Alba Osteria and Enoteca LogoIt’s not easy to select a restaurant that NO ONE seems able to find, so please send my gold star in the mail. The location of this place, on a desolate stretch of Capitol Hwy., proved a challenge for eatsiders and westsiders alike. In fact, the only person actually familiar with the location of this place was Michael, our mass transit expert. Isn’t that interesting?

Also, it would help, on a dark and stormy night, on a twisty and hilly road, if the place had a sign larger than a postage stamp, and about as obvious as one too. Also, what’s the deal with that “overflow” parking lot across the street? The main thing it was overflowing with was gigantic mud-filled potholes just waiting to swallow up my already traumatized Beetle (from going up and down the same weird stretch of road looking for both the restaurant and parking, and continually trying to find places to turn around in this wacked-out area of SW Portland.)

Before we get to Marnie’s kindly submitted review below, I thought I’d make a few comments on the ambiance at Alba. The building itself, which Alba shares with two or three other businesses, including the Capitol Hill Coffee House (I think that’s what it’s called, and I’ve read one can have an interesting meal there as well,) is an extremely long and skinny piece of architecture, probably not too surprising considering that in the “olden days” (sometime before 1960) it used to be a railroad station. One can only assume there is/was a railroad track around here somewhere. Alba’s space itself was pleasant enough, if a bit plain, a rather woody bar area and two narrow adjoining dining rooms, one of which our group dominated with its’ table for twelve (although only eleven eventually arrived. Jody, did I lose you with my erroneous address trick?) The terra cotta walls were painted in that pleasant rag technique so popular a few years ago in local Italian eateries, and the rather austere space was livened up by the open kitchen with stainless steel everything and hanging animal appendages accessorized with still attached hooves (proscuito anyone?) If only this was Spain, the legs would not only have been in the actual dining area, ready to carve, but they would have been fur-laden too. Oh, yum.

The only other peculiarity I noted in the dining area, the unisex bathroom/toilet stall set into the wall not five feet from our table. This bathroom was a pleasant enough place, candles and wafting cinnamon smells and everything, but if I was Alba Osteria I would try to do something to not have dining tables right next to the restroom, I spent all night crossing my fingers that some large burly kitchen employee wouldn’t enter aforementioned space with a magazine, and if so, if it would be necessary to flee mid-meal when the said burly individual exited the make-shift “reading room.” Luckily, no such event occurred. But it’s a scary thought what could happen, with diners perched so near to the danger zone.

Yes, my head always races with such classy thoughts while dining.

Anyway, on that scary note, on to Marnie’s review –

Are any of you fans of the Simpsons? If so, you may recall the episode where Homer becomes a food critic. In it, he is single-handedly responsible for an obesity epidemic in Springfield because his reviews runneth over with praise for any and all restaurants at which he eats. As Homer says to Marge, ” Marge, your pork chops today get the lowest rating from me – only 7 thumbs up!”

I am a Homer Simpson. I tend to be positive about going out to eat, to a fault. Hey, if someone else can cook and clean up after me, that is nearly half the fun. I generally have a pretty apt ability to read a menu and choose thedishes that combine flavors well, so it’s rare that my meals are disappointing. I have to say, though, I’m tepid at best about Alba Osteria.

Larry, Erica and I shared the Cothechino with Fonduta. What, you don’t know what Cothechino is? You can’t even pronounce it? Haveyou been living under a rock? I, personally, consider it a little off-putting to need an interpreter for a menu and there was little on this menu that didn’t require some explanation.
I don’t mind that the menu uses authentic names for the ingredients, but there should be an accompanying description for those not native to Piemont, Italy. However, the Cothechino with Fonduta (sausage and cheese) was nice; with a strong smoky flavor and a good mix of spicy and salty, offset by the creaminess
of the cheese. It was good sausage but I’ve yet to write home to Mum about it.

For my entrée, I tried a tuna special, described as “cooked medium,drizzled with lemon and served over garbanzo beans and watercress.” It was as described, but was entirely unexciting. I asked for more lemon and even that just couldn’t spark the dish to life for me. It wasn’t at all bad, just not great. As Homer might say, “Only 7 thumbs up.”

I skipped dessert and decided to have espresso instead. Their espresso was strong, bitter and tangy, as it should be, and did end the meal well.

The service was excellent and the waiter seemed an old hand at describing the various dishes on the menu. He managed the group well and had a great sense of humor.

