the two I sampled, though, which were not only excellent, but also big enough to either share as starters or to double as a light main course. Ten big, juicy shrimp, for instance, sautéed in white wine, seasoned with garlic and a splash of lemon juice, circling a little mound of wilted field greens; or tiny Manila clams with slices of spicy chorizo and little chunks of artichoke in a vibrant, saffron-tinged marinara sauce ($14.45 each). Both come with two slices of grilled Portuguese water bread sprinkled with olive oil -- so good you may want a separate à la carte order at $3.50.
At both lunch and dinner, chances are you'll see one of the thin-crusted, wood-fired pizzas on some of the tables. They are one of Bonfire's best-known specialties, and good, although my latest sampling -- topped by prosciutto, pears, arugula, St. Agur and mozzarella cheeses, and tomato sauce -- was overwhelmingly salty (a condition more pears and possibly less St. Agur might have remedied). Other toppings include wild mushrooms, Italian sausage, Mediterranean vegetarian, chicken with pesto, pepperoni with mushrooms and a classic Margherita ($11.95 to $16.95)
At lunch you can choose from the full range of pizzas but there will be only one pasta (a daily special). There's also a great, thick sandwich of roasted chicken with roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and hummus on a sourdough panini ($11.95, including salad) as well as one of mixed roasted veggies with cheese, and a daily special.
Desserts also vary daily, but if it's on, don't miss the wonderful pear and apple crumble, served piping hot with ice cream. Bananas foster was luscious as well -- flambéed off-stage and finished with a caramel (but no taste of rum) sauce ($6.95 each). Excellent coffee, too.
The wine list is short with a few interesting choices (and a few monthly features), most over $30. There's also a reserve list ($40 to $70).The only house wines, Pasqua Soave or Sangiovese, are $22 for a bottle, and the Soave isn't great. Service is top-notch -- casual but perfectly knowledgeable about the food, and relaxed even when the place is packed.
Despite the expanded space it would still be wise to come early. Really early -- by 6:30, even all the bar seats in both rooms have been taken, which is probably why dinner is served from 5 p.m. weekdays, and from 4:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday.
Note: According to the restaurant's website, the kitchen's limited capacity makes it unable to accommodate groups larger than six.