More than 15 years after it opened, Alana's is still surprising and delighting us with a playful menu that celebrates the seasons one day at a time.
I've had a fondness for Alana's Food and Wine since 2000, when my dad suggested we meet there for dinner one warm spring night. The restaurant was relatively new on the scene and, boy, did they have my foodie father's number: artsy, wine-centric, fancy-sounding dishes like risotto, husband-wife proprietors who enjoy a good laugh with their guests.
I can still see my dad in his embarrassing Tabasco tie on Alana's leafy brick patio, waiting for smoked salmon cheesecake and his grown daughters to arrive.
Dad has been gone more than a decade, but chef-owner Alana Shock and her husband and business partner, Kevin Bertschi, are still at it-and as I found during several recent visits, they are as hospitable and hands-on as ever.
Shock still scours farmers markets most mornings during the season and personally answers the phone to take reservations ("They're encouraged!" she says brightly when I ask if they're accepted). During service, she pads from table to table, quiet as a tabby, to present the amuse-bouche. One night, it was crisp Asian pear dabbed with curried pumpkin chutney. Another night, a sunchoke pancake the size of a quarter.
The floors of the old campus-style house are carpeted, maybe a bit worn, and the walls of the main dining room are as orange and lumpy as pumpkin skin. Warm candlelight forgives any signs of age.
You could write a college paper on the menu, which includes around 15 new dishes each night and follows the seasons as faithfully as the Farmer's Almanac. Menus are rewritten every afternoon and printed on plain office paper before service begins at 5 p.m. There are no conventional section headers, but the sequence and prices are reliable clues.
The writing style reveals a passion for food and a sense of fun. Dishes are made with "love" or "sass." You'll find exuberant declarations like "classic cassoulet-let the season begin!" And there are flashes of Shock's time at Emeril's flagship restaurant in New Orleans. A beet creme fraiche sauce whose fiery Sriracha color belied its rich buttery flavor didn't blanket my pan-fried walleye ($29); it lagniapped it.
There is one menu constant: the surprise. With nothing more to go on than price, the surprise is usually worth the gamble. Don't bother cajoling your servers; they're as lock-lipped as the CIA. You could wager a guess by looking at last night's menu online. But I'd been studying menus like I was deciphering the Da Vinci Code, and I still failed to predict my dinner: French cassoulet ($23). Hot out of the oven and smelling like ham and bean soup, it's a fork-worthy stew of creamy white beans and thick sausage coins topped with rich confit duck leg. Just what you want on a 20-degree night.
Shock does wonders with gamey meats like duck and lamb and frequently features them on the menu. Occasionally, she'll have goat shanks from Bluescreek Farm Meats. During my visits, a $45 rib-eye was on offer.
A repertory cast of risottos, panzanellas and pastas are frequently in play. One night, the risotto was amber with saffron and Indian spices, a fragrant stage for tender braised lamb shank ($32). Another week, the rice was drunk with dolcetto wine and gorgonzola ($21).
We couldn't stop eating a panzanella salad of roasted portobello sliced like lox, dressed arugula and pine nuts ($12). A creamy hummus-looking spread turned out to be pureed and truffled lima beans. So many complementary flavors and textures. We mopped the plate with bits of torn bread.
Humble beans were again an unlikely star in a bowl of Rustichella Spaghetti ($21) thickened with creamed chickpeas, sun-dried tomato and the last of the season's spinach. The artisan spaghetti makes a big difference. The noodles are dense, chewy and nothing like the slippery, flavorless stuff I drown with marinara at home.
The only dish I didn't love was a squid ink bouillabaisse with lobster and crab ($14). I knew the stew would be as inky as black bean soup. But I wasn't expecting all the seafood to be shelled, chopped and outnumbered by lots of diced potatoes.
There seems to be no corner of the world Shock isn't willing to explore. Over one evening, we ate soft Moroccan lamb meatballs with avgolemono sauce ($8), tart Korean kimchee with fried chicken livers ($9), roasted chicken with fried green tomatoes, pinto beans and enchilada sauce (a too-steep $30), and a respectable Kung Pao noodle dish with pillow-y triangles of tofu ($18).
No matter which world cuisine you're eating, there's a wine to go with it. The servers are wine-savvy and will ratchet their fluency up or down to match yours. A recommended bottle of Bertrand Stehelin Gigondas ($55), a grenache and syrah blend, was universally flattering to four wildly different entrees.
The way you're made to feel comfortable is one of the restaurant's strongest points. The servers are professional and clearly love the food. Picky eaters wouldn't last a week with such an unconventional menu (and there seem to be a lot of long-timers). Here, it feels like you're among people who know and appreciate food and wine.
For dessert, another surprise: warm apple pie that had collapsed so that it was more of a gooey open-faced crostata, with a melting scoop of sour cream and sorghum ice cream ($10). It really did taste like sour cream which, by itself, I didn't love. With the pie though, it worked.
Signing up for the surprise has a way of making your imagination run wild. What wacky dish is coming my way? So when the big reveal is something as homey as cassoulet or apple pie, it feels kind of cool and retro.
One Friday night, we were busy slathering pumpkin focaccia with curry-spiced black bean hummus ($9) when a man at another table started banging urgently on the window facing High Street. He was trying to get someone's attention outside, to tell them the front door was, in fact, not the correct entrance. Seeing he'd scared the bejeezus out of everyone and was now getting the collective stink-eye, he smiled sheepishly. Drama over, the din of conversation returned.
I guess, in the end, that's what I like about Alana's. Yes, it's fine dining. Then again, Spongebob Squarepants is among the decor. There's an irreverence to the place-as spirited as a cafe in the French Quarter, as kitschy as a Tabasco tie.
As we shuffled out the door, Shock could be seen at one of the cocktail tables having an end-of-shift glass of wine, all her guests fed, all her surprises revealed. It was like leaving a friend's house.