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?
The hubby and I finally ate at Alba for the first time last weekend and couldn’t stop raving about it! We split that asparagus/prosciutto pasta as a starter, and were swooning as we ate. It was perfectly balanced, and – as the Italians say – the flavors “married well.” I wish I’d ordered two servings for dinner… I had the duck confit, though, and I thought it was good. Mine was moist and flavorful, and I liked the sauce (but I like sweet). The only thing that I wasn’t wild about with that dish were the greens. Overall, I’m sorry we haven’t made Alba a more regular stop in the past – but we certainly will in the future.
Their bread is from Baker and Spice.
I’ve eaten here many times as it’s close to my home.
I’ve always enjoyed the duck dishes I’ve had here.
The pastas are amazing as is the leek tart when it’s on the menu.
The crab crostini is also one of the appetizers I enjoy the most. It’s hard to go wrong with big chunks of Dugeonness nicely dressed on top of crostini.
That duck must have been on an off night as I have always enjoyed the duck, and I am picky about my duck. Alba is hands down my favorite Italian spot in town. I’m glad you like it FD. Eat there during Italian truffle season for a treat.
miss heidelish says
Alba is one of my favorite places to go for a delicious meal. And it’s two blocks from my house which is FANTASTIC!. I have never been let down with anything Kurt is serving. My only complaint is that that beautiful, tantalizing meyer lemon tart went away. Hands down, it’s the best tart I have ever had!
Marshall Manning says
Count me as another big fan of Alba Osteria. As someone else mentioned, the crab crostone is a fantastic appetizer, with lots of fresh crab on a perfect piece of toasted bread (yes, it is from Baker & Spice down the street), dressed with onions and capers.
I agree that the duck you had was not representative of their normal preparation, the duck here is normally excellent, as are any pork dishes.
While it may be “off the beaten path”, it’s only about 3-4 miles from downtown, and it’s an easy on and off from the freeway in either direction (I know…we live about 3/4 of a mile from Alba).
It does seem like the bottle prices have risen a little bit in the past year, though. They are also very corkage-friendly if you’re brining in a nice bottle.
They take reservations?
FD – would you consider adding a tag at the end of your reviews about the restaurant’s reservation policy, e.g., “reservations accepted”, “reservations accepted for parties of
6 or more”, “reservations not accepted”, etc? I reread you review of Sal’s and saw that the “no reservation” comment appears in the main body of the review.
Yes, they do take reservations, Kevin. They start serving at 5:30pm.
Thank you, Jill-O!
alba osteria is one of my favorite restaurants in pdx
i go for the sweetbreads and end up ordering everything else too because i just cant resist. i love the tartar, the crab and the pastas too.
nice review – thanks. i’m looking forward to trying some new things. the shrimp salad sounds great, something i’d usually stay away from.
Thank you to everyone who commented on Alba – you finally got me out to the burbs for dinner. We thoroughly enjoyed the food, the setting, and the staff. The wine list was smokin’ good. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such a concise, well put together list. It’s rare that a restaurant has the gumption to stick to a regionally based list.
Bob G. says
Dined at Alba osteria last night and have mixed feelings. The bread was excellent as was the steak tartare. However the crab crostone was disappointing. Not a lot of crab flavor, and possibly not a lot of crab.There was a beet dish that was terrific, but the tajarin just O.K.
The noodles were thin but frankly I enjoy the SIPA cut vermicelli, available in most markets,just as much. The butter and sage sauce was a butter and sage sauce, not remarkable.There was a wondeful tart for desert, however the cappuchino mousse was just O.K. It was also very unattractive and could have used a little artistic help
Will try again as the ambiance was very pleasant, the service good.
Wow, the crab crostone my partner had on Friday was enormous and overflowing with crab…as it usually is. What you describe is not the usual there. I’ve been wanting to try the steak tartare, it looks good going by to others’ tables when we are there.
The angnolotti verde stuffed with fontina with butter and leeks is back on the menu, and it is as rich and marvelous as ever. I highly recommend it.
Was the tart the carmel and fudge one? That is usually pretty tasty…
Food Dude says
“The butter and sage sauce was a butter and sage sauce, not remarkable”. I’m wondering what you were expecting. This sauce is pretty much always the same ingredients: butter, sage, lemon, reggiano. It’s one of my favorite sauces because it is so simple.
Food Dude says
Jill – I forgot to mention, the steak tartare is darn good; up there with Paley’s, though a slightly different style.
