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Restaurant Alba
7 West King Street
Malvern, Pennsylvania
(610) 644-4009
http:// www.restaurantalba.com

When I first reviewed Alba, over six (6) years ago now, this bustling BYOB restaurant was just a few months old and already in the process of becoming one of the Main Line’s hottest meal tickets. Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer had bestowed his coveted imprimatur, every foodie within reasonable commuting distance was storming the gates, and chef/proprietor Sean Weinberg was assuaging the hungry hordes with his energetic and innovative international bill of fare.

As I mentioned in my initial review – and it seems even more relevant some six years hence – one can’t help but wonder how many highly-touted, highly-rated eateries, Restaurant Alba included, manage to maintain their integrity in the face of so much hired-belly hoopla and inevitable influx of galloping gastronomic groupies.

Well, there is absolutely no question in my mind that Mr. Weinberg and his wife, Kelly, have been completely equal to the task. A graduate of the CIA, Mr. Weinberg has done an absolutely superb job of giving full vent to his passionate and inventive culinary spirit. His eclectic menu – ranging from Italy to Mexico, with numerous intriguing ports of call in between – features slow-braised game, homemade pastas, and the scintillating sensuality of meats and seafood kissed by his open kitchen’s wood-fired grill. Food-wise, not everything is perfect, of course – it seldom is – but it’s pretty damn close. And while other issues have occasionally distracted (more about those later), I have yet to be disappointed in the cuisine.

And this past December (2011) Alba broadened its horizons by expanding into the corner property located at King Street & Warren Avenue. This new space features a warm & intimate bar area very much in the tradition of a northern Italian Aperitivo, serving a variety of complimentary light bites each weeknight from 4:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. The full service bar offers patrons classic cocktails, craft beer, and a decidedly interesting, predominantly Italian wine list augmented by a casual small plate menu. A relaxed lunch is also served on Thursdays & Fridays.

When it comes to dinner, bruschetta makes the perfect starter. Diners may order 1 for $5.00, 3 for $12.00, or 5 for $15.00… and portions are quite ample. My wife and I recently ordered 3, and they were more than sufficient for sharing. The creamy sheep’s milk ricotta is spruced up with a slathering of local honey and pinch of sea salt; the chickpea purée is topped with lardo (fatback) and companioned by pepperoncini (Tuscan peppers); and the mortadella (smoked sausage) is crowned with a sunny side up hen’s egg. Each is completely unique… and totally delicious.

On the other hand, should you be somewhat more adventurous of appetite, the grilled octopus is not to be missed. If improperly prepared, this mild tasting denizen of the deep can be excessively chewy; but here it is inordinately tender and arrives in the company of braised chickpeas, spicy chorizo, and strands of pickled onions.

When it comes to entrées, diners will quickly discover that Mr. Weinberg is equally adept with meat, fish, or fowl. His grilled hanger steak ($22.00), for example, is remarkably tender and rife with flavor (which is not always the case with this particular cut) and is presented pre-sliced with an enticing Bordelaise sauce. Finishing touches include a pillow of thoroughly addictive garlic mashed potatoes and delightful blend of caramelized hedgehog mushrooms and Brussels sprouts. And his "Duck Two Ways" ($23.00) features luscious medium rare slices of grilled breast teamed with a completely engaging kumquat vinaigrette and sinfully rich salad of duck leg confit.

If greenery is more to your liking, be sure to give this tart-like creation a try: a diaphanous foundation of Marcona almond butter, a layer of perfectly trimmed baby arugula dotted with quarters of roasted golden baby beets, and, finally, a consummatory tiara of shavings of ricotta salata (a smooth, snow-white, somewhat nutty flavored cheese that is similar to feta, though not as salty). A positively exquisite presentation… as pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate.

The chef requests no substitutions, but diners are free to order sides from other dishes to complement their meal, should one or two strike their fancy. In this regard, be sure to sample the incomparably rich and earthy bleu cheese and potato gratin ($3.00). Completely addictive, totally delicious and, should you be an incorrigible spud fan, surely worth the price of admission.

The escarole salad – dotted with shavings of celery root and wafer-thin slices of Honeycrisp apples – isn’t bad either. The lemon-anchovy dressing is judiciously applied and provides just the proper “kick” to the taste buds. Unfortunately, after the aforementioned photogenic roasted baby beet & arugula combo, it looks like just another pile of lettuce.

