Friday, January 30, 2009

Pleasures of the Piedmont

Cocktail parties where the glittering guests use pretty words that shred like shards of glass? No thanks. Restaurants where the room is dressed better than I am and the prices are inverse to the amount of food on my plate? I don't think so. And so-called molecular gastronomy, with its foams and toys, should have stayed in the lab as far as I'm concerned.

Carne cruda.
When I go out, I'm all about feeling comfortable. Not in a fuzzy-slippers-and-bathrobe kind of way, but walking in I want to be put at ease, to smell the aromas of good food coming from the kitchen, to know that the smiles on the faces of the staff are for me and not for the contents of my wallet.

Smoked trout and peppers with greens.

We went to Alba Osteria the other night, courtesy of a gift from my in-laws (thanks, Kay and Anne!) and on the recommendation of my brother, who has written glowingly about it. It's a place that calls attention to the food on your plate and the wine in your glass, with a noise level that encourages conversation rather than shouting.

Agnolotti dal plin.

We started with martinis and antipasti, a carne cruda drizzled with olive oil and lemon and showered with curls of parmesan. The beef was impeccably fresh and bright, light and refreshing. And the smoked trout salad we had alongside was wonderful, too, again showing a light touch and a wonderful attention to comingling flavors.

Grilled pork loin, corona beans and pork belly.

On the recommendation of our waiter, Jeff, we ordered a bottle of '05 Paitin Campolive Barbera d'Alba from their very reasonably priced wine list to accompany our primi selections. The ricotta gnocchi with leeks and cream were an ideal version of this commonly represented but apparently difficult-to-execute dish. (I can't tell you how many times I've had chewy lumps of dough served to me instead of the light pillows that gnocchi is supposed to be.) And the very traditional Piedmontese agnolotti dal plin, clever envelopes of homemade pasta with a veal, pork and rabbit filling were fabulous.

Bollito of brisket with roasted vegetables.

Amazingly, we weren't already full when our secondi selections arrived, and we immediately got down to business. I went off-roading a bit with my choice, ordering the veal sweetbreads and liver with mustard sauce, something I'd ordinarily only think about and never order, but this version was excellent, with clean flavors and a real old-fashioned comfort food feel. The grilled pork loin was slightly pink in the middle just the way we like it, and the corona beans and pork belly made this sing. Slices of brisket, again tender and juicy rather than too-dry, served on a bed of roasted vegetables was terrific, a real meat-eater's delight. And a little espresso after we sipped the last of our wine allowed us a moment to sit back and savor a fantastic evening.

Alba fits into that slot reserved for frequent favorites, and is someplace I could go back to again and again for a birthday or other occasion, with friends or family or even for a light dinner of wine with pasta. It's a place that's special without being precious.

Details: Alba Osteria, 6440 SW Capitol Hwy. in Hillsdale. Phone 503-977-3045.


Anonymous said...

There food is terrific but the vegetarian pickings were slim when I was there. Perhaps that has changed. Did you happen to notice?

Kathleen Bauer said...

Well, from the menu I absconded with I see (assuming you're not vegan, so you eat cheese and eggs):

- Butter lettuce with gorgonzola dressing
- Jerusalem artichokes braised in Bagna Cauda
- Ricotta gnocchi with leeks and cream
- Roasted beets with mustard cream
- Salsify fried with aioli

And I found them immensely open to adjusting to my husband's lactose intolerance, so I'm sure they'd make something vegetarian if they possibly could. Thanks for asking, Dianne!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you liked Alba - it's one of my very favorite Portland restaurants. I typically get the gnocchi every time - it's so light and fluffy and it just makes me really, really happy.

Kathleen Bauer said...

And isn't that why we love our favorite places? Thanks, Rhiannon!