I am the quintessential foodie.
It’s not uncommon that there is a restaurant I haven’t tried; there are only so many days in a week or year. It is uncommon, however, that I have not heard about a good restaurant, though.
Albona Ristorante Istriano is tucked away on a residential street in the North Beach area of San Francisco. During its business hours, if you didn’t know about it, you would drive right by it without even noticing that it was opened for business. In fact, you could walk right by it and still not know that behind these doors is what I now consider to be one of San Francisco’s best dining experiences.
For a few years, I’ve always considered Acquerello to be San Francisco’s best-kept secret – but it has now secured its place in the San Francisco dining scene. My next mission is Albona.
We are very lucky in San Francisco to have some amazing food available within city limits. But a recent trend I have noticed in San Francisco is that many of these finer dining establishments offers amazing appetizers and “second” entrees, but the main dish is almost consistently sub-par and lackluster compared to the previous courses. Case in point – “A16″ in the Marina, “Local” in SOMA, and even “DOSA” in the Mission.
I will say off the bat that Albona hit a homerun for each course. Istrian cuisine, as it turns out, is simply good food that carries a strong Italian history with a flair not commonly found in Italian food.
First, it’s a small restaurant that exudes “family-run operation”. I imagine the uncle as the chef, the cousins working as servers, and the owner as the host. While the one of the owners, Michael Bruno, is the host (and server, as needed), I know not if everyone else in the restaurant is actually family. I do know that the masterful chef, Samuel Hernandez, is also part-owner. What I also know is that they all, from each individual server to busser, worked together as a family should where each individual had a vested interest in extending the utmost in service. Watching their interaction with each table like a hawk in preparation for this review – I confirmed once again what I always believed to be true: when you own a restaurant, you owe it to your business to BE THERE.
In Albona’s case, the Bruno-Hernandez owners aren’t just there; they brand that restaurant, and ensure that every representative of this establishment is an extension of everything they believe and want to accomplish. This extends all the way to the food.
My first experience with the owner was on the phone. I called en route to the restaurant to ask if we’d be seated immediately if we came in ten minutes. He checked, said yes – and we arrived right on time to see a line of people waiting in the small front area. Due to having after-dinner plans, I started getting worried that we’d have to wait, but alas, he came to the front, checked that I was the one who called, and seated us immediately. Gotta love a man who is true to his word.
The menu at Albona reads beautifully with Italian names, and English descriptions. We selected two appetizers and two entrees, and we chose Prosecco as our imbibe of choice for this evening. We told our server that we’d be sharing and they went the extra mile to split it for us in the kitchen. It’s these touches that catapult a good dining experience into an amazing one.
First up was the gnocchi, pan-fried in butter and served amidst the most tantalizingly good brown sauce that has ever graced this tongue of mine. Not only was the gnocchi interesting and more similar to croquette type texture, the sauce was deep in flavor, but most noticeable was the delicate but ever so noticeable use of cumin in what could have been a basic Italian dish. One bite and inevitably, our eyes rolled to the back of our heads and we savored each piece. For something close to $8, it was a large portion that was split onto two plates – and quite filling.
Next super-star delivered to our table was the stuffed calamari.
One order consisted for four nicely sized squid, stuffed silly with an amazing fish concoction consisting of red snapper, salmon, and other goodies. Every single element of this dish stood out and was delightful to my tastebuds. But most stellar was the ever-so-basic but amazingly delicious red sauce that accompanied the perfectly cooked squid. Consisting of the right amount of acidity, sweetness, and depth, it took every ounce of my being not to slurp the remainder off the plate. Unlike the deep and heavy flavors of the buttery gnocchi, this dish was light and playful, but every bit as memorable.
The entrees were superb. The “strudel” – which is their signature pasta dish and rightfully so – was nothing short of fascinatingly good. The best way I can describe this is a smorgasbord of amazing cheeses and red sauce with well-cooked pasta that makes lasagna cower in shame. It was also a heart attack waiting to happen, but anyone who knows me knows I put taste before health.
Our other entree was a braised veal w/ soft polenta. I have a love for polenta – and after this mashed version, I’m an even greater fan. Perfect texture to both the meat and polenta, with the veal just falling off the bone begging to be eaten. Unfortunately, by this point, all we could muster up was a big bite of each and requested it be packed in a take-out box.
Being so incredibly full, we naturally passed on dessert – much to my dismay. It was one of those time when you wish you could just whip out a second stomach from your purse to start the whole process over (patent still pending on this technology) but alas, there was no room left in the one stomach I have.
The owner was gracious enough to send us a plate full of three gelatos, all housemade, regardless. All three were so refreshing, but my favorite was the raspberry. Delicious.
All in all, Albona impresses from start to finish.
This place is ideal for dates, and with prior arrangement, can be made to be perfect for even business dinners. The ambiance is soft and inviting, classy but unpretentious. It offers all that fine dining has to offer, including the great level of service and outstanding food, but ultimately, it comes at a shockingly low price. Dinner on this evening hovered right below $110 (prior to tip) for a bottle of fine Prosecco, two appetizers, and two entrees, with a dessert on the house.
It’s an unfair comparison, but I have to do it solely because the food is good enough to warrant a comparison.
Albona beats out Fleur de Lys, and Michael Mina as far as taste goes.
Albona ties with Gary Danko and Acquerello at a significantly lesser cost.
Albona dims in comparison to French Laundry on all levels, but dinner at Albona also cost precisely 1/7 of what a dinner at French Laundry costs, and I don’t have to drive to Napa to eat at Albona, nor do I have to fight off people and animals for a reservation.
When you have a date that you want to impress, or you have to absolutely make sure the food is perfect on a certain evening out – Albona fits the bill. Call for a reservation, and I suspect their staff will go out of their way to ensure that your evening goes as planned without a hitch.
Albona is located at 545 Francisco Street (between Mason St & Taylor St) and can be reached at (415) 441-1040. You can also reserve on Open Table. They appear to be closed on Sunday and Mondays – and offer valet parking, which is a priceless commodity in the North Beach area. More information is available on their website.
Addictive Factor: 8/10
Overall Rating: 9.25/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.