Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro, New York NY

Classically trained and hailing from a line of pastry chefs and restaurateurs there is no doubt that Francois Payard is a talented man – he has spent time in Michelin three-starred kitchens, helped to open Daniel, and won Beard awards himself. Having had a great breakfast featuring luxurious chocolate waffles and the best almond croissant of my life (along with somewhat bland service) at Payard’s Las Vegas branch back in September, when I was looking for something “to-go” en route from Midtown up to the M-60 bus stop in Harlem I just so happened to note Payard’s New York bistro fit the bill perfectly - Plenty of fresh pastries and portables that would keep well on the bus and while I waited for my plane at LaGuardia.

Walking up to the small shop the first thing that struck me was how quaint it appeared – doors open with people sitting inside drinking tea or cocktails while eating small cookies, a back dining area with all the bustle of a French bistro, all casual yet refined. The second thing – the pastries, what else? Stretching both sides of the room were cases full of wonderful looking breads, macarons, cakes, cookies, croissants, and tarts – none of which looked bad and many of which looked superb. Browsing the selections and taking some pictures I noted a large man who looked somewhat like Djimon Hounsou pointing at me from the back – odd, I thought.

Wanting a savory to go with my sweets I noted a nice looking Croque Monsieur in the case and asked for it to be prepared – “this is a full service cafe, sir, you’ll have to take a table so a waiter can bring it to you” was the response I got. “Well, I wanted it to go so I could catch the bus – I’m on my way to the airport.” Exasperated, “Oh, well I guess we can prepare it for you then” as he placed it in the toaster – yes, in the toaster. Further browsing the selections while I waited I asked a couple more questions which were met with somewhat put-upon answers, but despite the poor service I persisted – under no time constraints I’d have likely just walked out.

Approximately 10 minutes later my Croque was finally done baking and as I took another picture of the interior Mr. Hounsou came up and said “sir, I’m going to have to ask you to stop taking pictures or leave – we don’t know who you are, you could be an ‘agent’ for all we know.” Having no idea what to make of this I put my camera away and having already paid my bill I made my way to the street. Honestly, there is no excuse for the “service” I received at Payard – but thankfully the food almost made up for it.

Consuming the Croque first as it was still piping hot I must say that for a pre-prepped version it was quite excellent with two buttery slices of brioche slow toasted housing an ample portion of salty ham. Covering the dish a hefty pile of fresh Béchamel that added a smooth creaminess. While it is difficult to compare a Monsieur to a Madame, I’d say this is easily the best portable Croque I’ve tasted, though not quite as wowing as that at Bouchon or the absolutely transcendent version at the Butler and Chef in San Francisco.

Following the Croque I opted for something sweet – a Raspberry Jelly Donut. Deciding on this one over the more decadent and filling cream custard version, the crispy and surprisingly unoily beignet was perfectly formed and quite light with mild hints of vanilla pulled to the forefront by a dusting of sugar. Inside the doughy shell, the most incredible raspberry compote I’ve ever tasted – and a whole lot of it. Absolutely stuffed from front to back and top to bottom, the pure essence of raspberries gushed forth as I bit in and each bite seemed to yield more than I’d expected to be in the entire pastry. While many may want to brag Donut plant, I’m gathering Payard doesn’t use any “unnatural” ingredients either and the results are far more impressive.

Finishing off the pastries for the time being I decided to have some chocolate – this time in the form of a Flourless Chocolate Walnut Cookie. Like a dense and chewy brownie mixed with decadent walnut fudge, this rich little item was another winner and is actually featured in Food and Wine Magazine’s recipe section. Clearly using a high quality cocoa and a plethora of fresh nuts I will definitely be incorporating this into my arsenal of “quick dishes that impress friends and neighbors” in the near future – like Keller’s Bouchons this is a dish that is vastly more impressive than one would expect from the simple recipe.

