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Rutherford (Napa Valley): Alex Italian Restaurant

1140 Rutherford Road , Phone: 707-967-5500
Closing day: Sunday Lunch & Monday

Reviewed by: Roz from CA, review #3849

When: 2011

Not really bad, just disappointing, given the many other excellent restaurants in this area.

Alex, a recently opened (Fall 2011) restaurant in Napa Valley, enticed us because of its billing as specializing in the cuisine of Liguria and Emilia-Romagna. Perhaps it was because we’d had so many truly exceptional meals in those areas of Italy, but we found Alex just didn’t measure up to our hopes. We can’t think of any reason we’d go back, when there are so many other really outstanding restaurants available within just a few miles of Alex.

Our dinner got off to a bad start when the bread and butter arrived. I rarely eat butter, so I asked for olive oil instead. The server told me this would cost $2.00 extra – something I have never encountered before in the many times I have requested olive oil in restaurants.

As for the food, I started with “Sformatino di Pecorino con Funghi della Campagna Trifolati” -- pecorino cheese flan with sauteed wild mushrooms ($12). Like most of the dishes on the menu, I found the concept better than the execution. The flan was actually very good, light and airy, but with a nice lingering infusion of the pecorino flavor. But the mushrooms, which were presented in some kind of rather heavy wine gravy, tended to overwhelm the delicate flavor of the flan. I found myself wistfully recalling a very memorable pecorino souffle I’d had years ago in Umbria, served with just a simple drizzling of balsamic vinegar.

Mike had the “cauliflower cream soup with Sicilian citrus oil and crispy eggplant” ($9). It sounded better than it actually tasted, since the soup itself was a bit on the bland side and nothing particularly special.

For my main course, I decided to see how well they executed a classic Ligurian dish: lasagnette con pesto alla Genovese ($16). Again, I had a fabulous memory of this dish at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant a few years back in Genoa. I suppose it is always risky to try to recapture such experiences, but I wish Alex had stuck to the basics and not tried to Frenchify the dish by adding bechamel sauce. What I wanted was absolutely perfect fresh pasta, with absolutely perfect fresh green pesto. What I got was okay pasta with a pesto-flavored cream sauce that felt overly heavy. It also rather annoyed me that they grated cheese on top in the kitchen before serving, rather than bringing the cheese and grater to the table. It was just another of those little touches that didn’t sit well.

Probably the most successful dish we had was Mike’s “fettucine al sugo bianco di coniglio” – pasta with white wine braised rabbit sauce ($18). He found it quite tasty, but again just a good dish, not something he’d rave about and seek out again. Interestingly, he said he thought the cauliflower soup had been undersalted, whereas the rabbit sauce was slightly too salty. Perhaps it was only a matter of personal taste, but I mention it because it was another example of the way things at Alex just never hit us perfectly.

We didn’t have dessert, because we were pretty full and nothing on the menu called out to us. We did have espresso, which again was just okay.

What I most love about classic Italian food is its simplicity, with each dish showcasing the essential natural flavors of only a few very fresh, carefully chosen and combined ingredients. I didn’t find that at Alex, where nothing I ate really “sang” in that wonderful way the best Italian food can do.

The wine list is extensive, predominantly Italian and California wines. Another thing that disappointed us was that there was no Prosecco by the glass, as we often like to begin with Prosecco as an aperitif. We had brought our own bottle of Merlot from Peju, one of our favorite Napa wineries (which in fact is located almost next door to Alex). Corkage fee at Alex is $20; most wines by the glass are around $12, so it’s really a better deal to bring in your own.

The chef at Alex, Nick Ritchie, previously worked with Michael Chiarello at my favorite Napa Valley restaurant, Bottega in Yountville. Based on our experience, I don’t think Michael needs to worry that his sous-chef is going to outshine him any time soon!

This review is the opinion of a Slow Travel member and not of slowtrav.com.

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