Alma Welcomes Spring
Restaurant Alma’s menu changes with the seasons….but that’s about all that does. For over 20 years in its storefront location near the U of M campus, it’s won devotees (not to mention many a James Beard Award nomination) for consistently offering a low-key but highly rewarding dining experience based on popping-fresh local ingredients woven into a four-course prix fixe menu. Those four courses subdivide into multiple dishes per course, making the final $85 tab an unsung bargain in the fine-dining sphere.
Alma’s setting invites diners to relax. Blond brick walls rise from the concrete floor to a high ceiling from which light bulbs dangle within lacy, wire cages. Votive candles flicker a simple welcome from their stance on simple butcher block tabletops, soon to be covered with a welcome offering of toasted almond, subtly spiced with anise and pimento, accompanying a handful of dark and meaty olives, whose pungency is leavened with snips of orange zest and hints of thyme.
They lead off the kitchen’s new spring menu. Homemade sourdough and focaccia slices, paired with Hope butter, soon appear, joined by antipasti that lead off with a triangle of goats’-milk cheese, whose mildly assertive flavor is balanced by sweet-tart shreds of honeyed apricots. On another plate, a house-made cracker, smaller than a Triscuit, supports a juicy nugget of pheasant rillette, punched up (literally: it’s underneath the meat) by a welcome jolt of harissa.
Yummy, all. But the best of the starters is a petite, warm and ultra-creamy, mushroom flan, topped by a wrinkly morel and a pair of translucent, paper-thin potato chips. I could eat about twelve portions, it’s so satisfying.
But on to the official first course—a pair of veggie compositions. First, a toss of mixed greens, fava beans and radish rounds topped with flame-blistered snap peas—spring on a salad plate. Next, a phyllo-based tart topped with a robustly vegetal-tasting puree of nettles and spinach, upon which rested a wisp of prosciutto-like ham royal—along with (supposedly) pecorino, but the cheese’s taste gets down-played in the shuffle.
In service paced to suit each diner’s fancy, next arrived the two-item main course. A fillet of gently-cooked trout—sweet and moist—was rendered even tastier by a topknot of king crab tendrils, plus an accompanying lemon-herb butter sauce, in which lazed a sprinkling of tiny sweet peas. Perfection.
At the same moment, however, a roasted New York strip arrived—slender, medium-rare, and piqued with a tad too much salt for my taste. The plate was garnished with al dente asparagus spears, a bright dab of rhubarb sauce (two more signs of spring) and a creamy pour of sweet-onion soubise to sauce the meat. A saucer held a domino-size square of Yukon Gold potato pave (sort of like scalloped), ultra-rich (and that’s just fine), accompanied by a bit of spring ramps and salsa verde.
My advice to the kitchen, however: No, No—don’t bring out the fish and meat together. Allow each to star as a separate course, to be enjoyed at leisure without letting plate number two stand around getting cold.
For dessert, a petite serving of a fluffy buckwheat chiffon cake appeared, joined by macerated strawberries, candied slivered almonds, and a brown-sugar anglaise sauce—modestly interesting, if not spectacular. I sipped the last of my sorghum Old Fashioned, chosen from a five-item specialty cocktail list that includes the Lavender Gimlet occupying many an adjoining table. Wines BTG $8-25; low-and no-proof cocktails and beer, too. Alma is another no-tipping operation, preferring to add the now-common 21-percent wellness surcharge.
Accomplished, friendly servers contribute to the pleasure of dining here, where area neighbors walked in sporting everything from sneakers to stilettos, all in search of a fresh and well-conceived menu, adeptly served in a pleasant setting. No disappointments there. Open Thursday-Sunday 5-8 PM.
528 University Avenue SE