Half of our lobster -- the top half, antennas aflutter -- presided over plump, pink chunks of shellfish meat ringed around a big white plate. Live until we ordered it, or so the menu said, the lobster meat was steamed, pulled from the shell, and sautéed in a little butter. When my friend Allen lifted up the head to peer inside, though, a Rapunzel-like tangle of housemade chow mein tossed with a lobster-butter sauce and basil oil tumbled out.
That's the kind of high-drama Pacific Rim food King Wong is bringing to Albany Bistro, now jostling with Fonda and Rivoli for the affections of Solano Avenue diners. Wong has been a fixture on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel since 1994, when he opened Tomato Tree in Concord. His 301 Bistro in Danville earned serious props from locals and critics. But the dot-com bust sent Wong and his wife, Linda, looking for a smaller, more hands-on restaurant.
The Wongs are hoping to turn around a location that's starting to whisper "cursed" -- this is the third time I've dined at this address in three years. Il Porcino, the arduously mediocre Italian restaurant that preceded Albany Bistro, first warmed up the drafty space with slightly dowdy but welcoming butter-yellow and sage walls. The Wongs kept the paint job, and it's amazing how much better the room looks since they stripped out the hundreds of dollars' worth of plaster Roman-looking ornaments that Il Porcino had installed.
Albany Bistro has opened with a bang: lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, with no days off. For those between-meal dead times, the Wongs have equipped a full bar in the lower lounge area and introduced an all-day tapas menu for people just looking for cocktails and snacks.
As if they didn't have enough work on their hands, Wong's staff must devote hours just to prepping garnishes, because little tangles of beet threads and crispy high-flying flourishes appear on every plate, often raising the dish to a nosebleed altitude. Wong also is a relentless innovator, combining ingredients and culinary techniques in novel ways and layering flavor on top of flavor. In fact, sometimes the menu reflects where a dish has been, not how he has since tweaked it to get it right. The entrées are creative, effusively pan-Asian, and priced in the $15-$20 range.
Many of Wong's constructions, however, are like a house of cards. When they work, you're delighted at their precarious elegance. But when he adds one too many ingredients, or doesn't steady the base, the dish falls flat.
Some of my favorite dishes at Albany Bistro, like the lobster, looked like a million bucks but kept the concept simple. The most marvelous appetizer I tried was a roasted quail, boned and separated into tiny breasts and thighs, then glazed with a simple veal-stock reduction sauce. On the other end of the plate, Wong set a tussle of finely shaved cabbage stir-fried with little cubes of pancetta. The two blended together for a meaty yet delicate effect. He ditched the ponzu (Japanese citrus-soy) sauce on his seafood pasta, as described by the menu, and replaced it with a rice-wine glaze. The new sauce called forth the sweetness in the heaps of juicy rock shrimp, prawns, and ephemerally tender scallops that he tossed with wide, chewy homemade noodles. Woven throughout were silky noodle-shaped strips of carrots and zucchini.
Other dishes earned a pleasant response. A plate of thinly sliced housecured salmon, placed next to small piles of buttery avocado, dressed baby greens, and orange segments came together when assembled into a mock sashimi roll. Only one of the "venison (two ways)" succeeded: the plump, gamy venison sausage. The moist venison chop tasted oddly sour, as if it had been marinated in red wine so long that the wine had oxidized. But once again I enjoyed Wong's Pacific Rim pasta. This time it was a German chow fun -- homey spaetzle stir-fried with bean sprouts.
Tasted alongside the highlights of the menu, the restaurant's less successful dishes came across as disappointments. A tomato-okra soup lacked three-dimensionality, or maybe it was just salt. Wong fanned an applewood-smoked duck breast, pink in the center, on one end of a foot-long plate, and mounded a chopped salad of jicama, lotus root, and greens with a soy-sesame vinaigrette on the other. The light, fruity mango sauce pooling in the middle was supposed to bring the two earthy ingredients together, but became a gulf I didn't want to drag my fork across.
The dish that needed a good editor the most was the halibut. Here's the menu description, copied straight from the bistro's Web site, AlbanyBistro.com: "Halibut: tomato provençal, watercress mashed potato, tempura prawn, crispy parsnip, bouillabaisse sauce, and drizzled basil oil." The halibut was moist and aptly seasoned, and the peach-colored bouillabaisse sauce -- a beurre blanc with hints of saffron, tomato, and fennel -- was lovely. But it was forced to compete against a heap of garlicky tomato coulis, and the more effete of the two sauces lost out. Watercress mashed potatoes looked like they could have belonged on a St. Paddy's Day menu, but none of the peppery bitterness of the greens came through. And the basil oil, deep-fried shrimp, and a woven parsnip crisp? Garnishes.
What swept the bistro back into our good graces was dessert, such as balloon glass that looked like a terrarium. Planted on a bed of ginger gelato -- potently perfumed -- was an Eden of blackberries, red raspberries, and strawberries, with a sprig of mint rising like a fern. Wong performed a similar feat with an almond-tuile basket filled with tart, unctuous lemon curd and fresh berries. His light hazelnut torte, built from layers of chocolate and chocolate-hazelnut mousse on a crackly nut-cookie base, was built to enliven the senses, not drown them in decadence.
For a new restaurant, Albany Bistro's service comes across as assured. On my first visit, a weekend night, we were nonplussed to arrive on time for our reservation, then wait 25 minutes for a seat. But once we sat down the meal proceeded seamlessly. Our server was solicitous without being obtrusive, and she timed the courses properly, the busers swinging by regularly to refill, replenish, and remove. Same thing, minus the pre-appetizer wait, on my second visit.
Like many the other East Bay chefs now working with Pacific Rim flavors, Wong continually tinkers with his creations in ways that purity-obsessed California-cuisine acolytes do not. His experiments don't always pay off. Then again, neither did Edison's. But Wong's success rate is much higher.
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