The first thing you should know about Bistro 1491 is that it isn't really a bistro at all, if your definition of a bistro is a little place up an alleyway where guys in berets down bowls of onion soup to the accompaniment of a strolling accordion player. To the more broad-minded among us, however, a bistro is any smallish restaurant with moderately priced food and a casual atmosphere, and by that definition this lower-Solano venue qualifies, Main Street coffee shop ambience notwithstanding. It's the sort of a place where you can dine on a big plate of substantial and nutritious (if often uninspired) food for a reasonable stipend without waiting for a table or a refilled glass ... a viable dining option for these recessionary times.
Oakland natives Bo and Tim Tam opened the place just over a year ago in the building that for many years housed the venerable Walker's Pie Shop. In its refurbished state, the two-room dining area is trim and tidy, simply decorated and brightly lit, more sterile than cozy, with checkerboard linoleum floors, mustard-colored walls draped here and there with framed old bistro posters, and a few dozen blond-wood tables neatly accented with vases and ketchup bottles. High ceilings create a hushed, cavernous ambience somewhat mitigated by the cool jazz issuing from the house iPod. The unpretentious setting matches the cuisine, which, despite organic produce, artisan ingredients, and high aspirations, seldom rises above the perfectly adequate.
Popular among Albany's cognoscenti for its brunch specialties (duck confit hash with shiitake mushrooms, sweet-potato pancakes with orange-cinnamon sauce, a Niman Ranch Joe's special), the restaurant offers a dinner menu overabundant with popular favorites (calamari, guacamole, hot wings, burgers, roasted chicken, rib-eye, scampi, pasta) that stretch the kitchen's capabilities and render the impression that the place borrowed its cuisine from a strip-mall food court. But the amount of food proffered is prodigious, and while it might not give Alice Waters any competition, it's perfectly satisfying and even occasionally delectable.
To begin our meal we had the calamari appetizer, a small mountain of your basic semolina-dusted deep-fried squid served with a spiky scallion aioli dipping sauce. The crab and shrimp cakes were on the sweet and doughy side, but the tart jicama salad and the mildly spicy bell-pepper coulis that shared the platter accented things nicely. The best starter was the steamed mussels, a mess of plump, juicy bivalves served with sliced chorizo sausage in a garlic-basil-white-wine sauce suitable for dunking (grilled sourdough provided).
At entrée time we bypassed the jumbo salads and boutique burgers for a few of the house specialties. The fire-roasted pork tenderloin involved half a dozen slices of dry meat on a bed of undercooked orzo and cafeteria-style cubed vegetables with the flavor and consistency of reheated fried rice. The bouillabaisse was a definite improvement, with its bountiful array of prawns, mussels, filets of salmon and snapper, and tender chunks of Yukon Gold, but its saffron-fennel broth was too mild in flavor to stand up to all that robust protein. We were, however, impressed with the shredded duck fettuccine, a heaping platter of al dente pasta dressed in a succulent hoisin-edged cream sauce. Scallions, tomatoes, and arugula added additional savor, but the generous shards of shiitake mushroom, Hobbs bacon, and rich, juicy duck were what gave the dish its robust character. We also opted for a side dish of the shiitake-orzo ragout, a pleasing, lightly dressed confluence of delicate, buttery pasta and more of those meaty mushrooms.
The desserts were the best part of the meal. The white passion mousse combined the flavors of passion fruit and white chocolate into a light, tangy concoction set on a ring of pistachio-flavored genoise. The tiramisu was attractively wrapped in a circle of wafer-thin chocolate, but the mascarpone was too delicate in flavor and the ladyfingers barely tasted of the advertised cognac. But the chocolate cheesecake was pure pleasure: Dense and fudgy as a Belgian truffle, it packed enough endorphins into its minimal dimensions for a dozen desserts.
Bistro 1491 has several vegetarian-friendly options on its menu. Appetizers include guacamole with fire-roasted corn and tofu frites with spicy Thai ketchup. There are four meat-free salads to choose from (poached pear with walnuts, baby spinach with shaved fennel, field greens with gorgonzola and pecans, and tomato with basil and mozzarella), and among the entrées is a Thai vegan stir-fry and a Tuscan sandwich layered with portobello, eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, and mozzarella. French fries and the shiitake orzo ragout are available to complement the meal.
The minimal yet adequate wine list offers a dozen reasonably priced vintages by the glass and bottle; Full Sail's yummy amber ale is the star of the six-item beer list. (If you feel like a post-meal constitutional, there's more beer at the Pub, just across the street.) Between the brews and the bargains and the chocolate cheesecake and those abundant portions, we just might weather the winter after all.