The combination of fresh, local ingredients, creative, innovative Italian-American cuisine, comfortable-yet-refined ambiance and brilliant service make Restaurant Alba one of the most exceptional restaurant experiences in the western suburbs.
Food: Things kicked off with a complimentary amuse of sunchoke puree with extra virgin olive oil. This robust oil was also served next to crusty Italian bread.
We started out with the “Batsua” ($12) – a crispy fritter made from braised pig’s feet and belly, served with a mustard crema. These had a wonderfully “porky” flavor; though we expected it to be like bacon, it was closer to a smoked pork barbecue. Though frying this concoction seems excessive, it was certainly worth trying. We also sampled the Antipasto ($15pp – changes daily), a sampling of 5-6 “chef’s choice” appetizers. All were excellent — but our favorite was the goat cheese & grilled ramp bruschetta.
Wood Roasted Goat, served alongside grilled whole grain polenta and soffrito braised greens ($31), was tasty and savory. To make this dish, a whole goat is slow-cooked overnight on the dying embers of the previous night’s fire and then braised before a quick reheat on the grill. It’s a uniquely flavored meat — closest to lamb but not quite as gamey.
The Berkshire pork shoulder, served with crispy spaetzle & peas, charred fennel and a bit of Tupelo honey sauce ($26) is cooked in similar fashion to the goat, and the quick grilling just before serving gives it a texture almost like a crusty bread — crispy on the outside but light and fluffy inside. In contrast to the goat, the honey and cider jus gave this dish a subtle kick of sweetness.
A grilled rib-eye special was served with sea salt and fine tuscan olive oil alongside crispy potatoes and a mixed green salad. It was a simple dish — the “crispy” potatoes were really cold homemade chips, which was a bit disappointing — but the steak was well-cooked and quite tasty.
Alba also offers 4-5 pasta dishes such as Veal & Sweetbread Ravioli, Morel Mushroom & Vegetable Soffrito ($20) and several fish entrees like the Atlantic Tilefish with Nettle & Potato Gnocchetti, Grilled Meyer Lemon & Caper Brown Butter ($29). The menu changes seasonally.
For dessert, we tried the Chocolate Pot de Creme with Almond Torrone Whipped Cream ($8), which was light and slightly minty, creating a palate-cleansing feeling. It wasn’t spectacular, but we still cleaned the plate.
Bar: Once only a BYOB, Alba now offers a full bar. (BYOW is still allowed at $10/bottle.) A small list of beers focuses on local crafts from Victory. The wine list, on the other hand, culls mostly from Italy, with a large variety of hard-to-find small producers (or at least as many as you can get through the PLCB system). They also make house-infused grappa for those with fortified stomachs.
Service: Though the food is excellent, the attention to service at Alba is what truly sets this restaurant apart from others in the suburbs. Clearly the staff and management understand how to handle any issues and resolve them quickly and satisfyingly. Our very first dinner at Alba, shortly after they opened, showcased their attention to detail. A pork chop originally came from the kitchen extremely undercooked, so much so that it was inedible. A passing waiter (not our own) quickly noticed that I looked unhappy and offered to take the plate back to the kitchen. Never a good situation to have one plate of hot food on the table and not the other, our waitress quickly reappeared with a small appetizer to tide me over until they could fix up the chop. Obviously I was unhappy with the fact that my food was not prepared well at first, but the professional and caring way that the entire staff handled the incident was brilliant.
On a more recent visit, our waiter once again illustrated how seriously Alba takes service. There were no errors from the kitchen this time around, but our waiter answered every question we had about the menu (there were quite a few) with a level of knowledge and detail as if he would be personally preparing each entree. He had no hesitation to help us choose the entrees that would be suit our interests and needs.
Ambiance: Artsy and comfortable, bustling yet romantic. There are two rooms, the main one which features an open kitchen, and a more private side room. The main room is perhaps a bit more compelling because of the large wood oven in view, but there isn’t a huge difference.
Value: As with many restaurants that move from BYOB status to bar status, the value proposition at Alba has gone down a bit. It’s nice that they offer a BYOW option, but the $10 corkage is quite steep. Wine bottles are not outlandishly priced (at least compared to other restaurants), and value can be found with some digging, but most bottles are at least $40. Entrees haven’t dropped in price since the bar was added, so expect to pay upper 20s or even low 30s. It is hard to complain when the quality of the food and experience is consistently excellent, but Alba is certainly no longer your neighborhood restaurant for a casual Friday night.