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Nizza La Bella Report

Rod Williams | Apr 25, 200507:12 PM

Dropped into Nizza La Bella on Saturday evening (San Pablo Ave. just north of Solano Ave, in Albany). We got there right around 8pm and were surprised and a little alarmed to find the bar area almost empty, and several dining tables vacant. Come on people -- we need to keep this delightful spot in business!

We sat at the bar -- one of the East Bay's best places to get a serious cocktail. I swooned with delight as the bartender described how he uses Noilly Prat dry vermouth for gin martinis, but of course has several other dry vermouth varieties handy that are more appropriate for other cocktails. They have a hand-cranked ice crusher that turns out the most beautiful slush I've ever seen in a drink. I could go on, but this is a food board...

While sipping our Junipero martinis, we had fried baby artichokes with a lemony aioli. The batter could have been a tad crispier, but the flavor was excellent.

We then had a couple of salads -- a "salade anchoiade," which was revealed to be essentially a very good Caesar salad, with plenty of anchovy bits, just the way I like 'em, and crunchy little croutons. The other was a salade frisee aux lardons with a poached (chicken) egg. They went a bit crazy with the delicious lardons and the dressing, so, while very tasty, this was a bit richer and heavier than it needed to be.

We both had the Steak Frites -- perfectly cooked, medium-rare, juicy, tasty skirt steaks (they also offer ribeye for a few $$$ more) with excellent hot, golden, crispy fries. They gave us some more yummy aioli, but I remembered from a previous visit that the rouille they serve with their Bouillabaisse is also sensational with fries, so I begged for some, and it was everything I remembered -- rich, sweet, smoky, spicy, garlicky. For folks not familiar with rouille, it's a garlic mayonnaise (like aioli) with the addition of ground red chili peppers and saffron -- and it's the traditional accompaniment to Bouillabaisse. I'll have to order that next time.

Oh -- we had a very pleasant 1998 Mercurey with our steaks and for a while afterwards.

We passed on dessert, and had an espresso and a snifter of a yummy cognac instead. The staff here are always smart, attentive, warm and welcoming. It's one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants in the East Bay. And they don't appear to have a website, or I'd include the link.

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