Our food critic reflects on one last meal at Alana's Food & Wine.
Losing Alana's Food & Wine is like finally losing that beloved relative (the one who really gets you) after she tormented the family by recovering from death several times. How many last suppers can one take? With the Campus-area restaurant's sale imminent (The Sycamore's Bradley Balch is the buyer with plans to open his own restaurant), chef/co-owner Alana Shock hosted what was billed as the restaurant's last supper on Sunday, Feb. 26. (In the end it wasn't; delays with the sale meant the restaurant was open one more weekend in the space.) But for all intents and purposes, it was the last hurrah for Alana's regulars, and it was a grand, bittersweet night.
More than a hundred guests packed the place to drink, eat, reminisce and say thank you to Alana, her husband and co-owner Kevin Bertschi, chef Jon Mason and servers who had become friends. They mingled and shared stories of great times and great meals and talked about how they will miss Alana's. For so many, this was the place to go with friends, family, spouses, lovers, first dates. If one's companion loved food and cared little for pretense, this was the place.
The food that night was almost an afterthought, but chef Alana, as is her wont, made it memorable. While the crowd waited for dinner service to begin, tasty tidbits—like Chinese five-spice steak tartare on taro chips—were passed around. Dinner began with platters of beautiful salads—Niçoise with crisp green beans, eggs and tiny potatoes, and a salad of roasted red beets and pungent dragon kale in a hazelnut vinaigrette. As our long communal table began to dig into them, Alana wheeled a huge cart into the room supporting what must have been a 12-pound coho salmon, beautifully bronzed in the oven. The pink meat was soft, rich and perfectly cooked.
Next arrived a massive platter of unctuous pork and beef stew over mashed potatoes. Soon after that, the big cart rolled in again bearing a giant leg of lamb, which the chef carved into rosy slices and topped with a garlicky aioli. More platters—creamy polenta, vegetables, risotto with mushrooms, bread—continued to flow. So did the wine.
Then came the showstopper. I think I heard a faint drumroll when our big night became a scene from “Big Night” with the arrival of a dish made famous by the 1996 film, Timpano de Maccheroni—a dense mound of pasta, sausage, cheese and marinara covered in pastry. It was like lasagna raised to a heavenly level.
Fine cheeses, desserts and more desserts followed. It was a whirlwind of utterly delicious foods and a fitting last meal for one of the best restaurants our city has ever enjoyed.
What will we miss? Before Alana's, nowhere in town offered a market-driven menu that changed every day. In the last few of years of the restaurant's 18-year run, there were many dishes that made repeat appearances (think the Tomato Stack in the height of summer), but every menu had something new—every menu. Open a very conservative average of four nights a week, that's a least 200 new menus per year; multiplied by 18 years—well, you do the math. This was the genius of Alana and, it should be emphasized, chef Jon, who worked side by side with her in that kitchen for most of the 18 years.
And, of course, we will miss Kevin's kindliness, charm and wine knowledge. He is opening a wine shop in downtown Sandusky and won't be too far away. Many will miss the colorful walls of the dining rooms—filled with Rick Borg and Paul Volker paintings. But most of all, we will miss Alana flying through the dining room with a plate of nibbles, offering a suggestion here, a mouthwatering description of a dish there, a sarcastic retort to a stupid question—but always wanting her customers to share in her love of great food. After the restaurant changes hands, she plans to visit Belize, where she is entertaining a job offer at an eco lodge.
In the early years, Alana had a reputation for crankiness, and it was not entirely undeserved. More than one customer was thrown out for misbehaving or “excessive whining” (you know the type). But here's a little story that will tell you more about Alana. Years ago, a young man came to work for Alana as a part-time dishwasher. He wanted to cook. Alana took him under her wing and spent the next few years as his mentor, teacher and tutor. She didn't have to spend all that time teaching some kid, but she recognized that he had desire and shared her love of food and cooking. Young Marcus Jacobs went on to find work as a chef in San Francisco and New Orleans, and in 2016 opened Marjie's Grill in New Orleans, serving his own brand of market-driven, creative food to great reviews. She should be proud.