Terra Bella has long served as a charming oasis in the decidedly un-charming business district of Dimond Boulevard near the Seward Highway. After a day of shopping and errands, it's a civilized space to unwind and refuel with a lovingly crafted coffee drink or a sweet treat (including a wide variety of gluten-free options). Recently, the cafe has re-branded itself as Terra Bella Bistro, offering an expanded menu that includes dinner options and a thoughtfully curated wine and beer list.
I was eager to check out this new side of Terra Bella, so I headed out with my husband for a mid-week dinner. We chose an early-ish hour and had the dining room to ourselves. It's a very relaxing space, with two fireplaces, terra cotta-colored walls and soft, subtle lighting. It's rather romantic, in fact (especially if you opt for a table in the quiet little alcove toward the back).
The menu is interesting but, at first glance, a bit confusing. For starters, the list of wines by the glass does not include prices. Our server was knowledgeable about the list but I found it awkward to quiz her on the cost of each varietal. (For the record, the range is between $7 and $14. I, myself, am a $7-glass-of-wine kind of gal).
The food menu is laid out traditionally, with separate lists for appetizers, entrees and salads. But this format doesn't work well to show off the restaurant's wide variety of offerings. The appetizer menu is extensive, with a diverse selection of proteins (pork, mussels, sausage, shrimp and crab cakes among them), but the entree menu has just four options — two burgers, a daily vegetarian special and a duck breast entree. Updated terminology — "small plates" and "large plates," for example — might make ordering easier. Between the appetizers and entrees, we were able to create a wonderfully varied meal that wasn't promised by the scant "entree" listing.
We opted for three starters — roasted Brussels sprouts ($7), smoked Gouda mac and cheese ($11) and warm sardines on pita bread ($7).
The Brussels sprouts, served with an anchovy aioli and shaved egg, were flavorful yet light, making them an ideal starter. The sprouts had a beautiful sear and were cooked just enough to release their sweetness while maintaining freshness and bite. The anchovy aioli was like a thicker, creamier, more intense Caesar dressing that punched up the inherent mellowness of the sprouts. I had assumed that "shaved egg" was just a fancy way of saying "thinly sliced" and was therefore enchanted by the beautiful little cloud of finely grated eggy goodness that topped this dish. It's my new favorite thing. More egg clouds, please.
I don't often order macaroni and cheese when I eat out (I happen to make a mean one myself) but my husband never misses a chance to eat this comfort classic. I was worried about the use of smoked Gouda, since it can be an overwhelming flavor. But here it is used judiciously and with restraint. The smokiness was just a pleasant, evasive tease on the tongue instead of an all-out smoky assault. Cauliflower is roasted into this dish, lending it a bit of texture and mild nuttiness. But our favorite part was the crispy layer of Parmesan that floated on top of the dish. Advertised as a "draped parmesan chip," I was expecting a small, potato-chip-sized garnish. Instead, it was a generous blanket of lacy, crispy, cheesy crunch. We broke pieces off and ate it with our fingers. We sprinkled it on the sprouts. We crushed it into the pasta. They could sell these by the bag-full.
My favorite appetizer of the three — and one of my favorite bites of food in recent months — was the platter of warm sardines on pita. The bread was charred to a smoky crisp and topped with a silky, creamy parsnip "butter." Nestled on top were chunks of assertively flavorful, pleasantly oily fish. A drizzle of basil oil brought an herbal brightness to each mouthful. I've never eaten this combination before, but it felt like a classic dish that you might eat at a cafe in the Mediterranean. It's transportable.
For his entree, my husband opted for the special burger of the day ($17) with Cajun spices, chipotle aioli and a garlic asiago spread. We had mixed feelings about this dish. Interestingly, I liked the components of this dish better than the burger as a whole. It was impressive when it arrived at the table. The patties (10 ounces worth of chuck — this is a big burger) were flavorful and assertively spicy, but they overwhelmed the subtle heat of the chipotle aioli. And the garlic asiago spread — while delicious on its own — was so aggressive and spread on so thickly that it overwhelmed all of the other flavors on the plate. These sauces might enliven a plainly seasoned burger but — on top of the Cajun seasoning — the flavors all became muddled. These condiments were both very nice but they need to start seeing other burgers.
My entree — the seared duck breast with brown butter blueberry compote — was far more successful. The duck was beautifully cooked with nicely rendered fat, crisp skin, and a tender, perfectly rare interior. And while I'm not ordinarily a fan of fruity sauces on savory dishes, the compote worked beautifully, bringing freshness to the dish rather than sweetness. This bright, tangy note cut through the fatty richness of the duck. Crisp potato wedges and a heap of al dente broccolini rounded this plate out nicely.
Later that week, I met my friend Sue for lunch. The daytime menu is more traditional cafe fare and the atmosphere is livelier. I opted for the breakfast BLT ($13), Sue ordered the Cubano grilled sandwich ($15) and we decided to share the Quiche Lorraine.
I'll get the bad news out of the way. The quiche was a disappointment. A good one is custardy, light and creamy. This one was dense and rubbery. The Swiss cheese was a solid, unmelted block (though the quiche itself was hot), and the spinach tasted tired and muddy.
But things looked up from there. Sue's sandwich was crisp and melty, with a generous quantity of ham and cheese. We thought the mojo-braised pork was a bit on the dry side, but it was helped by the generous quantity of whole grain mustard and juicy little pickles.
My breakfast BLT was a decadent, beautiful mess. An open-faced "sandwich," it looked more like a salad, with a bounty of ripe avocado and diced tomatoes topped with well-crisped bacon and a perfectly poached egg. It's a fresh-tasting twist on the classic and I was well satisfied.
The bold flavors, creative combinations, and unique ingredients coming out of Terra Bella's kitchen show confidence and imagination. I'm excited to return and work my way down the rest of the appetizer list. Meanwhile, I might need to invent a few Dimond-area "errands" to run so I can "reward" myself with a glass of wine and another plate of those delicious sardines. And you should do the same. I won't tell if you don't tell.
Terra Bella Bistro
Hours: 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday
Location: 601 E. Dimond Blvd.
Contact: 907-562-2259 and terrabellabistro.com