Hopping on the train and making my way up to Harlem I thought back on Payard and was still sort of annoyed by the service issues – not “aloof” like the one in Vegas, but actually rude and arrogant. So it goes, I thought. Off the train and onto the M-60 I went – almost as hilariously “out-of-this-world-compared-to-Ohio” as the 4 train to the Bronx during a Yankees game, I have to admit I liked it more than my supershuttle experience and would definitely do it again. Making great time I arrived at LaGuardia almost 3 hours before my plane was to take off.

Wandering the small airport both inside and out I was unfortunately stuck in a boring terminal without much to shop, browse, or see. After calling a few friends and family (and having my flight delayed 30 minutes due to a “luggage latch”) I was seated near the window waiting and decided to try some more of my delicacies – this time the powdered sugar citrus brioche. Pulling apart with ease and similar to the pistachio citrus version I’d had at Yountville Bouchon Bakery in February, I actually found Payard’s to be superior (though not as good as the maple bacon brioche at Bouchon NY.) Buttery and clean, dissolving on the tongue with hints of both lemon and orange – a great piece of bread that would pair well with tea, but likely not coffee.

Taking home three macarons for my mom (noted to be quite inferior to the others from my trip, per mom, but still “better than anything we have in Toledo”) I figured I’d end my New York food extravaganza while still in New York and I opened up the box containing my final Payard selection - Saint Honore with egg bavarois and whipped cream filling. A buttery pate a choux biscuit topped with three small balls of pate a choux and loaded with fresh whipping cream plus bits of crunchy chocolate and caramel I first wondered where the Bavarian cream was – until I took a bite. Ostensibly using the choux balls as decoration, the three buttery bits were actually used to house the eggy bavarois which was buried beneath the whipped cream – a taste that when sampled as a whole actually resembled the texture and flavor of a creamy vanilla ice-cream, but warm – in many ways a warm and portable profiterole with more nuance and texture. Brilliantly done and quite sweet I finished the pastry approximately 10 minutes before boarding my flight (aka, about 15 minutes before I fell asleep) and awoke just under 2 hours later back home – a great way to finish a great trip, thought I do regret that eating the pastries in the airport is more pleasant than being in the restaurant itself.

The Modern Dining Room, New York NY

I love art – even above restaurants (and only second to hockey games) it is the reason I travel – with that in mind, New York is always a popular destination for myself simply for the raw number of museums, galleries, and outdoor exhibitions. Experiencing myriad works over the course of my trip I really could think of no better way to end my fine dining trip than with a visit that mixed two of my favorite things – food and art. Mix in the fact that Gabriel Kreuther had recently won the Beard Award for best Chef in NYC and the fact that The Modern is operated by Danny Meyer – seemed like a can’t miss. A little history but without getting into too much detail - after the untimely death of my father last year my remaining family took a trip to NYC and dined at both EMP and Gramercy Tavern. While EMP was great, GT was truly spectacular and a great memory for our family - filling out the comment card to this effect (I make it a point to fill out all comment cards when offered) I simply left it with the paid bill. On return to home there was an e-mail waiting from the desk of Mr. Meyer himself telling me he was touched by the comments, thanking us for the visit, and stating he was glad his restaurant could be such a great memory – world class and still respected and appreciated to this day.

All the above noted, I went into The Modern with great expectations for a wonderful meal – having typically called ahead to schedule reservations I arrived on time after walking up from Ground Zero and was greeted by the friendly staff who took my bags (yes, quite a hike with a briefcase and 3 days traveling supplies) before being led to my seat in the main dining room. Impressed by the beautiful décor which lightly treaded the line between “Modern” and “Classy” I was led through the jam packed bar to the full dining room and given a seat as requested, with full view of the room as well as the sculpture garden. With sunlight pouring through the windows and a light “hum” to the room from the combination of a full dining room and full bar room the setting was classy without being “formal” and the noise was “energetic” without being loud. Interestingly as I sat and browse the room I noted a lady to my left actively jotting in a large notebook, dissecting small aspects of the plates served to her, and asking very specific questions about the food – clearly a critic, though I’m uncertain as to what acclaim.

