Updated: Thursday, May 20, 2010, 5:24 PM
When you grow up in the restaurant business as Sean Weinberg did, watching his parents run the Rose Tattoo Cafe and then eventually coming to run the kitchen himself, it can be a challenge to establish an identity of your own.
It's especially true in a place as distinctive as the Rose, the black-painted, vine-covered nostalgia room that remains one of the last breathing links to the Restaurant Renaissance of the 1980s. The Rose still exudes that retro, fern-bar mood, but Weinberg was instrumental in keeping it reasonably relevant in the kitchen over the past few years, lending his steady hand to a grab-bag menu that ranged from cream of mushroom soup to jambalaya and wasabi-sauced tuna.
At Restaurant Alba, the appealing new BYOB that Weinberg and his wife, Kelly, opened in downtown Malvern, the young chef's true culinary passions are beginning to find a somewhat sharper focus.
As the name Alba might suggest, Northern Italy's capital of wine and truffles, where the Culinary Institute of America grad lived and worked for two years, is a major inspiration for a menu that counts homemade pastas and slow-braised game meats among its highlights. But Weinberg's infatuation with Mexico also makes some brief cameos, too, in the shrimp-and-watermelon ceviche on the "antipasto," in the succulent slow-roasted king salmon over guacamole with chile-dusted jicama slaw, and in the earthy guajillo gravy that smothers his "gaucho" strip steak.
Those little Mexican jaunts were tasty but initially threw me off-kilter - especially after swooning over a hand-painted Italian bowl filled with homemade spinach agnolotti and wild mushrooms. Weinberg, though, insists there is no particular theme here at all. And the 55-seat space inside this low-slung brick building across from the SEPTA train station is deliberately vague - evocative of a country auberge somewhere, but slyly obscure in provenance.
The persimmon-colored walls are wrapped in glass-jar candlelight, and rows of antique shutters are stacked like bellows inside the windows. The air is strummed with both the sound of flamenco guitar and the scent of woodsmoke from the live-fire grill in Weinberg's open kitchen. And here, it seems, the truest inspirations flow from the rhythms of the seasons and local produce.
In the early days of fall, thick rounds of luscious Caspian Pink heirloom tomatoes made perfect pedestals for the sweet, milky slices of Weinberg's homemade mozzarella in the Caprese salad. Tart pomegranate seeds and quince fruit scented with cardamom and clove offered a quenching balance to the sublime richness of his stock-simmered foie gras "torchon." A simple dessert of dough folded in over peaches made the ideal pastry frame for the roasted essence of late-season fruit.
Weinberg's menu changes often, and there were a handful of dishes - especially on our first visit - that didn't quite jell. The grilled octopus was a little chewy and overshadowed by its chickpea garnish. A simple butter sauce and mashed potatoes seemed all wrong for a swordfish steak (plain to begin with) that begged for something more lively. And though I ultimately liked the crisply breaded pork chop Milanese with arugula and tomato salad, the whole-grain mustard-mayonnaise on the side added a stroke of dissonance, an unnecessarily rich flourish to an already perfect and authentic dish.
Having been served two different menus over the course of my visits within just a few weeks, it's clear Weinberg is a searcher in the kitchen, constantly tweaking, experimenting and refining his palette as the seasonal ingredients scroll by. It's an honest, natural process that's vulnerable to inconsistency, but also pays off with tangible progress - to the point that our second meal touched another level altogether. Within a year or less, I expect this kitchen to hit that peak with greater regularity. The service is already showing a seasoned grace.
It is possible that that first meal felt a little flat because we were seated in the small room on the side, which is relatively quiet and pleasant, but separated from the hubbub next door. At a second meal in the bustling main space, with Weinberg's grill in view torching the autumn air with fragrant heat, the evening's energy was palpable.
It is also a fact that my guests that night dug deep into their cellars for some truly great bottles - and Weinberg's food responded impressively, gaining depth and greater complexity from these wines rather than meekly bowing down.
With a honeyed glass of 2001 Riesling Auslese from Germany's Wwe. Thanisch, Weinberg's torchon of foie gras became a lyric poem to liver.
The braised rabbit with airy gnocchi and chanterelle mushrooms would have been a rustic treat with only water to drink. But with an elegant glass of 1995 Barbaresco from Sori Paitin - a beam of cherry and a light wisp of smoke - the ragu revealed more profoundly earthy wonders. A more muscular Barbaresco from Moccagatta worked magic on the simple but finely grilled leg of lamb with picholine olives and moist Anson Mills polenta. Likewise for the grilled hanger steak with potato-wild mushroom gratin served with a dollop of sweet mashed squash - it was one of the most satisfying $19 beef entrees I've had in a long time.
The wood-fired grill tends to place the natural focus here on meats, but Weinberg also has a nice touch with seafood. The grilled whole fish was superb, especially the silver-skinned daurade, whose luxuriously moist flesh shined with a buttery oil sauce and nicoise olives. The halibut was disappointingly overcooked, but came over a fabulous orange-juice seafood stew infused with chorizo, corn and leeks. Two other fish soup starters - one a creamed New England chowder, the other a spicy Sicilian red soup with garlic-smeared crostini - were among the best dishes on the menu.
As at so many chef-driven restaurants, the desserts are a work in progress. The coconut cream pie is too low on cream filling and too chewy with crumbled macaroons on top. But the meringue sandwich with lemon curd and huckleberry sauce was lovely, a delicate explosion of crunch and dark berries. And the seasonal fruit crostatas are also a good bet (though they'd be even more divine if the crusts were thinner), as are the cheese platter and the intense chocolate truffle tart topped with pistachio ice cream.
That tart is just one of a few desserts brought in from the Rose Tattoo for old times' sake. Weinberg may have traveled a long way in his journey from Callowhill Street to Malvern, but he hasn't forgotten where he came from.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.
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