March 12, 2010

Oak Street Bistro beckons with fine food, friendly vibe

— ALFRED — On a dark and cold winter Saturday night, Oak Street Bistro is the destination for dozens, its series of large rooms full of hubbub as servers move quickly and competently to deliver big plates of well-made food.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Wednesday, February 4, 2009....Taste and Tell review of the Oak Street Bistro in Alfred.

The snow-smooth fields of Alfred and its quiet, pretty farmhouses and village buildings don't prepare a visitor for such a convivial spot. But the locals have embraced Oak Street Bistro, open since October, with gratitude. From the enormous heap of skinny, crunchy onion rings to the tender, not-too-sweet chocolate bread pudding, the kitchen knows how to make customers happy.

Two large dining rooms are filled with high-baked, mission-style chairs and wood wainscoting. Sconces and lights with geometric, mission-inspired stained-glass shades decorate the rooms.

The large tables repeat the expansive theme. Even the waiting area is wide open, with lots of chairs and tables creating a comfortable space. But step into the long lounge in the rear of the building and settle into a leather chair in front of the big fireplace instead, if there's room.

The fireplace wasn't lighted on the night I dined, but the piano player, an industrious young man, was playing a baby grand in the lounge with his own fiery pizzazz.

We tried a wine special for the night, Botro Malbec and Torrontes ($6 a glass for both) from Argentina. The Malbec tasted sour, and it was traded in for a glass of Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon with its pleasant balance of cherries and oak.

The Torrontes wasn't particularly aromatic, as Torrontes, an indigenous Argentinian grape, can be. But its aroma of honey and pineapple was perfectly enjoyable.

The bar also makes a huge variety of fresh-fruit martinis and other flavored drinks.

A cup of clam chowder ($4.99), a second choice after the sold-out haddock chowder that had been the soup of the day, was flour-thickened and creamy, full of clams and nicely flavored by their juices.

Caesar salad ($5.99), lightly dressed romaine with a faint touch of anchovy and garlic, is tuned to popular preference, no doubt, but more of both would have improved it. The wide bowl holds an enormous portion, quite enough to share among three people.

And even more generous is the serving of onion rings ($5.99), and alas, it's impossible to keep your hands off them. They are perfectly made at Oak Street Bistro, oily and very addictive.

Calamari with marinara ($7.99), three-bean chili ($4.99 a cup, $6.99 a bowl), and the Wedge (5.99), a hunk of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing and bacon, are also among the starters and salads.

An entree salad, Merry Berry Salad ($10.99) would appeal during a warmer season, with strawberries, dried cranberries, pecans, greens, tomatoes, red onion, sprouts and feta cheese.

But the meatloaf ($14.99) proved the best choice on a cold night, the mix of ground veal, pork and beef both tender and juicy. Sauteed onion and a mild gravy elaborated on the comfort theme, along with creamy mashed potatoes flecked with peel, and a mix of carrots, zucchini and summer squash served that night.

Roast chicken ($13.99) disappointed with somewhat dry meat, although a swish through the gravy on that plate repaired most of the problem. A pretty sprig of thyme was stuck in the mashed potatoes and, stripped of its fragrant leaves by a diner, tuned up the flavors of the chicken even more.

A spear of fresh rosemary in the potatoes on the meatloaf plate had less easy a role in its raw state, but both herbs are better inside the food instead of sticking out of it.

Fried Ipswich clams ($18.99) brought their full bellies and fragrant flavors from the sand flats to the table. Their coating was a little moist and not as crisp as it should have been. Straightforward house tartar sauce and thinly sliced red and white cabbage in the good coleslaw came with the clams, along with a heap of forgettable french fries.

Hand-formed burgers, Parmesan-crusted salmon and weekend prime rib are also on the long menu.

The dessert special of chocolate bread pudding ($5.99) was a hit, its tender and moist custardy bread full of dark chocolate and topped with freshly whipped cream.

Smooth decaf ($1.95) in thick white cups capped the fine dinner. The cream or half-and-half was served in a little pitcher, so preferable to little plastic containers.

Fudge brownie sundaes ($5.99), warm bread pudding with maple syrup ($4.99) and house cheesecake ($5.99) would likely hit the spot, too.

As we finished sharing the pudding in its white china bowl and thought about our meal, it seemed obvious that making familiar dishes well, serving them in large portions and keeping customers comfortable had turned this enterprise into a winner.

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of ''Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.'' Visit English's Web site,

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