Bob G. says
Jill-O. The tart was caramel and fudge and you are right, very tasty. I wonder if it was from Baker and Spice, will ask next time.We may have hit an off nite on the crab crostone, but at any rate we did enjoy the evening.
Marshall Manning says
We’ve probably had the crab crostone over 20 times, and it’s always chock full of crab, and always seems like a really good value considering the amount of crab. The carne cruda (Italian version of steak tartare) is also excellent and worth getting every time.
The beauty of the tajarin is in the delicacy of the noodles and the simplicity of the sauce. That’s the way they do it in Piemonte.
Tomorrow is our 11th anniversary, and we’re heading to Alba to celebrate!
In the winter they sometimes serve that satisfying tarajin with gorgonzola and sage. Heaven on a plate.
Attention to detail doesn’t stop at the kitchen door. I don’t get out to supper nearly as often as I like (at Alba or anywhere else!), but Kurt and the well-trained staff always remember me and are happy to talk about product origin or preparation or the “where” of a particular recipe. Really, this place is a gem.
How is the noise level on a Saturday or Sunday? I’m going to go with somebody who has hearing difficulty and does not enjoy noisy restaurants.
Food Dude says
Erika, I don’t think I’ve been on a Saturday, but on Sunday it is no problem at all.
I been on a number of Friday nights and thought the background noise was not an issue.
We went on a Sunday at 6:00, were there until about 8:00, and only two or three other parties were there the entire time. So, yes, the restaurant generally was quiet. We sat in the table closest to the kitchen, though, and my MIL was disturbed by the kitchen noise (didn’t bother me at all). If we take her there again, we’ll probably choose to sit in the other room.
Most of the food was tremendous. We had carpaccio and the roasted onion for appetizers. The onion had beautiful texture – firm but not crunchy – and the gorgonzola sauce was rich without being overpowering. The beef was first-rate in freshness and flavor. We also had green salads, which were okay but nothing special. Fresh greens with a bit of cucumber and a somewhat bitter vinaigrette dressing.
I had the sweetbreads for my main course. They were absolutely perfect. Not any hard or mushy spots – just tender all the way through. The mustard sauce was not sweet and helped cut the richness of the sweetbreads. They were better than those I’ve had at the Heathman. The chicken livers that accompanied them also were very good, but I might have chosen something different (less fatty?) to pair with the sweetbreads.
Panna cotta with orange for dessert. Wow. Though, to be fair, it’s the only time I’ve had it, so I’ve nothing to compare it to.
The others I was with had the lamb tajarin, the ribs, and another lamb dish. I did not taste theirs, but they certainly enjoyed their dinners, too.
I’d go back tonight if I could.
I agree with Marshall’s comments 100%. The food has always been on par with the best Italian dishes I experienced while in Italy. Service has always been pleasant and efficient without any ‘tude. I wish I could go there more often.
FD – It may be time to pay these folks another visit. I planned a special occasion with two close friends last night at Alba based on a couple of visits over a year ago, and comments here. I had found another site with more recent reviews that included comments like “had better food at Olive Garden”, that I dismissed as probably coming from someone expecting spaghetti and meatballs or lasagna. I arrived early, and was seated, alone, in the first, large dining room. (We were the only ones in that room all evening-for a well reviewed restaurant there were very few customers.) I decided on a cocktail while waiting for the others, and asked for a Manhattan made with Maker’s Mark bourbon. The waiter winced, and said that they probably didn’t have any Maker’s, but likely had another premium bourbon like Knob Creek or Woodford. I told him that I was fine with whatever he brought me. When it arrived, I asked what pour I ended up with, and he said, “Jack Daniels, and that was the last of it. I hope no one else orders bourbon tonight. I guess we should have gone to the liquor store today!” I didn’t point out that Jack Daniels is not really a premium pour, and is, in fact, not even a bourbon. (That’s another subject, of course.) Imagine my surprise later in the evening when I discoverd that included in the “Spirits” section of their desert menu are both Maker’s and Knob Creek!! I can see not having every single premium bourbon in an Italian restaurant not known for its bar scene, but to not have ones that are on your menu is a bit too much!
On to the real point. By the time we left, I had decided that some of those “Olive Garden” folks might have had a point. Two of us ordered the plain lettuce salad, and certainly got a plain lettuce salad. Perhaps that is all they were shooting for, but it didn’t portend well for things to come. The third member of our party had the baked onion stuffed with gorgonzola and hazlenuts, and we all agreed that she got the best end of that deal.
