Restaurant Alba
The ambitious, elemental and honest fare at this consistent Malvern charmer aims to satisfy and excite
by Brian Freedman


In a regional dining culture that prizes the new and the novel, Restaurant Alba’s success stands out—and not just for its longevity, either. Plenty of restaurants around the area have had longer runs than Sean and Kelly Weinberg’s Malvern stalwart, which opened in 2005. Rather, what makes this intimate, charming spot so unique is its ability to stay fresh without losing what has made it so beloved for all these years: very good food and an overall experience as pleasant as you’ll find in the area.


Like those choose-your-own-ending books that so many of us read as kids, Alba offers a range of experiences, from deceptively satisfying nibbles and cocktails at the bar to full-blown meals as ambitious as you’d find anywhere in the area.


Whichever one you choose, make sure to arrive early for a cocktail. Alba has tapped into the national fascination with “mixology”—the full bar just opened this past December—and successfully filtered it through the lens of its own unique M.O. Ingredients are smartly chosen and well used. Many components are crafted in house. Cocktails find a way to balance on the razor’s edge between sweet and savory. The Milano Perfecto, for example, is an Alba-ized Manhattan, the oak in the bourbon magnified by the addition of a splash of vanilla vodka, the amarena cherry liqueur made in house, and the dry vermouth tempering it all with a spicy-savory edge.


Then move on to the intelligent wine list the better to pair with the food. Even glass pours offer a range of possibility for exploration. Fattoria di Laila’s Verdicchio with sausage-stuffed and fried green olives was little short of addictive. And while some kind of condiment may have been nice—I kept jonesing for a romesco—these were excellent nonetheless: the sausage homemade, the entirety a great bar snack.


Bruschette showed some inconsistency, but each still generally worked on their own terms. Broccoli rabe and white anchovy demonstrated the kitchen’s aptitude for seasoning, even in difficult conditions. Those fish could easily have rendered the already well-seasoned greens too salty, but the balance was impeccable, not an easy trick to pull off with that combination. Mortadella, however, would have been better with a slightly less-cooked hen’s egg on top. I loved the slathering of liquid yolk atop the comforting fold of meat; I just wish there had been more. Crushed fava beans and pecorino needed acid, or a sharper cheese, to brighten up the flavors more. Still, it was a great use of a quintessentially springtime component, and the brilliance of the green was a visceral reminder of the favas’ freshness.


Tuscan fried chicken—think of it as inside-out fried chicken, more a francaise preparation than a southern one—worked as a lovely means to express the quality of the bird’s braising, but the entirety would have been better had it spent a bit longer in the oil to tighten it up more. Grilled octopus fared better, the tentacles tender and meaty like some sort of sea-borne filet mignon, the gentle charring from the kitchen’s famous wood grill lending them a whiff of smokiness that set off the Ligurian salsa verde—essentially a dense pesto—with an almost electrical sense of excitement.


Carolina trout was also done on that wood grill, and despite a layer of skin that could have been crispier, the result here was fabulous, and an awfully convincing argument for this fish that too often gets passed over on local menus for the inexplicably more popular branzino or Chilean sea bass. The base of what is essentially an onion fonduta, set against the pancetta-studded frisee salad and the straightforward deliciousness of the fish, lifted this dish to levels of complexity it rarely attains elsewhere. Agnolotti del plin, a standard of the Piedmontese repertoire and a dish I tucked into almost daily on a trip to the region several years ago, benefited from a mastery of pasta making: whisper-thin agnolotti encasing a silky packet of tender, meltingly delicate rabbit complicated with prosciutto, rosemary, a touch of egg and more. If only the rabbit brodo had been a bit more assertive, this would have been one of the top pasta dishes I’ve had in months. It was a success nonetheless. 


Desserts are of a thematic ilk, eschewing the baroque in favor of the familiar and the satisfying. Butterscotch budino was sweet, yes, but not too much so, the autumnal notes of the umber-toned caramel topping a warming way to finish a meal here, especially when the nights are a bit chilly. Blue Ribbon torte, all chocolatey and comforting, was an unabashed joy and a nice homage to the eponymous New York destination.


All of this food—ambitious, elemental, honest—is served by a staff clearly comfortable here, and proud of what the kitchen sends out. Our waitress was friendly, well informed and utterly charming, which is evidence of great training and a very healthy culture in this sexily lit Malvern space, and only one of the reasons that Alba is still going strong—perhaps even stronger than ever—all these years after it first hit the scene.


Sometimes, rediscovering a sense of excitement in the familiar is one of the greatest joys of dining, and Alba is doing just that and more.