Moments after seating I was greeted by my captain and subsequently by multiple other members of the staff – from beginning to end, in traditional Meyer fashion, the service was cordial and polished, concerned and interactive, and I never had to want for anything from water to bread to descriptions of the dishes. Declining wine and browsing the menu I strongly considered the Prix Fixe of the day, but wanted to ask a question first – nearly sensing my question as I lifted my head my waiter appeared and inquiring whether items from the bar menu could be ordered in the dining room he stated “not normally, but we can bend the rules on occasion.” Asking if I could get one bar-menu item and two appetizers plus dessert I was told certainly and asking further questions about the tuna versus the risotto I remorsefully rejected my waiter’s advice to go with the “signature” tartare because the risotto simply sounded too good to pass up.

Waiting merely moments the bread man next appeared sporting a cool cube of butter on a glass pedestal and two bowls – fleur de sel and fresh cracked pepper, as well as two breads – an Olive Whole Wheat that was every bit as impressive as that at Gramercy Tavern (but not quite as wonderful as Le Bernardin) and a French Roll that sported plenty of butter taste without adding butter – but much more when adding some. With regard to the butter – a wonderfully grassy blend that my server told me was from Jersey cows.

Following the bread man shortly was “a gift from the kitchen” which I’d seen presented to multiple tables and was certainly intrigued by. Described as Cucumber Panna Cotta with Trout Roe and Salmon Crème, I can say for certain that this may be the most attractive amuse I’ve ever received and the flavors lived up to the appearance. Comparable to the cauliflower panna cotta at Al’ Angelo, the taste of fresh cucumber came through with great freshness in conjunction with the light custard while the trout eggs provided a salty ‘pop.” Lining the bottom of the champagne glass was a salmon cream that actually reminded me quite favorably of the flavor of Chef Ripert’s salmon spread at Le Bernardin.

Following my amuse my captain next returned with a big smile on his face and presented me with the signature Tartare of Yellowfin Tuna and Diver Scallops Seasoned with Yellowstone River Caviar stating “I asked the chef to prepare this specially on the house – you simply can’t miss this dish.” Thanking him profusely as this was #4 on my list of things to try even before entering, I was first struck by the portion size and the beauty of the dish – like the crab at J-G it simply glistened and the combination of colors was a sight to behold. Taking my first bite I could instantly see why this was a signature and was even more grateful. Sashimi quality tuna with a minimally firm texture contrasted beautifully with the nearly-raw scallops and their buttery-smoothness and both nearly melted in the mouth. Enhanced further with the salty pop of the diffusely spread caviar and basil the overall mouth sensation was briny yet refined, smooth yet textural, and absolutely wonderful.

Having already been in the restaurant for nearly 45 minutes and eating 3 pieces of bread, a sizable amuse, and one dish with three yet to come I was next presented with my special request from the bar - Slow Poached Farm Egg “In a Jar” with Maine lobster, hearts of palm and sea urchin broth. Admittedly a seeker of wonderful egg dishes I fully expected to be entranced by this dish and I was not disappointed – it was amongst the best I’ve ever experienced. Served hot in a locking jar, the lid was released tableside and immediately the aroma of the sea filled my nostrils. Foaming yolk and a aromatic broth with the very air of sea urchin and mild texture from finely pureed uni tongues was only the background to a soft yet well-poached egg, a hefty helping of fresh (and incredibly sweet) lobster, and snappy hearts of palm with a somewhat ‘peach-like’ flavor. On a trip that contained myriad great tastes, I do believe this may be the savory I will remember most fondly (along with Alto’s Foie and Ssam’s Chicken.)

My following dish, naturally, was the foie offering of the day - Spiced Foie Gras Terrine with Quince Gelée and Fresh Walnuts. A fan of terrine over seared I was quite excited when I saw this on the menu and along with the egg it was a clear must order. Delivered along with a toasted cinnamon wheat bread and the tender and chilled foie was actually wrapped in salty duck prosciutto and accompanied with three small walnuts, quince gelee, and thinly sliced daikon that I do believe was pickled. Overall the texture was quite nice – much firmer and less spreadable than the version at Alto or TFL but more akin to that at Aqua, the texture worked well with the toasted bread. While I’m never one to complain about a large piece of Foie and the dish was largely excellent, I must admit that the accoutrements were somewhat too small for the liver – there wasn’t enough to go around and experiment with different tastes, textures, and combinations. Salty, sweet, savory, and substantial - certainly a great presentation, a second serving of the toasted bread was requested and delivered (along with a few more walnuts) to finish the dish off.

