Wee Play, a wonderful play center for toddlers on Solano Avenue in Albany, has just started a program that lets parents drop off their tots a couple of nights a week, and go out for two blissful hours of adult conversation, company (or what have you). As soon as I found out, I made reservations (at Wee Play) and started making a list of restaurants in the Solano Ave. area where we could dine. Nizza La Bella was at the top of the list. It had been recommended to me several times as a good place to go on a date, and I had heard good things about the food as well.
The restaurant was much smaller and more casual than I expected. The small front dining room, where we were seated, is painted in bright yellow tones, making it quite cheery and informal. A large bar takes most of the space, and diners are confined to small tables, within inches of each other. The lack of personal space puts a damper on any romantic pretensions the place (or we) might have had. The attire of some of the patrons (tank tops, shorts & baseball caps) added to the casual atmosphere - it was, I felt, a bit too casual for my expectations.
Service was in general good; water and bread were refilled promptly and the food came at a good pace, but I felt a bit rushed towards the end. We had gotten there around 6 PM on a Tuesday night, and right before dessert we had gotten a call that our daughter was cranky and tired so we decided that Mike should go get her so she could have dessert with us. The shared dessert (with two sets of silverware) came while he was gone and I slowly ate my half. As soon as I set down my spoon, the bus boy tried to take the half-eaten dessert away (I guarded it and Mike got to enjoy it!), and soon after that our check was put in the table without us asking for it or without asking us if we wanted anything else (I had been contemplating eating the whole dessert and ordering another one for Mike). Still, they may have thought that with a cranky child we were in a hurry to leave.
The food was good, though not particularly noteworthy. The menu, which includes both permanent and daily dishes, is very brief and seems to concentrate on basics: roast chicken, a steak, pork chops, a couple of pastas. There are choices for vegetarian and children, though. The bread and butter served before the meal were outstanding. The cake-like bread was a bit tough but had an irresistible flavor.
For an appetizer, Mike and I shared the baked brie with a pear and fennel confit. It sounded delicious but it didn't really work in practice. The warm brie was good, but the pears didn't add much to it.
Mike and I both wanted the flank steak frites, but he relented and ordered the pork chop with figs. He didn't eat the figs (doesn't like them) but he enjoyed the pork chop and the fried-mashed-potato thingy that came with it very much. I didn't really like the pork chop, but I'm not a pork fan on my best day. The flank steak served with a herbed butter was fine, but just that. I had ordered it medium rare, and it was quite red, but I think it could probably have benefitted from more cooking; the flavor was too subtle as it was. It was also served barely warm. The french fries were nice and crispy, but otherwise unremarkable. Mike had a glass of the Merlot with his dinner and he found it very good.
The dessert list was pretty attractive. It featured a cheese, a couple of fruit concoctions, creme brulee and a couple of ice cream desserts. We went for the vacherin, which consisted of vanilla ice cream sandwiched by hard meringue and drizzled with a dark chocolate sauce. It was very good and I think I may try to serve something similar at a future dinner party.
All in all we had a good meal (and a good value at $63 before the tip) but neither the place nor the menu excited me enough to make me want to go back..
Nizza La Bella
825827 San Pablo Ave.