A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Jul. 28.

Alto and Polenta

Pasta and Beef Duo

Cheeses and Marquesa

Dinner -

Alto - 520 Madison Ave., Midtown East
Candied watermelon with goat cheese and arugala salad (amuse); Polenta Integrale - chanterelle mushrooms, white asparagus, braised lumache and preserved truffles (Appetizer); Potato-Spinach "Strangolapreti" - ricotta and potato gnocchi with rabbit "in civet," shaved parmigiano (Pasta); Beef Duo - braised cheek and slow roasted sirloin, cherry tomatoes, smoked eggplant puree and summer squash (Entree); Brunet - goat's milk cheese from Piedmont with crystallized rosemary, apple and pinenuts; Hoch Ybrig - cow's milk cheese from Hoch Ybrig with caraway and shallot marmelata with microfennel salad (Cheese); Marquesa di Cioccolato - roasted figs, candied fennel and zabaglione (Dessert); mignardises; half a bottle of Ghemme Cantalupo 1999; Jasmine Dragon Pearl tea

Some restaurants are born stars. Others take time to develop their shine. Alto, as my recent dinner there suggested, was a little of both.

For starters, I found the décor of the northern Italian restaurant beautiful. It’s all the extravagance and opulence you’d expect of a Madison Avenue address, but it also manages to feel classy and understated. Serene and relaxing, it feels like a four-star setting, even if some of the other arenas fall slightly less loftily.

Service, for example, was erratic, with occasionally glaring mistakes. The strangest encounter was with the sommelier, who reminded me of Lisa Kudrow. I explained the dishes Vince and I were having, and indicated I’d be more interested in a bottle of red. “A light-bodied red would go really well with your courses,” she agreed. I asked her for a few recommendations and puzzlingly watched her turn to the whites section. She pointed out one after another, alternately describing them as oaky, light or supple. “Didn’t you say a red would pair well with the food?” I double-checked. She agreed again, and started flipping further to the back. I thought the problem had been resolved, but for some reason, she showed me three more whites. Even more interestingly, all of her choices were over seventy and many were between one hundred and two hundred. I thanked her and just picked a red that was a better fit for our price range.

Other mistakes included our waiter showing Vince the bottle of Ghemme and giving him the inaugural taste even when I clearly ordered it, and perhaps a snideness in his correcting my pronunciation of Hoch Ybrig. But otherwise, service was top-notch, with a staff member always on hand at the end of a course, and a very friendly waitress who later took over our table.

As for the food, it was mostly excellent, but also not without its problems. Scott Conant, the chef here and the respected L’impero in Tudor City, did a good job with selecting his menu, because there were a lot of tempting options. Focusing on the Alto Adige region of Italy, which borders on Germany, Conant brings the diner to a largely untapped component of Italian dining. There are Germanic influences and an haute French approach to the cooking, bringing fusion a whole new meaning.

Forgoing the tasting menu, we opted for the $72 prix-fixe, which comes with a choice of appetizer, pasta, entrée and dessert. I started with a polenta that featured chanterelles, asparagus, lumache (a kind of snail) and truffles. The polenta itself was wonderful, nearly as lavishly creamy as churned butter. All the ingredients in the dish were also impressively prepared, but at points, I felt like too many flavors were competing for my attention. A simpler preparation could have highlighted the key flavors better.

The next course, the pasta, was by far my favorite. It had been so far deconstructed and refined that it resembled a traditional pasta about as much as a bowl of cereal. Capped with slices of shaved parmesan, the ricotta and potato gnocchi surrounded slivers of rabbit in the center. A finely chopped “salad” of vegetables swirled through the course. It was Keller-esque (see Jun. 4) in its playfulness, and nearly as delicious.

My next course was all about red meat. It capitalized on a current trend of presenting the variations of the same ingredient in the same dish. Here, it was roasted sirloin and braised beef cheeks. It was another great course that displayed a healthy dose of creativity. My one complaint is that the beef cheek seemed boring beside the more dynamic sirloin. Even the smoked eggplant puree wasn’t able to enliven the staid cheeks.

We added a cheese course in between the entrée and the dessert, and selected the Brunet and the aforementioned Hoch Ybrig. The former came with rosemary, apple and pinenuts, while the latter had a microfennel salad and a caraway and shallot marmalade. Both the Brunet, a goat’s milk from Piedmont, and the Hoch Ybrig, a Swiss cow’s milk, were good, but they were overpriced at $12 for two cheeses.

My final course was the chocolate marquesa, which the waiter explained was similar to a mousse. It was a solid dessert, with its thoughtful complements of figs, fennel and zabaglione, but ultimately forgettable. Our mignardises were more enjoyable.

By the meal’s conclusion, Alto seemed to be both a slight disappointment and a restaurant to watch. My dinner there ended up feeling more like a seesaw than a star, with its frustrating vault between heady highs and off-putting lows. I have no doubt that Alto can join the galaxy of New York’s greats in time. For now, it has to polish its shine a little further. 6/10


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