My final dish, the one I selected over the tuna/scallop tartare was entitled Rock Shrimp Risotto with Wild Ramps, Fine Herbs and Hijiki. Once again treading the line between sublime French and Eastern influences, yet this time with the focus surrounding a perfectly prepared and toothsome Risotto, this dish may have been the most complex of the day and yet equally refined. Tender and succulent rock shrimp aplenty, sweet yet pungent ramps, hints of thyme and saffron, and a totally new taste to myself – the wonderfully aromatic and briny Hijiki seaweed primed the broth which was then topped with a generous helping of savory and milky goats cheese. A mélange of textures, tastes, spices, and temperatures – after four dishes I was full but still wished I’d have gone with the tasting as everything was just so superb.

Full but certainly not skipping dessert after such an awe-inspiring meal I decided to linger for a bit, take in the room, and drink a cup of coffee before ordering. Served as an individual French press (and refilled for free before I left – something I did not expect) I honestly forgot to write down the blend though I will note it was incredibly complex with strong floral accents and an almost honey-like flavor that lingered after each sip. Served with the coffee was artificial sweetener, three types of sugar, and a boiling hot frothed milk – a very sleek and sexy presentation warranted by the high quality beans.

Given the quality of the meal and the strong tastes and textures I decided to go with something fruit based instead of chocolate – having already seen the mignardises I knew I’d be treated to chocolates anyhow. Asking the captain if pastry chef Aumont had a signature I was met with a strong recommendation including “best in the world” and went with it. Ten minutes later I was met with Baba Grand Marnier, Roasted Mango, Vanilla Ice Cream and Lime Sabayon. Having had a Baba Au Rum only twice in the past I really can’t say if this is the best in the world – but it is certainly the best version I’ve tasted (better than Ducasse’s classic Monte Carlo version.) Buttery and almost cotton-candy light, the cake itself was almost impossibly smooth – I can hardly believe it didn’t dissolve in the broth. Adding texture to the dish were three slices of Grand Marnier Roasted Mangos, flawless and as if kissed by honey and alcohol. Completing the dish, a creamy and warm lime sabayon that had the texture of the head of a beer and a smooth and succulent vanilla ice-cream that slowly melted into the Sabayon. Once again flirting with different tastes, textures, and temperatures – a wonderful way to finish a wonderful meal.

Completing the meal, more treats, this time from Aumont who I later learned had helped to establish Bouley bakery – first in the form of mignardises and then chocolates in a porcelain box. Starting with the mignardises - Spice Gelee, Raspberry Chips, Green Tea Cake, Coconut Covered Cherries – each was delicious yet completely different with the gelee tasting very similar to a sugary version of Jean-Georges amuse soup, the cake tasting like the very essence of matcha, and the flash fried coconut cherries a revelation – they should be sold nationwide. Amongst the chocolates - Lemon, Cinnamon, Coffee, Chocolate Gnache, Salted Caramel – each was excellent with the Cinnamon truly standing out with its milk chocolate matched with a maple/cinnamon interior and the Chocolate Gnache likely 99% cocoa on the outside with perhaps an 80% smooth gnache inside.

Completely full and overwhelmingly happy with every aspect of the meal I paid my bill and thanked my server for a wonderful experience. Presented with a comment card I once again filled this out with great thanks to Chef Kreuther, Mr. Meyer, and the whole staff. Dining alone under happy circumstances or dining as a group under less favorable conditions I have to say that the experiences at each of Mr. Meyer’s restaurants has been phenomenal but the food at The Modern was definitively the best “all around.” Innovative, exploratory, trend-bending, and expertly prepared – best Chef indeed and of all the restaurants I visited in NYC on the trip the one I’d most readily take my friends and family back to on a future visit.

