Sunday, 21 September, 2014

Published July 14, 2014
Italian fine dining off to rousing start
Chef Alessandro Frau of top-rated Acqua restaurant in Phuket replicates his signture cuisine in Duxton Hill, writes JAIME EE
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Artfully Italian: Chef Frau's new aesthetics and individuality melded with tradition comes through in dishes such as grilled Mediterranean seabass with artichokes (above); octopus salad with fennel leaves; and risotto with sea urchin and caviar. - PHOTOS: ALBA 1836, JAIME EE

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Alba 1836 Winebar & Restaurant

28 Duxton Hill

Tel: 6222-2048

Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 12pm to 3pm; 6.30pm to 10.30pm

THERE are those who swear by the Italian food in Bangkok, not that we've ever been inclined to find out. Where's the fun in eating risotto al nero con seppia when you can be tempting tastebud and e.coli fate with street-side bami haeng pet at the foot of a Rajadamri overhead bridge?

In a culinary twist of the mountain not coming to Muhammad adage, Italian chef Alessandro Frau is coming to our mountain - or make that Duxton Hill - with the debut of Alba 1836. Frau is currently chef-owner of Acqua in Phuket, which, while not a household name per se, enjoys the highest rating (9.5 for food alone) of the Italian restaurants listed in Thailand Tatler's 2014 best restaurants guide.

Phuket's access to seafood may put chef Frau at an advantage over his counterparts in Bangkok, but now he's game for a new challenge - tackling an untanned, urban clientele who are not in a beach holiday mood.

Location-wise, he couldn't have done any better with Alba's spot at the crest of Duxton Hill - the tree-lined tranquil freak of modern nature that exudes old-world colonial charm smack in the city centre.

The 1836 refers to Alba's Italian co-owner's family textile business, which can be traced that far back. Scion Matteo Trabaldo Togna was an investment banker in Italy for 20 years and was doing a lot of business in Asia before he opted to change gears and move to Singapore.

He and his Hong Kong partner were looking for a chef to collaborate with and they hit it off with Frau, who was in turn eager for opportunities beyond Phuket.

It's a welcome move, too. In a dining scene so saturated with Italian restaurants that the cuisine has settled into a level of complacency, Alba's exploratory, new-in-town perspective is refreshing. There's no hard-sell, no pretensions - just Frau's unaffected cooking style that reflects a young guy's need for modern aesthetics and individuality, but without losing respect for tradition.

Considering that the restaurant has barely opened for business - it's off to an impressive start. Partly because the stakes are high, chef Frau has been in the kitchen from day one together with resident chef and fellow Sardinian Luca Piras. Alba's general manager is knowledgeable and keeps a close watch on operations, and the staff - while new - have been trained well.

For dinner, you get a treat of an amuse bouche in the form of Gillardeau oysters presented in a shimmering dry-ice vase presentation - a simple yet luxurious touch that sets the tone for the starters that follow.

A cold salad of slow-cooked octopus ($28) comes in a fan of thin slivers topped with bite-sized chunks and wispy greens, dressed in a slightly tart vinaigrette, olives and a good slick of olive oil. It's adequate, but we prefer our octopus grilled, warm and comforting - not so much pretty but frigid and tart-natured.

In contrast, the piping hot potato and parmesan soup ($25) is like embracing a warm puppy, enveloping you with its rich, creamy cheesiness with an added sous vide egg just to seal the point that this is full-fat, full-bodied decadence in a bowl.

Risotto is a strong point in chef Frau's book. Given his experience with both his countrymen and his Asian customers, he's found the sweet spot in this traditional rice dish - just after the Italian's preference for a chalky al dente core and just before the rice turns into porridge.

Whether it's the unctuous, briny enjoyment you get from the saffron risotto with stracchino cheese, sea urchin and caviar ($40), or the creamy, intense bisque-like risotto with scampi ($35), you get firm yet chewy whole grains of rice perfectly braised in rib-sticking creamy broths.

The star dish on chef Frau's menu is the branzino ($40) - grilled Mediterranean seabass that is beautifully panfried for a lasting crispy edge and milky-smooth flesh of very fresh, clean-tasting imported fish. It comes with fresh artichokes done two ways - meaty, grilled chunks with that distinctive earthiness you either like or hate, and pureed into a creamy sauce to surround the fish. Here's hoping they keep this consistency because it's one of the best we've had.

The Spanish roast suckling pig ($50) smells a little strong but it's hard to beat the fork-tender flesh and relatively crisp skin paired with potato cheese gratin and a wedge of broad bean frittata.

Another feather in Alba's cap is its amazingly good value set lunches priced at $35 for a three-course set that includes downsized versions of some of its a la carte items. The portions are only slightly smaller so it's a great deal. We like the spot-on pairing of grilled, chewy pecorino cheese with the sweetest figs and chestnut honey more than the creamy buffalo mozzarella and three kinds of sweet-to-bland Italian tomato medley for the starters.

For the mains, the squid ink risotto is a winner with Frau's now-trademark rice texture and the intense broths he cooks the rice in. Coming in a distant second would be the character-less seared tuna slices on eggplant mash and tagliatelle with mushrooms.

To end off, the tiramisu is more parfait than cake but still a sinful treat, compared to the agar agar-like texture of the vanilla pannacotta which falls flat and can't be revived by the sliced berries on top. Pistachio ice cream, by the way, is a must-try, even though they get it outsourced from a gelateria.

The question now is whether resident chef Piras can carry the weight of Alba's expectations on his shoulders now that Frau has returned to Phuket (he will return regularly) and operations are going into full swing.

That, and whether he can maintain a steady supply of fresh branzino. We sure hope so, because there's a lot of upside to this place and diners could really use a restaurant that matches style with substance. Besides, we'd rather not have to travel to Thailand just for Italian food.


Rating: 7.5


    10: The ultimate dining experience

9-9.5: Sublime

8-8.5: Excellent

7-7.5: Good to very good

6-6.5: Promising

5-5.5: Average