We all decided to go with pasta rather than the secondi. Chitarra with wild boar sounded too interesting to pass up for me, so I went for that. One of the others had the tajarin served with a veal sausage, and our third member ordered the gnocchi. My companion with the tajarin was underwhelmed with her dish, and did not finish it. I failed to finish mine as well. It was the driest pasta dish I have ever had. The meat was flavorful, and hinted that if it had been prepared well, this might have been a very enjoyable dish, but it seemed as if the dish had been prepared ahead of time and kept under a heat lamp until it just dried out. We helped our third member finish her gnocchi, as she, again it seems, had out-ordered us. They were tasty morsels that were almost like eating butter al dente.
The service was good – attentive, but not hovering, and the explanations of the dishes were good – much better in fact than the dishes. However, the hostess rather than our waiter cleared our table, and on seeing food left on our plates did not inquire as to the reason, but merely offered to box up the left-overs. Needless to say we declined.
Now, two out of three of my experiences here have been good. Until last night, this restaurant was on my favorite list, not visited more often merely because of the distance from my home. I now, however, find myself wondering if there have been some changes in the kitchen that have contributed to what we found last night. I hope not, but will not go back until I hear that things have improved.
Despite reviews on this site, I induced my party-of-four to try Alba on Saturday night. I felt a shudder of fear that recent you were all correct when we were the only people in either dining room at 6:00PM. (One tablemate remarked she had seen less-than-stellar reviews. Wince.)
With a decent bottle of wine on the way, we settled on two appetizers to share. The onion stuffed with gorgonzola and hazelnuts was so good it hurt to share it with the others. I wanted it all for myself. Carne cruda was so fresh I thought perhaps it had been on-the-hoof only that morning. It was served simply with lemon, olive oil, sea salt and parmesan shavings. Off to an excellent start, and the dining room was starting to populate.
The specials featured two fish choices: black cod and whole trout stuffed with chanterelles and onions. Each was nicely balanced, well-prepared, very flavorful. An unusual offering on the regular menu, goose leg, was tender and flavorful. Accompanied by a creamy polenta, my husband swooned over each bite. (I noted that the menu did not include other goose items…. Where do you suppose the rest of the bird landed?)
Having paced ourselves we went for the dessert menu, sharing panna cotta with fruit puree and a hazelnut cake with marsala zabaglione. the cake was a bit dry, as any nut-flour based cake can be, but the zabaglione was a perfect pairing and the flavors mingled delightfully. The panne cotta was smooth, light and elegant.
Service was good, but not hovering; friendly without being overly-familiar. Alba is a peaceful, lovely place, good for a date or a celebration. The divided dining rooms make for an intimacy that would be lacking in a larger room.
By 7:30PM both dining rooms were full, and our initial qualms allayed. We lingered over coffee, enjoying a long visit in the calm atmosphere. Alba is a hidden gem in Hillsdale (yes, it is off the beaten path). We’ll try it again soon, if only so I can have my own gorgonzola stuffed onion.
I gave this place a try this past Saturday evening, for a romantic, celebratory meal, and to sum up the experience, it was quite disappointing, and just not worth the drive. I’ve had far better Northern Italian at probably 10 other places in Portland.
Tough hanger steak with zero seasoning, limp sides. Duck was tasty, but quite greasy — more so that other duck confit I’ve had. Got a wine recommendation for a Montepulciano from the staff, which ended up lackluster, as was our reaction to it. That got the response of putting it in a carafe to let it breathe, rather than “would you like something else?” BTW, breathing didn’t help it.
Also, how did this crowded, rather noisy restaurant, with with a busboy with what looked like “Fuckster” printed on his T-shirt get tagged as “romantic” and “destination” on this site?
I don’t think you were at Alba Osteria! Unless it’s a very new thing, their wine list is 100% piemontese, which would not include a Montepulciano. I’ve been to this place, maybe 15 times, and it’s never been “rather noisy” nor have I ever seen a busboy, much less anyone working there wearing a tshirt, at least not outside the kitchen.
The fact is, no other restaurant in Portland even comes close to Alba’s level of authenticity, or faithfulness to “true” Northern Italian flavors, traditions and so on. And I don’t think being 5-7 minutes from downtown would be considered that much of a drive.