Bouley Bakery, Sugar Sweet Sunshine, New York NY

Getting up on my last day in New York was a bit of a hassle as my friend had a doctor’s appointment and as such I had to go to the train station in New Hyde Park even earlier than usual – knowing I’d get to Manhattan well before anything interesting opened I browsed my map and realized I’d actually never seen ground zero or Wall Street in my previous trips, thus setting my morning agenda. Hopping on the train to Penn I browsed my map to figure out the most logical subway transfer and subsequently made my way south. Hopping off the train at Chambers around 7:00am I browsed the lower Tribeca area for a bit before turning north and heading to breakfast.

Walking up to Bouley Bakery I actually almost missed it – largely unadorned I waltzed right past the white building until I came up to the open seating area where one large table hosted a group of ladies and another where a man sat reading the paper - looking back I realized I’d walked right past a window full of breads and pastries. Turning around and making my way to the door I walked in to a strange smell – bread and gravy and chicken (I actually had no idea they served lunch foods at the Bakery.)

Once I got past the smell – certainly not bad – I browsed the collection of foods and was actually quite impressed that the warm bar had so many unique options – seemed like a great place for a quick lunch for anyone working in the Tribeca area. Moving on to more important things, aka the breakfast pastries, I was amazed by the raw number of choices considering they’d just opened and the fact that even more were coming out of the bakery as I browsed. Croissants, Viennoiserie, pastries, breads – everything looked excellent. Selecting 3 Macarons for my mother plus three items for myself the young man behind the counter packed everything up nicely and handed me the package to take up front – trusting to say the least the cashier simply asked myself and each subsequent customer what they purchased – haven’t seen that in a while.

Making my way to the seating area next door I pulled up to a small paper-lined table and examined the drab looking chairs and booths despite the well-lit and attractive room, rustic yet appealing and well complimented by the sunlight and fresh air streaming in – reminded me of eating at a small café on my only trip overseas many years ago. Starting first with the Almond Croissant (a good “standard” item I select at most French bakeries to gauge quality) I was impressed by the crispy exterior, soft pull-apart interior, and overall butteriness but underwhelmed by the almond flavor and use of minimal almonds to top the item. Not bad, but certainly not as impressive as the versions at Payard, La Boulange, or Bouchon.

Moving on next to the Ispahan, described as “Two Rose Macarons with Rose Buttercream, Fresh Raspberries and Lychee. A generous portion featuring two of the largest Macarons I’ve ever seen (probably 1/2 inch larger than those at Bouchon or La Maison) I first tasted the cookie – a good crack to the shell but a center that was too gummy – likely related to the size – and a great flavor with hints of fruit and top-notes of flower. Next tasting the cookie as a whole – excellent. Very fresh berries contrasted very well in their tartness to the extremely sweet buttercream and the dish was further enhanced by the sour lychee whose slick texture contrasted nicely with the creamy buttercream. While not the best Macaron on earth, the overall effect of the cookie was largely inconsequential when viewed in the context of the dish as a whole – and Bouley doesn’t sell large Macarons outside of the Ispahan anyhow.

My final selection, the Neopolitain with Golden Raisin and Pastry Cream, was another excellent choice and much more akin to Payard’s Almond Croissant than the actual croissant was in that it was filled (like Payard and Bouchon’s croissants are.) Crispy and flaky, buttery and well portioned the exterior crack gave way to a smooth center with a dense cream absolutely loaded with what I can only guess were rum-soaked raisins. The heaviest option of the three and the best, in my opinion.

Sitting in the sun a bit longer and browsing my map I was glad I’d made my way to Bouley, despite the naysayers, and will likely make a trip back to his restaurant on a future visit. A relentless perfectionist who really hasn’t strayed from New York aside from closing his restaurant after 9/11 (and using that time to help feed workers at Ground Zero) my first experience was good enough to give me reason to invest in the real-deal next time around. Although I didn’t taste the smaller Macarons, my mother did note she liked them moreso than Payard, albeit less than Bouchon or La Maison.