The company, as always, was delightful and for all my lack of enthusiasm for the meal, any group that can hear my same jokes over and over again and not have me cast out, is fine in my book. I don’t think the meal was a good value, nor do I think I’ll return, but get a few glasses of wine in me at the next RR and I’ll be telling someone else that my birthday is the same day as Vanna White’s,because, well, that’s just how cool I am.

Thanks Marnie, without your kind efforts I would have to do so much more work myself.

As for my thoughts on Alba, here goes:

I’d say it was a mixed bag as well. Although I think it is a quality restaurant, it’s not really a place I’d be that anxious to return to either. for one thing, it’s so expensive, and another issue of mine, I really prefer Tuscan and Southern Italian cooking to that from the Piedmont region (the NW corner of Italy,below France.) Most of the time I don’t care if my Italian food comes with meat or not, pasta, herbs and cheese is fine with me, and this style is completely meat laden. It’s hard for me to remember a menu so full of all the meats I avoid,lamb, duck, veal, rabbit, and scariest of all, sweetbreads. (I’m a guilty carnivore, my body seeks protein, but I try to keep creature consumption
at its’ most basic level, (adult) beef, pork, fowl, and fish.)

From what I saw, slightly over 50% of our table loved what they ordered.My starter, breaded, fried oysters was very fresh and well prepared (oysters, at an Italian place??,) but they were a bit plain without some sort of sauce, although theun usual slaw served with them was interesting. Other popular starters included a baked Jerusalem artichoke casserole, a nicely done plate of sweet roasted red peppers, Agnolotti Pasta stuffed with veal and fortina, and the sausage drizzled with cheese that Marnie mentioned (is there a Cardiologist in the house?)The two fish specials, the tuna Marnie talked about and a prettily prepared trout were heavily ordered. Although I didn’t witness any handstands over the tuna, the trout preparation seemed appreciated, at least by the person sittingdirectly across from me. Down the table the lamb got one thumbs up (or asMarnie mightsay, 10 thumbs up,) and one thumbs down, the thumbs down mainly because itturned out the person eating it didn’t like the flavor of lamb (and who canblame her,
it’s yucky!!!!!) Although as mentioned earlier, I tend to avoid duck, theserving of Duck Leg Confit, Roasted Duck Breast and Cherry Compost (oh, sorry, that’sCOMPOTE,) laying at the place next to mine looked quite good, the duck pinkand moist in the center, not dried up like some over-cooked old daffy. The Grilled Porkloin Chop with a Balsamic Rosemary Glaze, while not quite as insanely large as the one I had at Acadia, was praised for its delicious sweet sauce, andthe gigantic beans that accompanied it seemed fascinating to several of my tablemates (some folks need to get out more.)

Two of us had the Pollo Ripieno (thanks for writing down the name Erica, I had no clue,) a chicken breast served with a stuffing made of the same sausage tha tcame drizzled with cheese as a starter.) It wasn’t bad, a tiny bit dry perhaps, but the sausage stuffing made for an overly saltly entree. Despite the factthat I seemed to be having some sort of salt induced seizure, and proceeded to throw both a piece of chicken and just slightly later my fork under the table my Marnie’s right foot, I did enjoy the frittes salsafied (or some ridiculous name like that,) they tasted just like yummy potatoes (perhaps they should think about justusing potatoes next time, instead of the obscure root thing which everyone had to askwhat it was.)

Which leads me to Marnie’s remarks on all the obscure food names. Almost every Italian restaurant (and every other ethnic restaurant) uses foreign sounding names. After all, that’s half the fun of eating out, butchering someone else’s language. When it takes a fifteen minute question and answer session with the waiter on what all the items are, though, you’ve probably gone overboard and should have some descriptions. A good case in point, the “Duo of Bonets” I had for dessert. It turns out a bonet is basically a small, delicate flan like pastry. By the time the meal was over, I had had enough of these cryptic names, so in the end I just demanded the waiter bring me my two bonnets. These expensive little hats were good though, and I also heard positive remarks on the coconut pound cake as well (at least I think “really coconutty” is a good thing.)

As per usual at these eatin’ things, the topics of conversation were free-flowing, diverse and often laughter inducing. Sometimes you don’t get to hear the end of the stories though, as occasionally someone can’t help but interrupt before the end. So my apologies Marnie, I never got to hear what happened the second time you woke up at your friends place in Seattle with the rat nibbling on your toe, I’m assuming it was one of the pet rats again, but I just couldn’t help but interrupt with my dream of the very night before about the Nutria-sized rat trying to mate with my head that had awoken me in a sheet-beating panic. The timing just seemed like fate. The karma of Restaurant Roulette.