Monday, May 26, 2008

Vacation part IV: Spectacular Italian at Alta Strada

For my last vacation meal, I chose Alta Strada, Michael Schlow's suburban outpost in Wellesley. I had been there once before and had remembered that it was very good, so I was excited to be back.

We arrived on Sunday evening to find the dining room less than half full. It's decorated in a somewhat eclectic style-- lots of hard woods, bare light bulbs hanging in artful style from the walls, and curved acoustical panels on the ceiling. The bar is inviting and stretches the length of one wall, terminating in the open kitchen at the end of the room. I faced the kitchen, naturally, so I could watch what was going on.

The dining room, sparsely populated

Bar area with chalkboard menus

My two trusty dining companions-- Mom and Dad-- left the wine ordering to me. I selected a 2005 Trebbiano, which turned out to be a bit more tannic than I had remembered the last time I had a Trebbiano (if I had been blindfolded I would have thought it was a red wine). But I anticipated it would pair well with food, a prophecy that ultimately did come true. My only gripe with the wine service was that Alta Strada has stemless glasses. It's a touch that I think is meant to make the wine more informal and accessible, but I just find it less enjoyable than traditional stemware. I find that a lot of the wine drinking experience for me has to do with good glassware, so the stemless glasses just don't cut it for me.

Trebbiano, with b-league glassware

We placed our order, and almost immediately bread was brought to our table. It was a cross-section of a hearty white loaf, cut into four rippable chunks. It was accompanied by a dish of fine, fruity, tasty olive oil for dipping. The bread itself had a good crust and a chewy interior. Really, really good with the olive oil, and even better with part of my meal... read on for that. I also sprinkled it with some of the salt and pepper in the cute little wells on the table.

Awesome, awesome bread

Salt and pepper. If you're wondering, they did remove and replace this at the end of the meal.

My mom and dad had ordered an appetizer, and while we were happy munching on the bread, it was taking quite a while for the app to appear. Graciously, a captain brought over a complimentary amuse bouche to tide us over during the wait. It was small teacups of spring vegetable soup, with a mint pistou dotting the top. The soup was hearty, with crisp-tender vegetables and wheat berries at the bottom. The only slightly off flavor was the mint pistou. I like mint in desserts but not really in savory food. But I definitely appreciated the gesture.

Free soup!

My parents' appetizer arrived shortly after the soup. They had ordered Mamma Zecca's eggplant, which was, to be frank, eggplant parm. Don't get me wrong-- I took a taste, and it was spectacularly delicious. The tomato sauce was especially flavorful, with bits of vegetables creating a toothsome texture.

Eggplant parm by any other name...

...would be Mamma Zecca's masterpiece

Once the eggplant was gone, our entrees arrived in a reasonable amount of time. First came the three antipasti selections that made up my meal. A small dish of broccolini was cooked with garlic and chiles. It was crunchy and enjoyable, but I actually discerned absolutely no heat or spice from the chiles... weird.

Tame broccolini

For another vegetable selection, I chose roasted asparagus with parmesan. This was a really high-quality veg; there was that savory caramelized flavor that comes from roasting or grilling asparagus, which I love. There was also a significant amount of asparagus in the dish, something I appreciated. The parmesan was good but I didn't feel it added much to the plate overall.

Asparagus under parmesan blanket

Finally, the show-stopper: fresh homemade ricotta with sage. This is Schlow's signature; they make their ricotta in-house, and it tastes just unbelievably fresh. This dish of cheese came drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sage, and accompanied by grilled toast. I eagerly polished off the dish of cheese, pairing it with the bread from earlier as well as the toast. Incredible.

The house specialty

Close up on cheeeeeeeese

I was very pleased with my order, but how did my parents do? My dad had ordered cheese ravioli. It was a reasonably-sized dish but not over-ample. I took a taste of a raviolo, and while the tomato sauce was incredibly flavorful (I think the same recipe as in Mamma Zecca's eggplant), the pasta was undercooked (not just al dente, but undercooked). My dad also wished there were more sauce. I think that undersaucing is an "authentic" Italian thing, but he noted that some of the pasta ended up completely dry, definitely not a good thing, especially if it's undercooked to begin with.

Pasta! With cheese inside!

My mom had selected the spaghetti with tuna, pine nuts, golden raisins, and olives. This was a much more generous portion than my dad's ravioli, but that ended up not necessarily being a good thing. At first my mom couldn't find the tuna-- I pointed out that it was flaked in the sauce-- but once she did locate it, she persisted in noting that there was an "off flavor" in the dish. Finally, it was determined that that flavor was the olives. Now, my mom doesn't like olives, so I can't blame Alta Strada for that-- any dish with olives invariably tastes like olives, so as my mom admitted later, she probably just made the wrong choice. She did like the golden raisins in the sauce, though, which is a big step for a former raisin-eschewer like my mom.

Spaghettini, with, yes, tuna AND olives

Unfortunately, one of the negatives about Alta Strada is they don't really have a comprehensive dessert menu. There are only four choices written on one of the chalkboards above the bar, and one of those offerings is biscotti. None of them appealed, so we requested the check and planned to get dessert elsewhere. I wish Alta Strada would put some thought into a REAL dessert menu-- with such top quality food, I bet the desserts could be spectacular.

Alta Strada is definitely not cheap, but the quality of food was some of the best I've had in a long time. It's a convivial atmosphere (as they say) with attentive service, and I would eagerly return if I lived anywhere nearby. Even though my parents' dishes were perhaps not as up to snuff as they would have liked, I feel justified in awarding Alta Strada four out of five Offset Spatulas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank you for dinning with us, its always refreshing to get feedback from educated dinners such as yourself.

Alta Strada Management Team