Taste: Reviews: BOYB Meets Grill

The scent of a wood-burning grill is a powerful trigger. One whiff is all it takes to ignite the imagination with visions of marbled steaks and glistening fish laid over glowing embers, of raw vegetables mellowing to softness, of thick bread toasting for bruschetta.

This kind of come-hither smoke, fed by mesquite, oak and hickory, perfumes the parking lot behind Restaurant Alba, ensuring that you’ll be famished by the time you reach the front door. Anticipation rises at the sight of sparks flying from the grill in the open kitchen, floating like pixie dust in the air around chef-owner Sean Weinberg and his team. Black shutters, white tablecloths and patterned pottery suggest that you’ve stepped inside a country inn in Tuscany, Provence or Mexico, although the pressed khakis and figure-skimming dresses on the clientele say Malvern. Dim and sometimes deafeningly loud, this rustic-chic BYOB is drawing western Main Liners of all ages. And they’re not just bringing wine: On one evening, I saw a preppie-ish party of six unzip an insulated carrier and lift out an enormous pitcher of mojitos.

Weinberg, who is 32, knows he had you at the parking lot, and that you want something right away. Out comes a complimentary pre-appetizer, pureed gazpacho with a tangy shot of sherry vinegar, served in espresso cups. In colder months, the soup will be warm, made with locally grown heirloom turnips, or potatoes and leeks, or mushrooms, the mark of a chef committed to cooking with the seasons. That is as central to Restaurant Alba as its grill.

Weinberg acquired his deep respect for farmers and artisan cheesemakers during a two-year apprenticeship in Italy that took him through Venice, Florence, Valle d’Aosta and Alba, the sentimental source of his restaurant’s name. (You need not wonder if the excellent potato gnocchi and the ravioli-like agnolotti filled with spinach and ricotta at Restaurant Alba are made in-house — they are.) An internship with Thomas Keller at the Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles — before Keller opened the now-iconic Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry — jump-started his creative side. Weinberg also moved to Baja California for a while to immerse himself in traditional Mexican cooking, which explains the Frida Kahlo portrait in the ladies’ room at Alba, and the lively guajillo chile pepper rub on the satisfying grilled New York strip steak.

From the grill comes remarkably tender octopus, served with herb-flecked chickpeas, as well as several elements for the antipasti, a tapas-style assortment of five ambitious small bites. It might include a piece of merguez sausage, zucchini with toasted pine nuts, crostini with milk-poached garlic and an anchovy, a diced shrimp and mango salad, or a nugget of fresh tuna salad wrapped with a piece of roasted red bell pepper. Fresh pizza dough is the base for the grilled flatbread, topped with peppery arugula leaves tempered by soft, mild Greystone Farm goat cheese and caramelized white onions.

The lovely salads could use more dressing, but each includes distinctive elements: Whole baby beets the size of shooter marbles are arranged with watercress, toasted walnuts, and a stylish orange-walnut oil vinaigrette; toasted hazelnuts and pear vinaigrette add refinement to sharp arugula and rough-textured frisée; fennel shavings mingle with mixed baby greens. Panko-crusted lobster cakes and lump crabcakes appear from time to time, served with napa cabbage slaw and mango vinaigrette, and are worth ordering when they do. But my favorite appetizer is the spicy fish soup with clams, mussels, shrimp, and chunks of whatever fresh fish is in the house, all perfectly cooked, in a light tomato broth that owes its nuanced bite to three hot pepper varieties (Thai, Hungarian and jalapeño), strained out before serving. Grilled bread spread with pureed milk-poached garlic is an Italian take on the aioli served with bouillabaisse in France.

The fish entrées are the kitchen’s finest work. Creamy guacamole echoes the richness of succulent salmon, roasted slowly until it approaches medium-rare, contrasting beautifully with slightly tart grilled tomato vinaigrette. Dorade, meatier than the bronzino that is the alternate whole fish choice, is served head-to-tail, its moist interior protected by lightly crisped skin. Grilled halibut fillet is meatier still, surrounded by cockle clams, sweet corn kernels and fresh thyme in a light-bodied, full-flavored broth.

Handsome Laguiole steak knives accompany the beef entrées, more for style than necessity. The rare-grilled hanger steak is as tender as the New York strip, but the pork chop had a fatty edge and required serious sawing. Duck two ways, combining a grilled breast with confit leg meat swaddled inside a crepe, left a neutral impression. But some of the side vegetables were memorably good, including the buttery fork-smashed potatoes and grilled vegetables served with the whole fish, and the braised collards and sweet potato puree alongside the pork chop. The wedge of  blue cheese potato gratin that accompanies the hanger steak needs more of its namesake cheese to be distinctive.

Alba purchases its supersize chocolate hazelnut brownie and chocolate espresso cream pie from Rose Tattoo, the restaurant in Fairmount, which is owned by Weinberg’s parents. They’re okay, but something with European flair feels more appropriate here, like the free-form flat peach tart, or Bing cherries corralled in a crown-shaped crust, both made in-house. Exceptional mint gelato comes from Miel, the Center City/South Jersey specialty dessert-maker.

Throughout dinner, unobtrusive floor fans in the two dining rooms keep the grill smoke at bay. But it does cling to hair and clothes, as you’ll discover in the car and back home (which accounts for the B-
rating for atmosphere), so consider yourself forewarned.

E-mail: mgallagher@phillymag.com

Restaurant Alba
7 West King Street, Malvern,
610-644-4009; restaurantalba.com
Food : B+ 
Service : B 
Atmosphere : B-
AVERAGE COST OF DINNER PER PERSON (with tax and tip, without alcohol) : $47
FOOD : American/seasonal, with Mediterranean and Mexican influences.
GET : Seafood appetizers and entrées.
DON’T GET : The chocolate desserts.