Bunky's Café is the kind of place that makes you feel super-duper. The colorful curtains at the new location rise on the breeze. At the front counter, Teresa Pullara (who owns the place with her husband, Rachid Ouabel) fills cannolis with a supersized pastry bag as she chats amiably with customers. The walls are covered with cockeyed arrangements of empty frames, cheap gilt mirrors and kitschy memorabilia of the old Greenbush, which, in Madison mythology, is the lost Eden of family-friendly neighborhoods. The crowds that pour in even on weeknights don't faze the perky wait staff. In fact, if you're as lucky as I was, one of the waitresses might just plunk down your credit card slip at the end of the meal and chirp, "If you could just sign that for me, that would be super-duper!"
All this unpretentious cheerfulness has a way of working on a person. Plus, Bunky's has special vegan and gluten-free menus and is a Buy Fresh, Buy Local partner. By the time I sat down for a meal, I don't think I'd ever been more inclined to like a restaurant.
Alas, good cheer only takes you so far. In my visits, Bunky's Café served up some serious disappointments. There are nice surprises, but also dishes like the Okra Delight, a stew of vegetables so tough I couldn't chew them. Still, given the powerful Bunky's vibe, that's probably not enough to keep people away. If you are an east-sider, or pal around with one, you're bound to find yourself at Bunky's eventually. So here's the lowdown on what to enjoy and what to avoid as you pick your way through the Italian-Mediterranean menu.
Start with appetizers. Being a fan of anything with tahini or yogurt, I was happy to discover the Mediterranean Veggie Combo. The crowded plate included creamy hummus and baba ghanouj that were heavy on the sesame paste, just the way I like them. The falafel was crispy on the outside, soft and savory on the inside, with a cool yogurt sauce for dipping. And then there was the lemony tabouli, rich with slivers of green onions that gave the dish a more savory, salady feel than the overly dry tabouli you typically get in Madison. This is the best thing I found on the Bunky's menu. Along with a glass of wine, the Mediterranean Veggie Combo makes a good meal.
Another appetizer, the baked cheese, is less successful. This square of tasteless white cheese was served warmed and topped with equally tasteless sautéed tomatoes and green peppers. When I asked my waitress to find out the exact type of cheese, she quickly returned with the chef's reply: cowy. Translation? I'm guessing mozzarella, because the dish tasted like the topping of a veggie pizza scraped onto a plate. Something sheepy or goaty might have been tastier.
Speaking of pizza, I tried the Mediterranean, which would have benefited from a more generous serving of anything at all in the cheese department. The little bits of feta sprinkled on top of the thin scraping of too-sweet tomato sauce made for a spartan pie, right up there with the Okra Delight for overall lack of delightfulness. The dinner menu offers half a dozen pizza choices, plus the usual pick-your-own toppings, so I suggest ordering carefully to put together a cheesier, more satisfying pie.
Now let's talk pasta, for which Bunky's is supposedly famous. On my way in to dinner, an appreciative customer paused, unbidden, to rave about the pasta dish she'd had that night. Myself, I thought the Pesto Fettucine Alfredo was a cozy plate of noodles -creamy and garlicky, but not too rich. However, the Rosemary Chicken Ravioli was dry to the point of being hard to swallow. The ravioli offerings change daily; I suggest ordering something with a cheese filling.
The other entrees come from the grill, and are served with rice, some of that great hummus, a few grilled vegetables and a nice cucumber yogurt sauce. Add the spicy, juicy ground lamb skewers (Kafta Brochette) and you have a delicious plate of food. Stay away from the grilled salmon (mine was burned) and the lamb kabob (tough and gamey). Other options include sea bass, shrimp, a seafood combo, chicken and beef kabobs and chicken marka. To accompany its entrees, Bunky's offers a choice of lentil soup (nothing fancy, but sustaining) or a crispy green salad with a pleasingly mild vinaigrette.
The dessert menu is extensive, but nothing stands out except for the cannolis, plain or chocolate, with a hint of cinnamon in the cream. It's rare to get a freshly filled cannoli in Madison, let alone one prepared by a cannoli-filler as enthusiastic as Teresa. In fact, despite all the menu missteps, I would stop by Bunky's again soon for one (okay, two) with a cup of coffee after a movie. That's what I'd call a super-duper evening.