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|July 9- July 15, 2009
• Culinary America
The debate over an American cuisine definition continues
by Bill Daley
• The Dessert Diva
A local chef shares her sweet secrets
by Danette Randall
Composition and quality
Boulder’s Alba is as smooth as Sinatra
by Clay Fong
The Sinatra flowing through the speakers was the first clue. This wasn’t the bombastic, Paul Anka-penned stuff of the Chairman’s late ’60s career. No, these were the understated tunes of the ’50s Capitol years. This was the era in which Sinatra was the consummate saloon singer, and his music was especially noteworthy for its subtlety and craftsmanship. For the most part, these qualities also apply to the lunchtime venue where friend Teresa and I enjoyed these tunes, Boulder’s Alba Osteria.
Like Sinatra, Alba’s sunny white tablecloth interior conveys some formality, but there is still room for one to relax and enjoy the experience. The menu here mixes classic and contemporary Italian elements, and you’ll find such selections as gnocchi primavera and pasta in a rabbit sauce. On the day of our meal, entrées spotlighted such tantalizing ingredients as Cornish hens and tiger shrimp, making it hard for us to decide on a meal.
While some may associate this dish with the French bistro more than the Italian osteria, our starter of shared $10 duck confit salad impresses in any language. Without the duck, this mélange of tender greens, billowy goat cheese, subtle vinaigrette and citrus slices would still make for a first-rate salad. The precisely seasoned duck, free of superfluous fat and gaminess, elevated this dish to something more memorable.
Teresa’s entrée was a $13 helping of skirt steak sided with soft polenta, Florentine spinach (which by name seemed peculiarly redundant). Silky with buttery undertones, the polenta showcased the comforting qualities of this venerable side. The spinach was fine and firm, indicating the kitchen’s understanding of correct cooking times. Skirt steak is an increasingly popular menu item, and while it may not have the fork-tender qualities associated with filet mignon, it compensates with full flavor. Alba’s example was surprisingly bland, and it would have benefited from a sprinkling of coarse sea salt or a splash of olive oil.
Fortunately, there were no shortcomings in a medium $8 serving of pea and pancetta risotto. A large portion is available for $14, but the medium was perfectly appropriate for lunch. According to our server, the pancetta was prepared by the chef. It was certainly better than commercial versions I’ve recently sampled, as these dry-cured morsels perfectly balanced pork belly flavor with salt and spice. The peas served as a powerful reminder of how the fresh product is infinitely superior to processed versions. As to the short-grain rice, it struck the right balance between the soft and firm, and was shot through with a pleasant aroma of white wine that tied this fine dish together.
Asked for a dessert recommendation, our server enthusiastically recommended the $7 panna cotta, stating, “My knees tremble when I think of it.” Panna cotta, which translates to “cooked cream,” resembles a crustless crème brûlée. Our otherwise reserved server’s declaration of an orthopedic emergency was well-founded — this custard was simply exquisite. A simple garnish of sweet marsala wine and fresh berries didn’t hurt either.
The panna cotta defines what’s right about Alba. In a sense, the fare shares desirable characteristics with vintage Sinatra. In each case, the experience is the product of artful composition and a commitment to quality, whether it’s in respect to vocals or fresh peas. These elements make both experiences well worth the price of admission.
Clay’s obscurity corner
The lonely Sinatra
One of my parents’ favorite albums is Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, a 1958 Capitol release that features Sinatra at the height of his powers. Recorded soon after Sinatra’s divorce from screen star Ava Gardner, this album isn’t a showcase for ring-a-ding-ding cheer. Instead, this album is an exploration of melancholy and loss, and it conjures an atmosphere of a solitary singer in a late-night watering hole versus a splashy Vegas venue. “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” is the best-known cut from this album, which Sinatra regarded as his personal favorite.
2480 Canyon Blvd., Boulder,
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