A towering 150-year-old gate from Pakistan guards Bambola’s entrance. Sections of an 18th-century Chinese courtyard mansion flank the massive, dimly lit interior. What might break the record for the most glass chandeliers per square foot hang from the ceiling. No, we’re not talking about a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a clubby West Loop restaurant (a.k.a. clubstaurant), complete with broadly Asian-European fusion food, live DJ sets, and loud chatter about quarterly earnings and after-dinner party plans.
Bambola describes itself as “A romantic voyage along the Silk Road, as imagined through the travels of a bon vivant and connoisseur.” Translation: there’s lots of ground to cover and no shortage of things to stare at in this restaurant based on the ancient trade route connecting Europe and Asia. But while the “bon-vivant” visuals do awe, reducing real historic relics to mere eye candy for a big, trendy restaurant is icky. Add to that its menu of confusing and lackluster fusion dishes, and Bambola is an appropriative mess.
The most shocking fumble is the wok-fried risotto. The crispy bits annihilate the soft and creamy aspect that makes risotto, well, risotto, while miscalculated ratios of umami and tartness warrant an expiration date check. Then there’s the dessert called Grain: a lopsided play on sweet and savory with too-salty soy sauce ice cream, unpleasantly funky goat cheese pudding, and fried noodles that have the same stale crunch as a week-old, open bag of pretzels.
Even dishes that aren’t complete flops feel imbalanced. The lambchetta is pleasantly smoky and tender, but totally obliterated by a salty jus—each bite requires a water chaser. There are a handful of palatable dishes like braised oxtail or lamb dumplings, but none of them justify subjecting yourself (or even your enemies) to a whole meal here.
If you treat Bambola like a glitzy cocktail bar, you can have an OK time with some decent cocktails and good service. But the grandeur of the space dissipates once the clumsy dishes hit the table. It all feels like a gimmick. That 300-year-old house inside deserves to spend its afterlife without reverberating untz-untz music. Toss in the mish-mosh of textile samples and in-flight magazine-esque inserts at the back of the menus, and Bambola solidifies itself as an upscale Silk Road equivalent of Rainforest Cafe.
XO Lamb Dumplings
These are actually pretty good. The dumplings have a peppery lamb filling and a thin delicate wrapper. Served with parmesan XO sauce and smoked shakshuka, each bite has a little bit of umami and spice.
Coal Fired Cod
Served with walnut muhammara and pomegranate seeds, the combination of nuttiness, spice, sweet, and tart is pleasant. But not even the most flavorful supporting ingredients can remedy the dry, bland cod.
If you do happen to end up having to eat here and don’t want to just snack on dumplings all night, this is a decent larger dish that won’t have you rearranging your plate to fool the waitstaff into thinking you ate the food. The oxtail is buttery and comes with a savory polenta and soy-cured egg yolk cake.
The smoky pieces of lamb are juicy and tender. But the salty jus overpowers the flavor of the meat—we ended up mainly eating the potatoes and carrots around the edge.
Wok Fried Risotto
The wok fried risotto feels like the result of an unhinged brainstorm session. The crispy bits of rice taste more like they were accidentally undercooked instead of intentionally fried. It becomes even harder to eat when the combined flavors of truffle foam and pomegranate molasses create an unpleasant funky tart flavor. Skip this.
We’re all for a savory-leaning dessert. But the combination of soy sauce ice cream with goat milk pudding and tahini cremeux is just too much. The candied fried chow mein noodles attempt to add a sweet element, but the stale texture just adds to the confusion and disappointment. Avoid this, too.