Note: This restaurant is closing December 31st 2010.
Maybe it’s just me, but I get lost every time I go to Alba Osteria. Hidden away in Hillsdale, it is a little bit out-of-the-way – another one of those places that you could drive past a million times and not notice. Even if it weren’t for the food, it would be a great date restaurant. The added bonus is that they serve some of the best pasta I’ve ever had in the Northwest.
Alba is on Capitol Highway, just over the bridge from Hillsdale in a long thin building. Capitol Coffee House takes up one end; the restaurant is the unassuming half of the building. Park in the gravel lot across the street, walk down the sidewalk and enter through the last door, which will bring you into a large open dining room. This section has never been used during my visits; instead my groups have always been ushered into a smaller room next to the bar. This is not a problem; in every room tables are spaced for privacy, each room feels intimate, and the noise level is very manageable. Old wood floors, warmed by light spilling in through generous windows, contrast well with crisp white table linens. Every room is warmed by light spilling in through generous windows. It is all a wonderful beginning for what can be a delicious dining experience.
This is not a southern Italian dining experience. Alba is actually a region in the northern half of Italy, not far from Barbaresco. No red sauces here, but you’ll find they pack a wide variety of Italian cuisine into a small selection of dishes. The menu is made up of three parts: 6-7 antipasti, 3 pasta choices, and 6-7 secondi. While selections rotate with the availability of ingredients, over the past few months, I’ve tried every dish on the menu. While I haven’t always been satisfied with the individual dishes, I’ve been completely satisfied with every meal as a whole.
Good bread (tasted like Ken’s to me) will be brought to your table while you peruse the menu. A full bar is available, as well as an excellent selection of Italian wines, mostly reds. Even the wines by the glass are quite good. Markup seems a little bit high, but everything is served in good glassware. The staff is knowledgeable, from the wine list to the various ingredients used in preparation of the dishes. Throughout your meal they are there when you need them, but never make you feel rushed or smothered.
There are always a few basic salads. Lettuces with herb vinaigrette ($6.00), and Savoy spinach with creamy gorgonzola dolce dressing ($7.00), are just what you’d expect. Top quality greens are used and the portion sizes are large. Dressings are balanced and taste the way they should. Still, there are more interesting choices on the menu. For instance, the carne cruda all’ Albese – chopped raw beef with lemon, olive oil and Parmigiano. This dish is a simple, authentic example of the Italian version of steak tartare. A large portion of meat is chopped to exactly the right consistency. Good olive oil is cut by a hint of lemon, while quality Parmigiano balances everything off. My only complaint is the serving temperature is a bit too cold, muting some of the flavors, but I imagine this is done to placate the health department. Easily enough for two diners to share, the only restaurant in Portland I’ve ever had raw beef of this quality has been Paley’s Place ($11.00).
Let’s move on to a terrina of pork and duck with pickles and mustard ($8.00). Again, a classically prepared and served dish, the mustard is really excellent, providing a foil and a light acid to cut the fat from the pork and duck. This is a good dish, which also would be better if it wasn’t served quite as cold.
No complaints, however, with the salad of fresh bay shrimp, arugula, Catalogna chicory, anchovy, and Taggiasca olives. Another variation of the same dish substitutes cucumber and chopped egg for the arugula. The first thing you’ll notice is that the plating contains a lot more shrimp than you would expect. Next, you’ll notice how fresh and clean they taste. As you dig into the dish, you’ll find lovely explosive textures from tiny anchovies, pungent olives, and fresh chicory. There are so many different things going on in this salad it is hard to carry on a conversation while exploring your way through the mélange; just excellent ($8.00).
I am one of those people who could eat pasta in some form or another every night of the week. Doing these reviews, I have become intimately familiar with some of the amazing offerings from the Portland area: ClarkLewis, the late Gotham Tavern, and Café Mingo all come to mind. Alba Osteria brings substantial competition to the arena, with some of the best quality pasta I have had outside of Italy. Lately, Alba pairs maltigliati which means “badly cut” – literally torn, leftover pieces of pasta, paired with asparagus and prosciutto; masterfully made, they melt in your mouth with the added depth of salty prosciutto and the crunchy burst of asparagus ($13.00). There has been some argument on this website about the way agnolotti should be made. Close your eyes when you taste it; I was transported back to a time I spent in Parma, where I was taught how to make agnolotti by the grand matriarch of the family, rolling it out by hand on an old marble counter and pinching it into its distinctive shape. This month, Alba Osteria is stuffing theirs with veal, pork, and spinach, the pasta thin enough so the different flavors are easy to pick out as they burst into your mouth ($13.00).
Every region of Italy has a type of pasta, and tajarin is what one finds in the Langhe of Piemonte. Made up from long strands, cut 1/16th of an inch, this is not an easy pasta to make, and shows the knife skills of the chef. Alba serves tajarin with porcini, morels, and spring onions, (also available in my favorite preparation of butter and sage for $8.00), combining long threadlike strands of pasta with the earthiness of wild mushrooms and the contrast of spring onions; again, an absolute winner ($13.00). Keep in mind, all of the pasta portions are quite large; one could easily make a meal from an antipasti and a salad. On a hot day with a good glass of wine, I can’t imagine anything better.
Secondi are a bit of a mixed bag. A good-sized piece of halibut was perfectly cooked, a nice crunchy crust giving way with the slightest resistance as you bite into it. It was served with a lemon-caper aioli and balanced over expertly cooked greens that glistened with a light sheen of olive oil. Even the potatoes had the perfect texture, obviously right out of the pan. However, I thought it was a bit pricy at $24.00; it was still just halibut.
In many restaurants when you order sweetbreads, they come in little nuggets. Here they are large and crispy, and wrapped in salty pancetta. Once again, the meat was perfectly cooked, matching the Portland standard set by Paley’s Place. The accompanying sauce and sides change from time to time. In May they were showcased with a perfect mustard sauce and crispy roasted potatoes, in June duck livers were added. These are some of the best I’ve ever had ($24.00). Another night I tried grilled lamb loin chops, lamb-fennel sausage, and salsa verde with lentils. The lamb had the expected grilled flavor, but was slightly overcooked, the sausage a bit salty. Still, this selection had a good conglomeration of flavors that made every bite interesting, and I wouldn’t steer someone away from ordering it ($21.00).
One dish didn’t thrill me at all. An entrée of duck leg confit and roasted duck breast glazed with honey and 12 year balsamic vinegar didn’t work for anyone at our table. The duck was overcooked and dry; the honey and vinegar sauce was just too sweet. Maybe I just hit them on a bad night, but I didn’t want to order it again ($25.00).
Save room for desserts ($6.00), especially if you like bread pudding. The Alba version comes right out of the pan, a huge piece, loaded with layers of moist bread and white chocolate flavor. Pecans give a slight texture. This is one of the best examples of bread pudding I’ve had in ages. Another time I tried polenta pound cake with rhubarb compote and cream. This was an interesting dessert, the polenta giving an unusual texture to the cake itself, the sweetness toned down a bit, and the rhubarb and cream doing a counterpoint to the other ingredients. There is also an interesting cheese selection as an alternative to standard desserts.
I am amazed more people are not talking about Alba Osteria. Maybe because it is a bit off the beaten path, perhaps because it is easy to get carried away and spend a bit more than one might expect, but in this case, I highly recommend you take the road less traveled. Go to Alba and make a special night of it; have some wine, feel the early evening sun on your shoulders, enjoy the quality ingredients and the stunning pasta. You’ll be remembering your meal fondly a few weeks later – how often does that happen in Portland?