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Wednesday, Feb 24 1999
It is a pity that Albona was named one of the 100 Best Restaurants of 1998 by the Chronicle. Success has gone to its head. Last year it was indeed a terrific restaurant. This year it is only sporadically terrific.

Albona is family-run, and has the feel of perhaps a cozy European country inn, with dark wood paneling, close-set tables, and a generally pleasing bustle. It still has the distinction of being the only Istrian restaurant in the Bay Area. If you haven't heard, Istrian cuisine is a phenomenon that's sweeping the nation: It's from a region that's politically part of Croatia, historically Italian, and shows the influence of Italian, Central and Eastern European, and Middle Eastern cooking.

The restaurant's menu reflects these diverse influences: It includes pasta dishes, strudel, sauerkraut, and plenty of raisins and nutmeg and paprika. To start, get the chifeletti (fried gnocchi), served in a glossy brown cumin-chopped sirloin sauce ($5.50). The dumplings' consistency is unique and pleasurable -- they puff up when they're fried to achieve a texture reminiscent of doughnuts. The sauce is rich and a little sweet, but it doesn't overwhelm the natural flavor of the little gnocchi.

Albona often has good soups, too ($5.50); their bean soup is simple, but hearty and satisfying. And the calamari appetizer ($6.25) is another good bet: Little whole squid with garlicky breadcrumb stuffing avoid the dual pitfalls of rubberiness and lack of flavor.

The peperonata is a cold antipasto consisting of raisins, roasted peppers, eggplant, and olives, all marinated together. Unfortunately, all the ingredients end up tasting very similar -- the olives lose their tang, the raisins lose their intensity -- in fact, everything tastes more or less like a sweet roasted pepper ($6.25).

Next comes the pasta course. Crafi albonese ($13) are a nice surprise: large half-moon-shaped pasta pillows, filled with sweet cheese and raisins, fried in butter, and tasting strongly of nutmeg, which to American palates suggests nothing so much as breakfast. Indeed, these and the gnocchi would make an excellent, if heavy, morning meal.

Crespelle con gamberetti e salmone ($13.25) are Italian-style crepes -- smoother and thicker than French crepes -- stuffed with roast salmon and shrimp, and topped with both bechamel and a hearty tomato sauce. They are luxurious but, alas, taste far too fishy for comfort.

Meat offerings include braised veal, roast chicken, a daily fish, lamb medallions, venison, braised rabbit, and stuffed pork loin. The pork loin ($16) is tender, its mild flavor upstaged by a stuffing of fruit, sauerkraut, and prosciutto. The rabbit ($17) is a specialty -- a young, meaty animal, served in an herb-rich agrodolce sauce (agrodolce is Italian for bittersweet) containing juniper, honey, and balsamic vinegar. Albona doesn't get any better than this.

Loin of lamb ($17.25) is broiled, dressed with flavorful olive oil and herbs, and cut into delicate juicy pink-cored medallions, artfully fanned out on the plate. The dish doesn't have the intense musk of lamb, if that's what you're after; it's just excellently done tender meat. The venison ($17), cooked alla cacciatora, is, like the crespelle, an unfortunate blot on the menu. It's a big slice of appealing-looking venison-colored meat that's incredibly dry and tough, more like deer jerky than fresh meat. In fact, it's so chewy that it's difficult to eat, although the salty, winy sauce is hearty and good.

For dessert, the restaurant offers bonet, which resembles a crumbly chocolate flan, and a chocolate ricot-ta torta, flavored strongly with amaretto and dense -- like an intense cheesecake. A promised fruit strudel proved to be unavailable on two successive visits.

The dining experience at Albona is not as comfortable as it used to be, which is a great shame. The staff, though friendly and quick with a joke, seem to be less than pleased to have so many customers. When a line forms on a Saturday night, as it tends to, staffers are utterly unsubtle in the way they lean over a table of diners to assess its progress and then shout to the front of the restaurant, "We can get this one out of here in ten minutes."

The diners at such a table, once targeted, are handed dessert menus and badgered by a hovering waiter until they pick something, then are urged to "attack" the desserts, which arrive at the same time as the check to thwart any unwholesome lingering over coffee.

Often, when a restaurant becomes popular, certain compromises are made. Although one can still get a very tasty meal there, Albona appears of late to have compromised both its venison and its civility.

Albona Ristorante Istriano
545 Francisco (at Taylor), 441-1040. Open Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations highly recommended. Parking: complimentary valet. Muni: Powell-Mason cable car, 30 Stockton, 39 Coit. Sound level: pretty noisy.

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Paul Adams

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