You can taste the Middle Eastern influences at Angela's most clearly in its strudels and wontons.
Cast a quick glance over at chef-owner Saboor Zafari's menu and you'll see traditional French- and Italian-inspired bistro fare -- Caesar salads and New York strip steaks, pastas, and risottos.
But when the Asian fusion-sounding sweet potato wontons with scallions show up at the table looking more like a thin-skinned quesadilla cut into triangles than a deep-fried dumpling, they resemble nothing so much as Afghan bulanee, stuffed crepes drizzled with yogurt. Rounds of paper-thin dough have been filled with a mix of pureed sweet potatoes and green onions and pan-fried to wonton crispness. The tanginess of the yogurt mellows out the sugar in the potatoes and blunts the edge of the onions, bringing the two together.
The same surprises await with the spinach and feta strudel -- a split-open spanakopita, the greens and salty cheese held together by the skimpiest layers of phyllo dough -- laid atop a chunky tomato sauce. Austrian it ain't. But of course, any Austrian who claims her people invented the flaky, multilayered dough they roll into strudel is telling you a tall tale. The Austro-Hungarians actually stole it from the next empire over, the Ottomans. According to my food history bible, the Oxford Guide to Food, phyllo dough was actually invented by nomadic (read: ovenless) Turks who stacked dozens of thin, griddle-cooked flatbreads on top of each other to imitate the thick, fluffy yeast breads eaten in the cities. Zafari marries the two empires with our own in an appetizer strudel stuffed with wild rice, sautéed mushrooms, and duck, enlivened by a delicately fruity cranberry-red wine reduction sauce around the plate.
The day after I reviewed Kelly's of Alameda and Rick's Grill, proclaiming the birth of Alameda's very own gourmet ghetto on Park Street, I started getting e-mails from friends and readers living on the island: Thanks for the plug, they wrote, but why haven't you written about Angela's? Thus I inscribed Angela's name into my big, leather-bound tome of restaurants to visit.
Chef Zafari has worked in French, Italian, and Afghan restaurants all over the United States, co-owning a trio of restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin, before finally settling in California. The Angela in the one-year-old restaurant's name is Zafari's nine-year-old daughter "and farmers' market companion," he says. He shops at four farmers' markets a week during the season so that he can bring mostly organic produce to your table.
The entrance to Albertsons may overshadow its neighbor in the Marina Village shopping center, but step through the door to the restaurant and the strip-mall surroundings fade away. Long and narrow, the room exudes a low-lit, comfortable tranquillity. Light glows from the open kitchen running along the back half of one wall, partly disguised by a blind of wine racks and baskets of vegetables, but the din of pans and oven fans doesn't seem to spill over them. The tablecloths are white, the stemware elegantly solid, and the sounds of the other diners muted.
The menu lists a half-dozen appetizers, but diners can add a soup or salad to any entrée for two dollars; in fact, arrive before six and you'll get two courses at even lower prices. The house soup is one of the best things on the menu -- kidney beans, white beans, and orzo mix it up with vegetables and shreds of meat in a robust saffron-tinged broth. I wasn't overwhelmed by Angela's halfhearted Caesar, which could have used a more aggressively tart and garlicky dressing, but another night's special salad -- made up of cucumbers, tomatoes, and romaine lettuce with a curry vinaigrette -- held my interest much longer, and was also free with our meal.
Zafari has put together a short but tasteful list of affordably priced wines. My questions about the wine list, along with a couple other menu-related queries, flustered one of our servers, who seemed new to the profession. But she quickly recruited the headwaiter to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. Both servers made regular stops at the table, set a nice pace for the courses, and made us feel welcome.
Even when tinged with Middle Eastern spices, Angela's food remains comfortingly simple. A salmon special leaned a large, pan-roasted fillet on a bed of roasted-garlic mashed potatoes, with just a swirl of a lemon beurre blanc. The fish was cooked all the way through -- that's halfway too far in my book -- but the slightly tangy, creamy sauce (thanks to tons of butter) kept it tasting moist.
The simplicity suited the salmon, but two of the other entrées could have used a little extra attention. The spinach-feta strudel with tomato sauce was more interesting from a menu-analysis point of view than an epicurean one -- nothing stood out, for good or ill. And while I enjoyed the opulence of the mix of ground figs, walnuts, and herbs in the center of a stuffed chicken breast, the meat should have been braised instead of pan-roasted. A slow simmer in rich chicken stock would have left it moist and flavorful, not bland and leathery.
But one night's special, rack of lamb, hit just the right balance of plain and fancy. We ordered rare, and a robust pink hue stretched from the center all the way out to the edges of the loin. We could clearly taste all three layers in the merlot-mint reduction sauce -- the red wine, cooked down until just the fruit and acid remained; the reduced veal stock and shallots, which anchored the wine's bright flavor without dominating it; and the handful of mint dropped into the sauce at the end so its aroma wouldn't dissipate.
Angela's dessert menu is just short enough that the server can read it to you. Again, some dishes worked and some didn't. The individual apple bread pudding with an alcoholic crème anglaise looked good -- a small, crusted round surrounded by a swirl of thick cream. But the cooks hadn't soaked the bread in enough milk and eggs, so once we ate our way past the moist edges we were stopped by a mass of dry, inedible bread. We retreated to the baklava, crispy phyllo triangles layered with ground walnuts. Less cloying and more fragrant than most, Angela's baklava was suffused with a syrup scented with orange-flower water and adorned with a big squirt of whipped cream.
Angela's may stumble here and there, but it is undoubtedly a sound addition to the food scene in Alameda, a city in transition from culinary wasteland to Gourmet Island.