As you move on to the main course, you have some tough choices looming on the horizon. The entrées – meat, fish, and fowl look quite tempting… On the other hand, if you’re feeling particularly Italian and lyrical, so do the pasta dishes. In any event, regardless of your ultimate decision, trust me, you will not be disappointed.

The two pastas I’ve sampled, for instance, have both been exceptional. The first was paccheri, large tube-shaped pasta. These are similar to rigatoni, but paccheri are short and have a larger diameter. Paccheri dishes are often stuffed with either meats or seafood. However, they are not always filled; upon occasion they are companioned by chunks of meat and/or vegetables in a rich, hearty sauce, as they are at Alba. Mr. Weinberg teams them with a rustic wild boar ragú – a thick, full-bodied, pork-with-an-attitude meat sauce – and just a sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano; a presentation that leaves the palate panting for more.

Equally recommendable is the spaghetti carbonara alla chitarra, “guitar style.” Fresh pasta is cut on a stringed instrument called a chitarra, which shapes it into four-sided strands. Like all carbonara dishes, at the last moment the pasta is tossed with an ethereally light sauce that combines a touch of cream, eggs, and Parmesan cheese. In this case, peas and bits of pork belly are added for additional flavor and color. A relatively simple dish, but sublime in its simplicity… and addictively delicious.

When it comes to entrées proper, bear in mind that Mr. Weinberg is particularly adept at seafood. I still have vivid taste memories of his swordfish, a slender steak, perfectly cooked, proudly displaying its indelibly delicate crisscross grill marks, arriving on a pillow of milk-poached garlic & potato purée and mélange of charred vegetables, consummated with a superlative herb-butter sauce. More recently, his wood-grilled golden trout was every bit its equal. The moist and flaky flesh was kissed – rather than smothered, as it is in many lesser piscatorial presentations – by an incomparably elegant blood orange-Campari vinaigrette. The only slight downer: a chewy seabed of broccoli raab.

But if you’re a diehard seafood fan, the one item not to be missed is Mr. Weinberg’s Mediterranean brodetto, his extraordinary fish stew. The broth is made from smaller fish and fish heads, and portions of larger fish and shellfish are cooked in it. This particular brodetto is spruced up with fregola (couscous), tomato confit, charred fennel, and a taste bud-awakening rouille, a spicy rust-colored paste made from hot chilies, garlic, breadcrumbs, olive oil and stock. The major constituents include perfectly prepared mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops.

When it comes to meat and fowl, the stars of the show continue to be various incarnations of the chef’s hanger steak and grilled duck breast. The former, remarkably tender and rife with flavor (which is not always the case with this particular cut of beef), is teamed with an egg & arugula salad, pickled red onion, and crispy potatoes. The latter, featuring luscious medium rare slices, is presented with a chestnut & chickpea ragoût and caramelized endive.

Beyond the main courses, there are also several side dishes that are well worth considering. The hand-cut fries with house-made ketchup are good; but the smashed fingerling potatoes with horseradish crème fraîche are nothing short of spectacular… ditto the caramelized Brussels sprouts with smoked pancetta and splash of balsamic. Well worth the $6.00 each price tag.

If there is one area of the menu that has demonstrated marked improvement since my first review, it is the desserts. Recently sampled was an open-face free-form apple crostata (tart) crowned with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and the luscious lemon pudding cake garnished with blueberry sauce. Both were excellent. And bear in mind that the restaurant also puts out a first rate artisan cheese plate.

Finally, just one or two minor concerns that have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the cuisine, but that may impact upon the pleasure of your total dining experience. The aforementioned new bar area is quite pleasant – it is also, when filled, quite noisy; and the low ceiling only adds to the daunting decibel level.

And speaking of noise… the restaurant’s main dining area, which also contains the open kitchen and wood-fired grill, is obviously where all the action is. It can also, depending upon the evening and/or the crowd, be rather zooey. Great, if you happen to be dining with a group. On the other hand, if you’re in the mood for an intimate tête-à-tête, the “Cottage,” the small room between the main dining area and the bar/lounge is much to be preferred – with one notable exception. On Friday evenings, when things really get cranked up, the unholy cacophony ricocheting off the low ceiling and other hard surfaces of the adjacent bar will, at the speed of light, shatter your hopes for a quiet dinner – as well as your eardrums – like a broken chainsaw.

Apart from the above idiosyncrasies – which, with just a bit of preplanning, are easily circumvented – and a hostess who occasionally cops an attitude, Restaurant Alba remains highly recommended.

April 2012
The Artful Diner

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.


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