Pissed off because a really great day – honestly, one of the best in probably a year – of food, friends, museums and galleries was botched I reconsulted my map and realized another restaurant I’d been considering was close-by, Alto. Hoping that they would have tables available I asked a local bouncer (Monkey Bar) which direction it was in and although he was unaware, his colleague knew – just look for the waterfall, you can’t miss it, and the place is awesome. Making my way to the door I walked in and asked if any seats for one were available – after a short pause (I swear the young lady was eyeing me up wondering if I knew this was ‘fine-r dining’) I was asked “dining room or bar?” Dining room I stated – briefcase checked I was led downstairs to a small yet cozy booth/table with a great view of the wines and all ends of the room – excellent.
While somewhat familiar with the NY dining scene but certainly not a local I will admit I’d done my research and originally sought out Alto because of Chef White’s credentials and time at Spiaggia – a meal I loved back in December. What I was not aware of was the fact that Alto originally received its Michelin Star under the guidance of Chef Conant whose wonderful cooking I’d enjoyed 2 nights previous at Scarpetta. Certainly more refined than Scarpetta, Alto’s “scene” was largely business-men (many drinking heavily and getting quite loud,) while the service was very refined, the lights very low, and the food more esoteric, yet oddly accessible through descriptions of the dishes.
Greeted shortly after seating by my primary server, Astrit, and subsequently by his team I knew the night would go well – everyone was polite, professional, and very accessible with a great knowledge of the menu. Tap water, no alcohol, and the menu – prix fixe versus chef’s tasting – I opted for the prix fixe as there were two options simply too favorable to pass up. Orders placed I sat back and waited merely moments before the chef himself (unsure if this was White or a sous-chef) arrived at the table with a “gift from the kitchen.” A small bite, Salmon Crudo with Basil Emulsion and Olive Oil was wonderful with the fatty salmon wonderfully accented in taste and texture by a sweet basil and heady olive oil.
Shortly after collecting my plate and refilling water, my buddy the bread man arrived – this time sporting three varieties, all of which were sampled - Whole Wheat Baguette, Olive Sourdough, and Hearty Italian. While not as interesting as the bread collection at Scarpetta, better overall than either Le Bernardin or Jean-Georges with the Baguette quite hefty and textural, the Italian perfectly crisp and a little smoky on the outside with a soft and mellow interior (much like Babbo, actually) and the Olive Sourdough my favorite with strongly flavored black olives contrasting well against the minimally acidic sourdough. Paired with all of these dishes was a superb (I wish I’d written down the name, but it was an ‘estate blend’) imported Greek Olive Oil that is apparently used in all of Alto’s dishes and imparts a great flavor plus some unique thick-oiliness that is different from most extra virgin olive oils served in Italian restaurants.
Taking in the ambiance and listening to the group down the way while chatting occasionally with my server I waited approximately 15 minutes before my first dish – and arrive it did, to great surprise. Entitled Terrina di Fegato d’Anitra al Moscato con Rabarbaro, or Hudson valley foie gras terrine, pinenut crocante, braised rhubarb – without overstating, quite possibly as good as that at Keller’s French Laundry. Smooth, luscious, no gaminess whatsoever – the foie itself was a stunning piece in size and quality. Served with the foie was a “dust” of crushed pine nuts that added a dose of texture, a rhubarb gel that lent sweetness without overwhelming, and two pieces of foie candy atop for more texture and sweet. Served along with this was a olive-oil-toasted country bread that worked perfectly with the dish and (a la French Laundry) was replaced with warmed bread mid-way through the dish. Every single bit worth the $10 supplementary charge.
An incredible antipasti without traditional “Italian” constraints, I next moved on to the primi, certainly “more” Italian but not traditional either - Spaghetti con Gamberi, Ricci di Mare e Pomodoro or fresh cut spaghetti, shrimp, maine sea urchin, tomato, toasted bread crumbs. Having experienced the excellent seafood based pasta at Scarpetta two days earlier and loving every second of it, this was a ‘must’ the moment I saw it on the menu, though multiple other dishes sounded superb. With noodles vastly more slender than those previous, almost angel-hair in nature yet maintaining a good al dente feel, the delicate pasta was clearly very fresh and was complimented by a hearty yet somewhat spicy tomato sauce whose sweetness was subtle yet appropriate – toasted bread crumbs speckled the dish and lent texture. Further accent was added with the chopped uni – like Conant’s dish well chopped and adding a subtle fattiness and mellow without overwhelming as uni occasionally can. The final component, the shrimp, were perfectly prepared and actually sweeter than the sauce. Attractive and delicious my neighbor inquired what I was having and told his waiter “I’ll have that.” He made a good choice.
