ALBANY - Risotto, a smart little restaurant on Northern Boulevard in the strip mall across from Memorial Hospital, has made a very good impression on me.
The compact interior is polished, with snappy clean decor and a massive granite bar, seating areas on two sides and a covered patio outdoors. The bar was heavily populated with a professionally dressed after-work crowd, and the atmosphere was effervescent and friendly. I liked the carafes of ice water and real candles on the tables.
We were seated along a banquette in the dining room, which was way too low -- the only glitch in an otherwise flawless visit.
Our server was breezy and confident, attending to us conscientiously all night. He steered me to a crisp South African white wine that I liked very much. Mary had a house Cab.
Everything ran smoothly. Staff moved with an economy of motion, plates came out when we expected them, and attention was given to small details. Risotto makes you feel relaxed, so you can sit back and enjoy.
Simple but varied
The menu is simple, with a variety of tapas up front where you'd find appetizers. There's a kind of a chicken Cordon Bleu in a risotto shell ($8), artichoke wontons ($8), and other wonders you'll want to try. Salads choices are thin, with Caprese on a skewer ($8), and a kale salad ($9), joined by tabbouleh lettuce wraps ($9).
Risotto serves Italian food, but also positions itself as Mediterranian/Fusion restaurant, which covers a lot of ground. You'll find hummus and tzatziki along with chicken Marsala and of course, eponymous risotto -- sweet, peachy braised pork risotto with blackberries ($20) and a sweet and spicy scallop risotto ($23). The few well-selected entrees include a New York strip ($20) and ahi tuna ($22).
I can't speak highly enough of their freshly made potato chips ($8), drizzled with an asiago sauce and topped with colorful tomato cilantro salsa. I liked the scallion rings and the sunset-colored fresh vegetable bits. There's just enough cilantro to brighten up the salsa and keep the sauce from tasting fatty. You'll need a few friends to share this with but you won't have any trouble finding them.
Mary gave the calamari ($9) high marks; she liked the sweet red chili sauce and mayonnaise and ground-chili sriracha sauce. Like the rest of our meal, it was gorgeously and simply presented on square white plates.
WHERE: 320 Northern Boulevard (Loudon Plaza), Albany, 747-6886, www.518risotto.com
WHEN: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $78.40, with tax and tip, excluding wine
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, American Express, Discover. Wheelchair accessible. Accommodations made for children's meals. Reservations recommended on weekends.
Side salads were an unexpected surprise, just the right size with fresh baby greens, a delicate hoop of red onion, a cucumber slice, and the points they lost for the unripe tomato they made up with the homemade balsamic. This is the salad I was looking for on the menu.
The entrees were spectacular. Surf and turf risotto ($23) featured a small, tasty New York strip on a bed of seafood flavored risotto with curls of sweet shrimp. Delicious smoky char livened up the slender grilled asparagus and the steak, which had just enough fat to make it juicy and give it extra flavor.
I liked the slightly chewy rice with translucent onion pieces and perhaps a little paprika; its buttery grains clung together nicely. On its own it was a generous meal, as a second course it was too much to finish.
Mary had walnut-encrusted salmon ($21) drizzled with a creamy lemon sauce. It comes with delicate jasmine rice, livened up with bits of colorful sauteed chopped peppers and kale.
Scattered aromatic micro greens had a slight mustard kick. The fish was cooked nicely under the nutty crust and though she was a bit disappointed that it didn't come with risotto, she liked it very much.
I learned later that Risotto is happy to accommodate changes. Everything is made to order and most substitutions will be cheerfully made.
Risotto brings in reliable desserts. We shared a wondrous tortilla-filled cheesecake and bananas ($5) that's fried and served hot with caramel-topped vanilla ice cream. "It tastes like hot banana cream pie," said Mary happily. You'll want to share this, too, as you'll be almost full as we were.
Risotto's food is first-rate, with excellent ingredients and attentive preparation. The staff is welcoming, and the prices are good for the quality they serve.
We're already making plans to go back and try something else, and agree that two small plates would be just right next time. Whatever we get, I know it will be good. Everything at Risotto is. Relax and enjoy.