Alamo's only bistro doubles, sort of, as the East Bay's only Romanian restaurant. One glance over the menu at Xenia! -- which henceforth will be written sans exclamation point -- and it looks like safe, no-surprises Californian food. Salad. Soup. Pasta. Chicken. Grab a slice from the breadbasket, dredge it through a ramekin of smoked eggplant purée, and read through again. You'll notice that instead of tomato-basil sauce and Parmesan cheese, the orecchiette comes with lamb and roasted peppers. The house soup is a chicken goulash. All slipped in without fanfare or even italics.
Before Xenia opened, there used to be a Romanian deli in San Leandro. Vatran's Flying Sausages sold Eastern European cold cuts and pickled green tomatoes, as well as owner Peter Vatran's homemade sausages. Vatran sold the deli several months ago, but the food business was in his blood. "Cinq Générations, Charcuterie Vatran" reads the Beaux-Arts sign painted on Xenia's back wall. Generation five is Vatran's son Josh, who graduated two years ago from the Culinary Institute of America and spent almost a year working at the family deli. David Langon, one of the Vatrans' fans, recruited the two to go into business with him. He lured them to Alamo, where he lives, and the three remade the old Vicini's, turning the insides into a warm, rustic bistro that belies the shopping center it's submerged in.
Despite the sign on the wall, the Vatrans don't make the restaurant's charcuterie platter. My friends and I instead ordered a pair of Vatran the Elder's flying garlicky sausages, pan-seared and leaning up against a mound of "smashed" potatoes -- less butter, more skins. Topped with a frazzle of sweet-sour sauerkraut, their sharpness braised out and the scent of juniper berries braised in, these sausages were flavorful enough that we didn't call for mustard.
Was the dish American? Was it Romanian? The diners don't seem to notice. In fact, the plate they've elected Xenia's signature -- and one of Vatran's best -- was a meatloaf that both countries could claim. A jolt of hot peppers mixed into the moist ground meat announced the dish's southeastern European influences. So did replacing the ketchup with a chunky tomato sauce, whose bold acidity matched the spicing better than sugary ketchup would have.
At an age when most cooks are just making their way out of the salad station onto the grill, Vatran the Younger, in his early twenties, has been given quite a break. Instead of dodging abuse from some coked-up, under-promoted sous-chef, he's gazing across the room with the executive chef's taut mix of pride and terror.
The young chef has a way with vinaigrettes, whisking together distinctive sauces that let through all the flavors of the things they dress. The blood orange vinaigrette on a mixed green salad with shaved almonds and shaved Briscole al Barbera cheese maintained its berry-sweet character, even though the salad was coated almost invisibly in the sauce. And when I touched a piece of Vatran's crab cake -- crackly breadcrumb crust, all-meat insides -- to the spicy vinaigrette pooling underneath the greens that accompanied it, the one-note cake was suddenly surrounded by a rich, polyphonic harmony.
I've had a number of pizzas from wood-fired ovens over the years, but few where you could taste the wood so clearly. The crust on Xenia's special pesto pizza contained enough oil to crisp up like pastry, and the salty, brawny toppings -- mushrooms, leeks, and bacon -- responded beautifully to the smoke that clung to them. I don't know if so much smokiness would play well with lighter toppings, but oh, was it good.
Not everything was, however. Some of the kitchen's sins were venial: The simple vinaigrette-tossed greens accompanying a tower of roasted gold and red beets and aged goat cheese were the highlight of the dish -- more vinaigrette drizzled onto the unseasoned root vegetables would have made the salad pop. A porcini-crusted halibut fillet was cooked beautifully, but the leeks in the mushroom-leek ragout had braised into blandness, as leeks tend to do, leaving an absence of aromatics. Only one of the cooks' sins proved mortal. Linguine with shrimp and scallops came in an oily tomato sauce that reeked of oxidized, jarred garlic. "Chef Boyardee," pronounced its recipient, and moped until dessert.
No Italian would approve of the way Xenia's orecchiette (small ear-shaped pasta) clumped together in the bowl, but the cooks had preserved its bite. Its sauce gave off the clearest whiff of Romania: Chunks of braised lamb, brined black olives, and silky red and gold pepper strips played off one another in an entirely un-Italian way.
While Vatran's food comes off as more mature than his years, the same couldn't be said of the service. Every host who led us to our seat, every waiter who poured us water, was as polite as could be. But they weren't familiar with the finer points of $40 meals. For example, the busers and waiters made a habit of coming over to take away our plates just as we were forking the last bites into our mouths. Tact would stop most servers from reaching underneath a diner's chin, but not here. Another time, they cleared our knives after the first course, then responded to our request for replacements by dumping a pile of napkin-wrapped sets of silverware on the table. Errors like this aren't a problem of aptitude but of training, and a couple of sessions with a master waiter should set things straight.
One waiterly touch that cracked me up: Halfway through our main course one night, the waitress dropped off a dessert menu, saying, "I thought I'd bring you this before you get too full." Save room for the peach-blueberry pie, mostly for the feathery puff-pastry crust that crowns it. The other desserts? Not Xenia's strength. Order the lemon "tiramisu" only if you're a huge fan of lemon curd. It completely dominated the trifle of layered booze-soaked cake, lemon curd, blueberries, and whipped cream. The bistro's butterscotch-espresso mousse had found a lovely balance between caramel and coffee but was full of grainy bits. All the stuff that should have been thoroughly melted during the cooking process wasn't.
Xenia is no anthropological destination -- it wears its Romanian-ness so lightly that you could eat three courses without sighting a cabbage leaf or a roasted pepper. No, it's a hometown place, the kind of neighborhood bistro every neighborhood deserves. As the weekend crowds demonstrate, Alamo is aware of its good fortune.
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