After wiping my plate clean with a piece of the olive bread I chatted with my neighbor for a few moments – a nice couple I must admit they were a tad invasive which I thought odd, but I didn’t mind the company. Time passed quickly and before I knew it my secondi arrived – again with superb service and a great description from Astrit. Astice con Brodetto di Crostacei e Pesce or olive oil poached maine lobster, adriatic fish stew, fennel confit, tomato. While I’d originally wanted a “main” that allowed me to experience more textures/tastes than back-to-back tomato, my waiter actually talked me into this dish telling me it was “the best thing on the menu.” While I’m unable to confirm whether this is true, I can definitely say that it was every bit on par with the Foie – and if there is something better on the menu I need to go back soon. A large lobster tail; full, bisected, shell-less and expertly prepared was perched atop a perfectly seared fennel confit with tastes of onion, garlic, and thyme. Beneath this, a broth that would not have been out of place at Le Bernardin – an incredibly aromatic and complex cioppino with heavy hints of a strong red wine, bay leaf, tarragon, and olives plus ample amounts of scallop, octopus, shrimp, and a mild texture fish I believe to be bass or cod. Adding an amazing extra degree of texture, nuance, and "unique/wow" to this dish was tomato prepared tapiocca lining the base of the plate - totally unexpected but something I absolutely plan to try in the future.
Finishing the very satisfying dish Astrit stopped by again and I complimented his choice. Collecting my plate he asked if I wanted coffee, this time declined, and brought the dessert menu. Browsing the menu I was once again faced with a dilemma as 4 dishes sounded wonderful (Bombolini with Honey, another Molten Chocolate Cake, etc) and decided to ask Astrit his opinion again – “you can’t miss the Torrone – it is so light and so wonderful” was the response – as this was one of the four and I was starting to feel the weight of the days eating, I agreed. Arriving in a short time and described as Piemontese nougat semifreddo, hazelnut cake, warm chocolate sauce the dish was finished with the sauce tableside and watching the chocolate harden over the cake was actually a very interesting effect as it pooled and froze without making a dent in the perfectly formed sphere. Taking a bite I simply smiled – like a cold and airy cloud of nutella atop a soft yet dense 1/2 inch thick pile of cake that was more hazelnut than flour. A seamless blend of thick dark chocolate and smooth semifreddo – indeed light and indeed “can’t miss.”
Finishing dessert my water was once again filled and I was brought a small plate of petit fours – an olive oil gelee that harkened back to Providence, a rich and buttery raspberry financier, a salted chocolate covered caramel, and a creamy vanilla cake with a strip of rhubarb – all great with the gelee the most memorable for sure. Following the treats was an admittedly modest bill for such a great meal and more gracious service and thanks as I told my servers what a great job they’d done. As I reached the top of the stairs and retrieved my bag I was met by multiple smiling faces asking me how I’d enjoyed the meal and if I needed a cab – high class all around. Walking out I was greeted by the glistening waterfall and Christmas lights in the trees – a scene that almost made me forget I was in the middle of a huge city in May.
All told, May 19th was one of my favorite days in recent memory and Alto proved a very bright spot that I happened upon only secondarily – good luck, I guess? A different dining experience from the more casual Babbo and Scarpetta, but perhaps better than both and miles ahead of anything being done in the Ohio or Los Angeles Italian scenes (in my experience.) Refined and professional service, refined and delicious food that pushes the boundaries of conventional “Italian,” and a setting that is absolutely refined without being stuffy – an absolute must for anyone looking for a great Italian fine dining experience. After a quick walk back to Penn Station through a lighted Times Square I remembered I was in the city again and I was still happy.