The hospitality world was turned upside down by closures and other restrictions when Covid hit, but the folks at Al Fresco handled it in their own way.
Some food companies have lost their lives and perished, while others have tried to get by by branching out into low-fat takeaways.
At Al Fresco in Aberdeen, formerly known as Aperitivo before the pandemic, they imagined a different approach.
While the doors were locked, they reinvented themselves with new branding and a renovation in preparation for freedom day.
But they resisted subverting the culinary style, which had proven itself time and time again with former Aperitivo aficionados.
It’s still as Italian as tiramisu, I’m happy to report. But Al Fresco’s makeover and reinvention gave it a real bounce back from the pandemic.
One Friday lunchtime as we walked in they were enjoying a roaring exchange with old friends and new acquaintances.
Al Fresco in Aberdeen
The new low ceiling with green foliage, installed to create an al fresco-style atmosphere, seemed to reinforce the convivial atmosphere of the dining room.
People were savoring the freedom to dine again and making the most of it.
We were a bit disappointed not to have a window seat, but realized we should have requested it in advance given how busy they were.
The friendly and attentive staff felt it right as they quickly diverted us to a cozy corner table for two, which made us very happy.
We had two options for lunch: a full a la carte menu or a special two or three course lunch menu for 11.95 and 14.95 respectively.
Now I could probably see why they were so busy, as this deal seemed like great value.
We have chosen to mix and match the two menus to discover the full range of Al Fresco.
But I could see that another menu had caught my wife’s attention – the one with drinks on it. A bellini – Prosecco with peach juice – called her name.
It brought back fond memories of a trip to Venice nearly five years ago: fellow travelers rushed to book the usual things like gondolier trips around its famous waterways.
But we followed a path around St. Mark’s Square to the iconic Harry’s Bar, birthplace of the bellinis.
We had a few suppers in small glasses in Harry’s upstairs dining room – enjoying the wonderful view – as waiters in fancy jackets and gloves busied themselves.
Bellinis were £11 a jet in Venice at the time, mind you. Their price was more modest at £7.95 at Al Fresco; I read somewhere that bellini’s are now £18 at Harry’s.
It is at times like these that I am always impressed that a single country like Italy is blessed with such variety and depth of cuisine.
That didn’t make the choice at Al Fresco very easy. Anyway, we finally got there and started with the salmone carpaccio and arancini con formaggio.
I always smile at arancini because you don’t need instructions on what to do next.
On one side, a bowl of breaded and fried risotto balls bursting with mixed Italian cheeses; on the other, a gorgeous dark red bowl of lightly spiced tomato sauce. It’s obvious – you just dove into each other.
My salmon carpaccio looked like an audition for a still life.
It was beautiful to look at and a delicious treat. Prawns with Marie-rose sauce were the centerpiece, on a bed of thin slices of smoked salmon.
For main, my wife opted for a classic Italian spiedino – grilled skewers of marinated chicken, pancetta and Italian sausage with onions, peppers and rosemary potato wedges.
Mine was a bit of a stop-start affair as I chose the bar to start, but spotted a waiter carrying a blackboard among the tables showing the daily specials.
I had missed the board earlier and just picked the main menu.
Four letters were chalked on the board that still make my heart flutter – they spelled hake.
That was enough to persuade me to change my order on the spot as I love hake, but I don’t see it on the menus as often as I would like.
I was told the switch was not a problem as the chefs had not started preparing our dishes at this point.
But there was a mistake somewhere along the line as it took almost an hour to arrive.
They were full of apologies, but any tension over the delay evaporated when the hake landed on our table.
What a dish – to say it was a generous portion would be an understatement.
It was full of wonderful roasted vegetables and rosemary potatoes, but the hidden treasure was the hake buried underneath.
I had two plump fillets; their characteristic flesh, and this intense and incomparable whiteness always make hake something special.
Both main courses were wonderful, but we mustered the strength for the desserts.
The delay meant I had to rush to refill a parking machine, but I was able to burn off a few calories.
We finished with ice cream and cherries, and homemade tiramisu
for me overflowing with coffee and marsala.
I was relieved to see that tiramisu was on both menus as we are going to burst
back in a few weeks for a quick lunch.
David Knight is the former associate editor of The Press and Journal and has reviewed restaurants for The Menu for many years.
Address: Al Fresco, 15 Bon Accord Street, Aberdeen AB11 6EA
T: 07500 705431
Price: £93.40 (two starters, two mains, two desserts, four coffees and a mocktail)
- Food: 4/5
- Performance: 4/5
- Surroundings: 4/5
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[Italian food reminiscent of Venice at Aberdeen’s Al Fresco]