I checked with Alba tonight…was inspired to go grab dinner there after reading all this stuff….and they have not served any non-Piedmont wines since 2005. So if you indeed had a Montepulciano, it was NOT at Alba. And though I forgot to check, hanger steak does not sound like something they would serve either, but i have not been there for all seasons—yes, the menu changes with the seasons…
The problem with the Internet, though it can provide lots of good info, is that it can be almost too democratic, allowing for all sorts of incorrect information to be disseminated. In this case, the evidence seems to indicate this dinner is panning the wrong restaurant, but many have read, and will read, this and take it as factual. Too bad, quite an injustice to what, for those who really know food, is an exemplary place. Just my opinion, of course…
Oh, the food was marvelous…bruschetta with fava puree and morels, maltagliatti with gorgonzola and asparagus, fresh peas with cream and mint and a nice serving of cotechino, pork belly and grilled fresh sausage on a bed of lentils. All yummy.
Food Dude says
SambaMaster, You are of course, correct. Like any site, there are people that come here with a vested interest in making a restaurant look bad or good; no way we can control that. I do my best to filter them out, but if I take out any comment that seems the least bit fishy, folks would cry censorship.
However, so many quotes from you in one day make it look like you work for Alba, or have some sort of vested interest. You might want to wait a few months if you expect to be taken seriously.
I just read this tonight. Because I like (and praise) a restaurant that most folks in this city either don’t know exists or say is “too far out of the way” I work there or have a vested interest!!!! When I first visited this town in 2004, went to Alba the first night, then went back 2 more times: 3 nights out of 5. And the other two nights were a waste of time and money. This place is a gem and deserves every bit of praise. I’m sure they have off nights, but I have not experienced one. This is the only place in this country that comes close to the real tastes and aesthetics of Italian cuisine…have made 15 food research trips to Italy and have some idea of what I’m talking about. I have no interest in this place other than the food they serve me. And that they stick around for a while!!!! I just moved here from Austin a few months ago, and am not in the food biz. But I do know something about food, and this place pushes all the right buttons. Someone posted that there are 10 better places in PDX with better northern Italian food. I don’t think there are 10 better in the USA. Biba in Sacramento is decent. Oliveto in Oakand is smoke and mirrors. Mario is a pretender. Show me those 10 better places here, and why they are better. I want to learn about them…thanks.. and sorry for displaying my passion. It’s what i do and most folks can’t deal with it….hmmmm, Alba might be good next week when my kid is up from Oakland…if only i had a vested interest, would save me some cash….
Marshall Manning says
“I’ve had far better Northern Italian at probably 10 other places in Portland.”
Are there even 10 places in Portland that feature Northern Italian cuisine?
Had been wanting to go to Alba for years, and finally got my chance two weeks ago when it was my turn to choose a spot for an annual group-of-six birthday celebration. After our meal, I really can’t understand some of the more recent (Fall 07) reviews knocking the place, and wonder if it’s a case of misplaced expectations. Needless to say, our meal was exceptional, compelling me to weigh in with as much detail as I can remember. While not required, I think it helps to have some passion and excitement for the food/wine of Northern Italy, Piedmont in particular.
We started with an Arneis from Vietti, the white grape of Piedmonte, and it paired perfectly with not only the dungeness crab crostones (generously piled with meaty crab) and the jerusalem artichokes in bagna cauda (tender slices of artichoke heart in a garlicky and surprisingly creamy oil bath, of which we wiped up every last drop), but also the heartier appetizers of a sliced duck breast salad atop lettuce, walnuts and beets (the duck was perfectly cooked and not greasy at all, a pleasant surprise for those at our table who are lukewarm about that yummy and fatty bird), and that fantastic carne cruda, presented so simply with lemon and shaved parm. A quick word about that carne cruda: it’s the best I’ve had, ever. I’ve sampled tartare in Paris and on both coasts, including here at Paley’s, but I’ve never had it tasting so fresh and so well matched with simple Italian flavors. Our table ordered two each of the crab crostones and the carne cruda, and they were gone in a flash. A very nice and reasonably priced Dolcetto d’Alba rounded out the apps and segued us smoothly into the primis. My only regret was that the sweet pepper rotoles stuffed with tuna were not on the menu that night (the restaurant does not go to great lengths to update their website).