After a long walk down and around the financial district, around the immense ongoing construction at ground zero, through a couple churches and a few stores, plus a stop into La Maison du Chocolate on Wall Street – where I bought my mother a box of Macarons and my aunt some chocolates (and sampled a dark chocolate covered prune and candied honeycomb that were superb) I next turned North with plans to walk back up The Bowery toward midtown. Not full and with lunch reservations at 1:30pm I decided to swing by the LES and check out Shopsin’s or Clinton Street – unfortunately even on a Wednesday at 10:15 Clinton Street told me it’d be a 20 minute wait and Shopsin’s…I don’t know, the ‘vibe’ of the place just puts me off – I don’t like waiters/cooks glaring at me while I eat. Considering making my way back to Milk Bar for a slice of Crack Pie or some cookies I realized I’d missed out on Sugar Sweet Sunshine on my day one LES-crawl and decided to check it out.

Making my way up to SSS I noted the dingy appearance – it actually looked more beaten up than Babycakes. Walking through the door I next noted the number of employees – seriously, at least 7 people stood behind the counter and (no surprise) I was greeted almost instantaneously by two – both females asking how they could help me. Still at least 10 feet from the case I told them to give me a second so I could browse. After about 2-3 minutes of assessing the options and being amazed by the bargain basement prices ($1.50 compared to Bouchon’s $4.50) I decided to select three. Packaged in a plain box and sealed with a sticker I paid and made my way to the street to eat.

Like the store, the cupcakes certainly didn’t present much eye candy – small cakes with paper wrappers and frosting that looked slapped on with a spatula. Starting with the Pistachio – the most ‘unique’ option on the list, I took a bite. Good frosting to cake ratio, admittedly, but otherwise – it really didn’t taste like pistachio. Actually, it really didn’t taste like much of anything aside from a Betty Crocker white cake with some gritty white frosting (questionably Crisco based) and covered with a bit of crumbled nuts.

Moving next to the “sexy” Red Velvet, I hoped for better and thankfully did get better – slightly. A bit more moist than the previous cake and once again with good ingredient ratio, the cake held up relatively well to my bite and had mild hints of cocoa. That noted, once again the overly sweet frosting was too gritty for my liking and my honest first thought on swallowing was “I make better cupcakes than this – and they’re cheaper.” Hoping my next cupcake would be better I set aside the other 2 bites of “sexy” for the time being (and did actually end up discarding this with the box when done – marking the first time I’ve ever thrown out a cupcake.)

The second red velvet, called “sassy” featured the same decent red velvet batter with ”chocolate almond buttercream.” Taking a bite I will admit the mouth feel of this frosting was vastly superior to the white Crisco with sugar feel of the others, but “almond” I did not get. Rich and chocolatey I actually liked this cupcake for the price, but wouldn’t put it in the same remote category as those at Two Little Red Hens, Bouchon, Magnolia, Amy’s, or Babycakes. The only cupcakes they may top in the New York Area are Eleni’s and that is based on price and customer service moreso than actual quality – which is similar.

Reading over the SSS website it appears the owners of the shop got their idea from a Betty Crocker cookbook and don’t claim to be pastry chefs – that is a good thing, because they most certainly are not – and as a matter of fact I’d not be shocked if they were still cooking from that cookbook and picking up boxed mix to do it. If you’re in the LES and craving a cupcake, in my opinion, spend the extra and go to Babycakes for something that, albeit pricey, actually tastes good and may actually not be THAT bad for you – otherwise, head north – I’d rather drop $4 on a roundtrip subway fare to spend more at Two Little Red Hens or Bouchon than go back to SSS.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Alto, New York NY

Having already tasted a lot of great pastries, French, “Fusion,” and Italian cuisine on my recent trips I decided to do something a little different – Greek. Having never been impressed with the limited experiences in the past and hearing good things about Anthos I made reservations – reservations I walked out on when they attempted to force wine, bain-and-switched the entire menu, failed to give me silverware, sat me in the restroom (essentially,) and then had the nerve to call Opentable and suggest I cancelled my reservations so I could not leave feedback (Anthos has yet to respond to any e-mail communication regarding this experience.)

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.