Since 1996, that faraway 20th century world before the boom and bust, the iPod, Monica Lewinsky, and Homeland Security, Asena has been an affable place for Alameda islanders to sip, sup, and relax in a friendly Old World atmosphere. Coowners Muhittin Arpaci and Mustafa Yidirim have created a cozy venue where locals can feel like part of the family and enjoy a leisurely meal fragrant with the foodstuffs of the Mediterranean Basin, particularly Turkey, the owners' homeland. Here the flavors of the Balkans, the Middle East, and Southern Europe — eggplant, olives, peppers, garlic, lamb, filo, feta, and fennel — are combined and configured into what might be called pan-Med fusion cooking. The menu changes to reflect the seasons. Soups, pastas, and the irresistible house bread are handmade each day. Ingredients are sourced from Alameda suppliers like the JP Seafood Company and Joe Scalise and Sons Butcher Shop. And if the culinary results aren't always up to the high spirits and aspirations of the place, the kitchen achieves its goals often enough to makes Asena a reliable local destination.
Mezzes, the Eastern Mediterranean equivalent of tapas, is the highlight of the Asena dining experience (especially when consumed in traditional fashion with a glass of wine or Turkish raki ... more on that later). Borek, the filled pastries popular throughout the old Ottoman Empire, are served here as cigar-shaped filo turnovers sprinkled with sesame seeds and ribboned with fresh dill, caramelized onion, and puckery sheep's milk feta — a rich, crunchy delight accented with a drizzle of sweet-sour balsamic glaze. The potato puffs were nothing but lush puréed tater wrapped in a crisp golden coating and were simply irresistible (although the horseradish cream dipping sauce that came with them tasted more like Best Foods mayo). Our favorite may have been the big juicy artichoke hearts breaded and fried to the crunchy stage and served with a lime aioli with plenty of zip. We also had a salad of caramelized persimmons with mache, ricotta, and pancetta, but the overly sweetened fruit was still on the crunchy side and the flavors didn't match up successfully.
The entrées we sampled weren't quite up to the standards of the mezzes or the appealing ambience of the restaurant itself. The whole stuffed Italian eggplant was a big, tough, chewy hunk of protein filled with underseasoned ground lamb, a bare minimum of Gruyere, and not enough reduced-marsala flavor to make a difference. The grilled Petaluma chicken wrapped in filo dough was a better bet, a light, tangy quasi-bastilla touched with sweetness and spice, although the dish's advertised brie and curried coconut milk were hard to detect. The house paella, a bountiful array of Gulf prawns, mussels, chicken, and a bouquet of fried leeks, boasted a pleasant hint of saffron and nice big chunks of spicy linguica sausage, but the mussels were on the overbearing side and the fluffy rice didn't have the crusty taste and texture of a really great paella. But the gnocchi was tender to the tooth, hearty and satisfying in flavor, with a sprinkle of tart ricotta and meaty oil-cured porcini mushrooms adding heft and thyme-infused sweet butter delivering a lush, silky coda.
Desserts were uniformly delectable. The blood orange cheesecake was lighter and fluffier than the standard slab of white velvet, and was limned with bits of candied orange peel that gave the dessert a pleasantly bittersweet after-zing. The panna cotta was more flan than panna cotta, with an eggy consistency and a layer of soupy caramel on top, but wasn't at all bad if you like flan. The best meal-closer, though, was the pot de crème, a dark, lush, absolutely endorphic bowl of bittersweet chocolate with the molecular density of a brick.
Asena offers several options for the vegetarian diner. In addition to the fried artichoke hearts, the potato puffs, and the feta-stuffed borek, small plates include an olive sampler assortment, roasted garlic with gorgonzola and house-made onion bread, roasted beets with feta and fresh mint, and pepper-crusted brie with bruschetta. Four different vegetarian salads are available as well. Grilled eggplant layered with mozzarella and vegetables; polenta cake with cheese and spinach; pumpkin ravioli with sage butter; black risotto with scallions and sweet potatoes; and the gnocchi with porcini mushrooms are among the meat-free entrées.
The restaurant's wide-ranging, ever-evolving wine list features 100 selections from around the Mediterranean (France, Italy, Spain, Turkey) as well as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Portugal, Oregon, Washington, and our own backyard (literally: there are a couple of selections from Alameda's Rosenblum Cellars on the list). Most are in the affordable $25 to $50 range; two dozen are available by the glass. Asena's good-neighbor policy also extends to the island's acclaimed Hangar One distillery: a flight of four boutique vodkas is offered at $20. The bar shakes up some tasty and inventive cocktails as well, including the Monte Carlo, a festive, bracing, bright-red concoction of Campari, Stoli, pomegranate juice, and limoncello, and the Turkish Delight, in which fresh lime juice and the orangey sweetness of triple sec temper the licorice-fueled intensity of Turkish raki to excellent, silky-smooth effect.
Asena's unassuming-storefront facade is enlivened with a rich olive-and-eggplant color scheme, floor-to-ceiling windows, and handsome food-oriented artwork. There's an inviting little patio off to the side for warm-weather dining, and the attractive bar is abundantly stocked. This is a fine place for a perfectly crafted cocktail, a tranquil meal, and the sort of congenial neighborhood vibe that's hard to come by nowadays.