We ordered a sampling of each handmade pasta they had on the menu: the Agnolotti with veal, pork and rabbit, was minimally dressed and hit just the right notes of gaminess and fattiness [it was a bit too gamy for some of my companions, which was just fine with me], as each perfect little dumpling packed a wonderfully meaty (but delicate) punch. Our table also enjoyed each of the Tajarin offerings, both simple, one with butter and sage and the other with a lamb ragu. Again, both minimally dressed, allowing the handmade pasta – and not the sauce – to be the focal point. A fourth pasta was a delicious and exceptionally light Ricotta gnocchi, again, minimally dressed [do you see a trend here?]. The only dish that I felt bordered a bit too closely to the dry side was the Tajarin with butter and sage, as the thin pasta became a bit clumpy after a few minutes. But I’ll take that any day over a drowning oversauced pasta dish, especially one that is butter-based. I’m not sure if I can pick a favorite here: each time I dream about the Agnolotti, I remember the Tajarin with lamb, but then wisps of the perfectly airy ricotta gnocchi vie for attention. If forced, (and this will shock my companions), I would go with the gnocchi.
Our table also had a nice sampling of the secundi, which were all hits. The brined pork chop was tender, moist and incredibly flavorful with a touch of sweet spice, having first been brined in honey and something alluring that I asked about but have since forgotten. The bonus of braised pork belly that came with the chop was a nice surprise, and the fennel and cabbage on the side was tender but not mushy. The braised lamb was my favorite, fork tender with a deep and layered – but never overwhelming – wine reduction, and paired nicely with fluffy polenta. A delicious strip steak was perfectly cooked and tasted just as the server had advertised, fresh from a new Eastern Oregon farm vendor that Kurt and Co. were excited about. The final entree, a generous plate of black cod, scallops and shrimp, offered a nice change of bite to the otherwise meat-heavy meal, with the cod in a starring role. I would go back for the lamb again and again.
A delicious CA Pinot (which we brought) was met with enthusiasm and a waiving of the corkage fee, and a less imposing, reasonably priced (relatively speaking) Barbaresco from 2003 served us all well (although the Barbaresco might have been a bit rash, needing possibly a bit more aging time). Don’t know why anyone would go for something not Nebbiolo based at a Piedmonte restaurant (maybe price?). Desserts were no less impressive. The zabaglione custard that was paired with a cake was absolutely perfect, and the chocolate pannacotta was creamy and light and not too rich, spot on.
And a word about the ambiance and hospitality: it was a Saturday evening, the place was crowded, but we were seated quickly and on time, and service, from our attentive and knowledgeable server Jeff – who pulls double duty as Alba’s wine steward – all the way down the chain, was courteous and professional. They let us take our time, (we closed the place down, as we often do), and I gave our appreciation to Kurt and his staff at evening’s end as they were casually hanging out by the bar. Yes, it’s out there in Hillsdale, but once you step inside, it’s cozy and intimate and alluring, but was never too loud or clustered (or maybe it was just our table that was driving up the decibel level?). I just don’t know where else in Portland you can get this quality of Northern Italian food/wine. An all around top dining experience, and I wholly endorse Food Dude’s 3.5 stars. I’ll definitely be going back.
jono, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I don’t understand the “arrows down” notation FD has added to the review link. I live fairly close to Alba and we go there regularly and the food is always as good as you describe. So glad you enjoyed your meal there and that you took the time to post about it.
Food Dude says
The down arrows reflect changes since I did the review. My last two meals there were less than stellar. The first, back in November, was just awful. I had brought a few industry people from the Bay Area, and after telling them all day long how good the meal would be, I was very embarrassed. Two of the entrees were actually inedible – think rancid oil. The gnocchi was doughy, and the kitchen was agonizingly slow. On a second night more recently, the food was better, but nearly as good as it used to be. I don’t know what has happened here; maybe they lost a cook, but it’s not even on my recommended list anymore. You remind me I need to go back another time and update the review. Based on my last two experiences, I’d probably give them less than 2 stars.
FD, try again. Everyone I’ve ever sent to this place has loved it. Have friends driving down from Seattle in two weeks for another visit…and they had their first in April or so. I’ve been at least 6-7 times since your post of 18 Feb and not had even one off-tasting or ill-prepared dish. Not one. And I hate Italian restaurants in this country, Alba is one of the only exceptions. Fifteen trips to Italy to eat since 1992 have made me just a bit on the picky side.
Food Dude says
I will eventually get back there. It’s just that the last two dinners were so unexpectedly subpar, it’s hard to justify. Maybe they were just having a few bad months. I had a friend that I trust go there in February, who also had a disappointing meal.
