POSTED ON MAY 7, 2008:
Taste for Travel
Culturally diverse cuisine with lots of flavor keeps you coming back
I am always excited to try a new restaurant, especially one that labels itself Mediterranean. The cuisine that the ancient Romans called Mare Nostrum is one of my favorites. Maybe it's the exotic flavors and spices. Maybe it's that it takes me back to my times in the Mediterranean region, experiencing the food and fun with all the local flare. Either way, it's great to have local places offering such a choice in dining.
My first dining experience at Al's Bistro was so enjoyable that I returned soon after with a few other friends who I knew would enjoy it.
The décor is tastefully redone from the previous establishment, Jazmoz Bourbon Street Café. Murals are on select walls with green (artificial) plants of all sorts and sizes separating and accenting the dining areas. These distinct dining spaces provide much of the ambience and allow for a more intimate and private dining experience.
My first time to dine at Al's Bistro was with a friend, somewhat new to this cuisine. I was amazed at the variety on the menu, beginning with a range of Appetizers, but also including Soup & Salad, Poultry, Lamb, Beef, Seafood and Veal. Appetizers screamed of all the dishes I love: Dolmas, herb infused ground lamb wrapped with grape leaves and topped with tomato sauce; Hummus, Mediterranean garbanzo bean dip, serve with Pita bread; Shrimp with Garlic Sauce; Escargot; Falafel, deep fried ground garbanzo beans with spices and herbs and topped with tahini sauce; Stuffed Mushrooms and Stuffed Squid. All are priced under $7.
I began with the Falafel ($4.95) which brought back memories of my first experience with this dish when traveling to the Holy Land. It is a very common dish that is often served by street vendors. Al's version is a very good one. The fried patties came topped with the tahini sauce and with a few chopped onions as garnish. They were gems to behold! The falafel had a crispy outside with the soft garbanzo bean texture on the inside. Delicious.
My friend ordered the Stuffed Mushrooms, which she said were very good. The sizable caps were stuffed with a delectable mixture of shrimp, spinach and cheeses. They were rich and creamy with a buttery taste and a very fine blend of spice for accent. My friend said they "stole the show" between both appetizers.
Entrees were a tough task for us. Many of the options sounded exquisite: Mediterranean Chicken, Duck Breast, Rack of Lamb, Filet Mignon with Peppercorn, Rib-Eye Espagnole, Filet of Sole with Seafood, Scallops and Shrimp Curry, Seafood Puff Pastry, Paella ala Franco's and even Frog Legs (which are described as sautéed with fresh herbs and butter).
I decided on the Chicken Breast Couscous ($11.95), while my friend chose the Scallops Ala Parisian ($14.95). The chicken dish was delightful, with tastes of the Mediterranean coming alive in every bite. The large breast appeared atop a plentiful serving of couscous (a staple of North African cuisine, it is granular semolina (coarse wheat flour) often served as a dressing, porridge or sweetened and eaten as a dessert). This dish was very colorful with the sauce on the chicken and couscous was a blend of sautéed onions, peas, almonds, slender carrot spears, red and green bell pepper slices, raisins and softened whole red peppercorns. The fusion of these veggies and spices was incredible. Each taste was a new blend of these varied but cohesive ingredients.
My friend's scallops were superb. Six large Gulf sea scallops came set in a savory white wine cream sauce. We noticed the cream sauce was the same base sauce used in the Mushroom appetizer. The scallops were fresh, tender, and had a rich, buttery taste. We both had asparagus as our side--the spears were prepared al dente (as they should be) and fresh to the taste.
For dessert, I tried the Baklava ($4.99) and my friend the Crepes ($4.99). My Baklava was excellent-light, crispy layers of honey and nuts with a fresh flavor. I ordered a Dessert Cocktail of Ouzo (sweet Anise infused liquor) which provided an aesthetic complement to the Baklava.
My friend's Crepes were not as good, unfortunately. Two crepes were filled with ice cream and topped with a raspberry cognac sauce. The ice cream scoops inside were much too big for the delicate crepe covering and too frozen to cut. The crepe virtually vanished in the effort of getting through the unforgiving ice cream.
A second visit to Al's came soon after this first meal. My two guests at the table were much more savvy travelers than I, and therefore, diners with sophisticated tastes. They found Al's to be an excellent dining experience, from food to décor to service.
We ate the Stuffed Squid ($6.95), the Shrimp with Garlic Sauce ($6.95), the Filet of Sole with Seafood ($21.95), the Veal Ala Al ($18.95) and Rack of Lamb ($21.95). The experts deemed everything excellent and rich with flavor.
Service was good both times, but some inexperience in serving was evident, both in the knowledge of the dishes and on how to serve properly at tableside. Still, our dining experiences at Al's Bistro left us with thoughts of returning a third time.
9205 E. 71st St.
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