What can be said about a restaurant that offers a cheese course without the stifled decorum of a night aboard the Titanic?
What I mean to say is, what more can I write about a place that offers good food (some may say “fine food,” although I hate that phrase) in a young, comfortable and unpretentious setting? The answer is plenty.
Celebrating nothing in particular, my trusty companion and I ventured out to Bella Fresca on a rainy Saturday night. A deceptively small building, Bella Fresca was packed to the rafters with patrons, and upbeat music was nearly drowned out by 15 conversations going at once. Our reservations were for 7:30, but we made the gauche mistake of showing up 15 minutes early–and were seated promptly nonetheless. Our server, Taylor, attended to us urgently but comfortably, taking our drink orders and scuttling back and forth accordingly. I ordered an Old-Fashioned and gave no more instructions, intent on experiencing Bella Fresca’s interpretation of a classic (and oft-misrepresented) cocktail. I was pleased to discover that Saturday night’s barkeep used a generous hand of Crown Royal by default. There are generally two schools of thought on how to make an Old-Fashioned: while Bourbon is traditional, Rye imparts a complexity that really takes it to the next level.
I think we were most excited about the cheese and charcuterie offerings–Bella Fresca has a modest but varied selection of meats and cheeses from around the world, including a fresh Louisiana chèvre (goat cheese) and house-made Tasso Ham. We opted for the Strathdon Blue from Scotland and were presented with a formidable lump of cheese accompanied by toasts, honey, and a bunch of table grapes. The Blue was creamy, strong, and tasted of the cave it was aged in–an acquired taste, but a good one. (Excellent food, I believe, has the power to transport its enjoyer to its birthplace, be it the Aegean Sea or a cave in Scotland.) Its powerful aroma was penetrating without the suffocating, vaporous qualities of a stronger Blue, like Maytag. The accompanying honey added a warmer dimension when drizzled over the cheese, although the cheese would have been excellent without it.
Pulling out all the stops, my companion and I opted for an appetizer each: he ordered the beef carpaccio with white truffle oil, parmigiana reggiano and herbs, and I ordered the sesame tempura shrimp with rosemary-garlic sweet and sour sauce and basil oil. The carpaccio, a dish popular in the 80s but experiencing a resurgence, was visually gorgeous and melted straightaway after hitting my tongue–it hardly needed the toasts it came with, although they served as handy vessels for transporting the beef to my mouth. My shrimp was gigantic, surprising for the season, and perfectly cooked. Anyone who makes shrimp at home knows that this is no easy feat, although I shouldn’t have expected less from the capable hands of Bella Fresca. The tempura batter was present but didn’t take center stage like it does at some Japanese restaurants–instead it enhanced the shrimp, rather than covering it up. Black sesame seeds offered visual appeal, but not much else.
Bella Fresca’s real test came next with our entrées: Herb crusted trout with sweet chili coulis, wasabi mashed potatoes and shaved asparagus for him, and, feeling as though there’s not enough red meat in my life, the chili-rubbed 12 oz. New York strip with blue cheese butter, parmesan truffle fries and haricots vert for me. The trout was impressive and artfully presented, with two large, lightly fried fillets perched atop the fluffy mashed potatoes. My steak was less grand, although really, there’s only so many ways to present a steak. Bella Fresca hit another seafood mark with the well-cooked trout, which shined exactly as trout should–buttery and rich without being cumbersome. My steak, medium-rare, was also prepared correctly, although the chili rub only made itself known on occasional bites. New York strip, while a sound cut of loin, is not known for being the most tender, although it was more manageable than I expected. The parmesan fries were nothing remarkable, and the parmesan was reminiscent of the canned stuff kept next to the spaghetti sauce at the grocery. The haricots vert were cooked just until their starchy toughness had vanished; they were crisp-tender and sweet.
Finally, dessert time rolled around. I wrapped up about half of my dinner in order to enjoy the last course, which we were both looking forward to. Although Bella Fresca offers a good variety of dessert wines and cordials, we just ordered coffee. I was still nursing my Old-Fashioned, anyhow (a skill I perfected in college). Bella Fresca doesn’t apply a particular cuisine to themselves; instead they pull from many different regions and styles to come up with a menu all their own. Their southern connection comes through strongly on their dessert menu: banana pudding cheesecake and peanut butter bread pudding with mayhaw jelly are offered alongside more continental choices like pomegranate crème brûlée. We chose the first two for both their intrigue and use of familiar ingredients. My banana pudding cheesecake was light and airy, served on a butter-cookie crust reminiscent of Christmas cookies, and accented with a dollop of whipped cream. The cream was on the overbeaten side and instead resembled sweetened butter, but really, who can complain about that? My partner’s peanut butter bread pudding was true to its name, the peanut butter coming on strong. The addition of mayhaw jelly gave it a traditional peanut butter-and-jelly flavor, which was comforting without being cloying.
If you’re willing to drop about $150 for dinner (that includes cocktails, dessert and gratuity), Bella Fresca can be a delicious experience, equally suited for a date night or small birthday party. Through attentive staff, intimate atmosphere and go-with-the-flow menu, Bella Fresca sets themselves apart from similarly priced Line Avenue restaurants. For a taste of Bella Fresca without the frills, try them for a weekday lunch.
Next weekend, make reservations, put on your Nice Clothes, and ask for Taylor.
6307 Line Avenue