Anyone else who has been there in the last few months? Comments?
Marshall Manning says
Dude, we had Carolyn’s 50th birthday dinner (for 14 people) there in May, and everything I tasted was delicious, as usual. Granted, we live close by, and are somewhat irregular regulars, so they know us, but I’ve never had anything close to a bad meal there. We’ve probably been there 25 times over the years, and I can only think of a couple of dishes in that whole time that might have been a bit below normal, but those are obviously few and far between, and we’ve never had anything resembling “inedible”. I also know that you don’t throw those terms around lightly, so it must have been a bad night for some reason. Give them another chance…I’m sure it will be better.
I was there in a few months ago for an anniversary dinner and had a perfectly fine meal. We started with the house-made tajarin that was served with a braised meat sugo – a tasty pasta dish. We had a sunchoke bagna cauda type dish that was very rich, but good and made nice fodder for some bread. I had a couple seafood apps as my entree that delivered – nothing mind-numbing, but the execution and the flavors were there. My wife’s gnocchi were actually flat out delicious. We were there early on a nice early Sat. evening, service was great. Desserts I can’t remember, but I never do.
It’s been awhile since anyone posted on Alba. I go there frequently at this point because the pasta is so freaking good I can’t stay away. At times I have been less than thrilled with some of the entre selections but over past visits I have taken to ordering a smattering of starters and all 4 of the pastas they usually have on the menu. The tajarin with sage butter is simply amazing. Light, fresh and utterly melt in the mouth delicious. The agniloti stuffed with pork, veal and rabbit is heavenly. Tiny, tiny little packets of meat held together by thin, incredibly delicious pasta. The gnocchi is always pillowy soft and last time was sauced with cream and black truffles. Fantastic. The veal meatballs are great on their own or to be saved as complements to some of the pastas. The wine list doesn’t contain as many old wines as it used to but it is a smartly crafted Piedmonte list with very fairly priced wines (the 2004 Prunotto Nebbiolo for $51 is a good deal and not something you see everywhere in town). The only downside to Alba is that at 5 minutes from my house it drastically decreases my willingness to drive very far for other Italian food.
Food Dude says
Thanks for the update. I was just thinking about Alba last night. I will try to get by there for dinner.
We often take the same approach, making a meal of appetizers and pastas. It’s a great strategy there and allows room for truly enjoying the best parts of the menu.
Jim Keyser says
Well, I read these reviews with great interest. I have a home in Italy not far from the town of Alba, and eat in Piemonte restaurants all summer. The food at Osteria Alba is exactly traditional, and wonderful. Italian friends from my village have come here and raved about it. Don’t know how the guy thought he was at Alba if he was drinking Montepulciano–they don’t serve it. I eat there about once a week, and friends clamor to go back when I introduce them to the place. I’ve eaten there half a dozen times already this year and haven’t had a bad meal yet. Sure, any particular dish can be a little off any day in any restaurant, but I’ haven’t had a less than excellent one at Alba for more than a year. Folks who don’t like the Tajarin don’t know that its NOT vermicelli or spaghetti–its Tajarin. Same for the ricotta (not potato) gnocchi. If you go to Alba expecting Italian food from other areas (even “northern Italy) you’re not going to get it. Your going to eat PIEMONTESE food. Go and you’ll enjoy, but you will be better off if you understand what you’re eating.
lotus flower says
Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself.
Ahhh, so close to perfect, but not quite. I’m not sure why. The carne cruda was wonderful. The gnocchi was heavenly. But my wife and I each came up short with our secundis. I had the duck breast. It came a suspicious looking gray. Her SuDan Farms lamb chops suffered the same fate. I’ve bought and cooked SuDan Farms lamb for years and love their product. I’ve never, on my worst day, done this wonderful lamb such an injustice. Both dishes looked liked they’d suffered from being cooked at too low heat and then left to sit. The lamb was served with a mishmash of something or other that was cool and not distinguished by anything at all. My duck came with wonderful veggies that looked liked they missed their best friend, a wonderfully seared duck breast that didn’t show up for dinner. With all of the wonderful reviews I’ve read, we will go back but next time we will go some day other than a Tuesday. Maybe we suffered from leftovers from the weekend or the kitchen staff was off their rhythm due to a day off on Monday. After the antipasti and primi, we were ready to write home about the meal. We are still waiting for that finish.