An old bluesman, Mississippi John Hurt, murmurs “I’m Satisfied” on the CD player as I drive away from another transcendent meal at Alberta St. Oyster Bar & Grill. Even with only six months on the record, Alberta St. OB&G has established itself as an elite player on Portland’s restaurant stage.
Since we checked-in last, Bob Hicks of the Oregonian joined me in fawning over this establishment; Liz Gadberry at the Trib was ambivalent; and Ivy Manning, writing for Willy Week, declared the place not to her liking owing, in part, to roasted monkfish that failed to align with her amusing misconception of the proper texture for that piscatorial pleasure food.
The qualities that caught my eye in mid-December – and persuaded the daily to anoint this establishment Diner’s 2006 Rising Star – remain at the forefront: top quality seasonal ingredients, creatively combined and prepared, served by stellar staff who plainly love their role in the show. Chef Eric Bechard and Park Kitchen spatula boss, Scott Dolich, have connected to heap lavish praise, and perhaps ideas, on one another. Whether cause or effect, it is no surprise that Bechard’s innovative style bears a close resemblance to Dolich’s. And now that he has had a chance to get comfortable in his surroundings, Bechard is beginning to show the confidence that, like Dolich, will allow him to innovate without fear that the inevitable misstep will be his last.
During its first four months, Alberta St. OB&G gamely stuck with the same menu, plus a nightly special, to assure that the operation achieved consistency on all levels. Once that plateau was reached, Bechard began to climb again. First, the “Chef’s Whim” prix fixe menu ($45–all in the party must order it) appeared. The menu brings five courses, frequently displaying variations on some of the regular menu’s offerings. Except for light eaters and control freaks, this is a perfect format from which to plumb the boundaries of the chef’s creativity. At around the same time, a few items were rotated off the menu (the short ribs, for example) and some others received a different preparation, such as the chicken breast entrée, ($15) which currently involves a maple-bacon braise, a cider glaze and an accompaniment of roasted chestnuts. One new item that has been and gone–but better come back– was called bacon and eggs. It comprised Israeli couscous (big, tapioca-like pearls) with cured duck bacon and perfectly runny poached egg. On what is now going to be about a bi-weekly rotation, better get used to wonderful things disappearing between visits.
One highlight of my most recent visit was chicken “oysters” ($8), a starter as playful as it is delectable. This heretofore unknown (to me, anyway) fowl part, otherwise called a chicken “love handle,” is a dark meat segment that apparently resides between the bird’s thigh and backbone. In the Alberta St. OB&G incarnation, three of the crispy-skinned “oysters” are presented in a bowl with gnocchi, sweet peas and the same golden raisin sauce that not-too-sweetly used to accompany the sweetbreads starter. Other notable first courses include the popular panko-fried oysters (the standard oceanic variety) surrounding a portion of “cucumber-curry yogurt soup and pickled apples” ($7), and the roasted asparagus and caramelized onion flan combo served with a warm bacon vinaigrette and aged Parmesan cheese ($8). There are so many other tantalizing treats in the starter section of the menu, I am left wishing for a dual digestive tract. A new sweetbread presentation is available ($8), as is a seared foie gras dish ($14), a twosome of pan-fried razor clams ($9) and a seasonal risotto ($8) with bay shrimp, favas, morels and a “sweet tomato oil”.
Mains seem stronger than they used to be. Most recently, mine was the halibut cheeks ($17) – a former special having made the big show – with sweet new asparagus, shiitakes (varying from the menu’s oyster mushrooms description) and a scatter of strawberry quarters, all in a savory ham hock broth. The only way this dish gets any better is with a more delicate mushroom and the Hood berries that should be riding to the rescue soon. Another choice, besides the chicken breast, is the new roasted monkfish preparation ($18), this time matching perfectly firm, kumquat-glazed fish with braised oxtail, potato and mushrooms in an oxtail jus. An altogether new offering I am dying to try is described as “Dungeness crab-stuffed sole with fiddlehead ferns, fingerlings, artichoke hearts and caviar cream” ($19). This one has Oregon early springtime written all over it . For those of us who are, or who are squiring around, less adventurous eaters, the blue-cheese topped bacon burger on a ciabatta roll ($9) remains a fixture, pairing with its traditional French fry sidekick ($4). It should go without saying that Alberta St. OB&G continues to bring in multiple varieties of its namesake briny bivalves for half shell slurping in the raw ($13/half dozen; Olympia’s, $17/half dozen) and intends to do so year round. The chef says the eleventh commandment (“Thou shalt eat no oysters in months with no “r”) should be relegated to the rubbish bin.
Service remains superb. Emblematic of a place with a great vibe, both the original servers, Emily and Lisa, remain dedicated to duty. A third server, Melissa, has been picking up the slack as the number of covers, especially on weekends, has climbed dramatically since winter’s dark depths have cycled south. The boost in business is the combined result of Portlanders emerging from their traditional winter hibernation and the buzz that has emerged about this restaurant primed to suit real Portlanders. The next exciting stage will be the opening of the patio out back, expected in June.
The weakness in desserts has been addressed–to some degree. Gone are the sheet tray standards. In their place for now is a strawberry-rhubarb soup with goat cheese panna cotta ($6) and a chocolate/caramel tart ($7). The latter was a bit straight ahead sweet for my taste. The fruit soup sounds refreshing though I have yet to try it. The doughnut holes with coffee pot de crème ($6) have stayed as has the cheese selection ($8). One night the chef showed me his kitchen after hearing my petit bitching about the mediocre sweets selection. He asked me where in the closet-sized space he was supposed to be able to produce desserts that match the menu’s savory side. I had no answer. In hindsight, there may be solutions, but I think I’m going to leave it to the chef and proprietor Peter Hochman to figure it out in their own good time.
As I think about it, if the only criticism of this still new restaurant is that the desserts don’t sing like nearly everything else about the place, I’m more than satisfied.
3.5 stars – highly recommended.