I guess if I always agreed with the critic at the paper of record there would never be a reason for me to do my own writing on food and restaurants. To be honest, I often agree with Frank Bruni and appreciate most of what he says. I have defended him when my friends accuse him of making two stars the new one. I especially like when he compares one restaurant to another, mostly because he seems to appreciate innovation and effort more than design and location. That being said, as far as Alto goes, Frank Bruni calling Alto “very good” makes him a boob.
Alto is Scott Conant's restaurant at 53rd and Madison, to which Count Bruni gave two stars (very good) in July of '05. It has a pleasing design with continuous lines in chrome, grays, frosted glass and wood, and high-backed red chairs. It seems to fit nicely and make the most of a space that a realtor would have been just as happy to rent to a Manolo Blahnik store, had Scott not set up shop. With no outside walls for windows, the dining room is wrapped in a glass space that has been filled with wine bottles and bathed in a blue light. Altogether, it has an upscale, urban aesthetic without feeling over-done or crowded.
The restaurant was about twenty minutes late seating us which, although bordering on bad form, was well managed by the hostess, who kept us informed on the progress of the previous guests' leaving and our table being reset. In general, the service was fantastic. The stand out was the sommelier, Eric, who had a very confident, informed, and unobtrusive manner, as did the rest of the folks involved in taking care of us.
For wine, we knew we wanted to start with a white big enough and interesting enough to act as a cocktail, but refined and food-friendly enough to take us through at least the first course. After a cursory glance at the list, Eric made his first appearance and I explained what we wanted and suggested maybe a Vernaccia di San Gimignano or some other white that had been left in concrete or big old boites or something like that. Eric explained he still had a bottle of Montenidoli Vernaccia di San Gimignano, although it had recently been removed from the list, and he would be happy to grab it for us. Made in the Fiore style (meaning free-run juice rather than Tradizionale, which involves extensive maceration on the skins) this wine had firm structure, but was light enough to go with all our appetizer choices.
We followed this with a '97 Soldera, "Case Basse" Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, after a stutter stab at an '82 Gaja barbaresco (which we'd ordered based on its value, rather than its age and power, then quickly realized this would cause problems if we added another bottle later). In the end, we decided to trust Eric and he suggested the Soldera. This is a great wine, all the fun cherry juice and soft tannins that a great medium-bodied food-friendly Italian wine from Montalcino should be. It is so good, in fact, that it makes money spent in the rest of Montalcino seem a bit of a waste. Never a bad choice, this was the perfect wine to take us from pasta to entrees. Maybe a bad selection on Eric's part in that we were so happy with it we drank it slowly, and didn't order another bottle until dessert.
Before going to Alto, I discussed with Helmet whether there was anything there that should not be missed and he responded the Solaria Jonica. Solaria Jonica is a very cool wine with a very cool story behind it, a story I can tell you because Eric put a print-out of its publicity in the envelope with the wine labels he had removed for me. To paraphrase, 1959 was a ridiculously hot year in Italy and Antonio Ferrari, a wine maker from Piemonte, saw it as his opportunity to fulfill one of his ambitions to make a wine from the Primitivo grapes of Puglia. His plan was to make a hugely alcoholic 21% wine, however a sudden drop in temperature in the hills that year arrested its development at 14% with large amounts of residual sugar. Still seeing great future for the wine, he put it on Slovenian oak for ten years and then into concrete tanks. Two years after Antonio's death, his daughter bottled it and sold it (a total of 45 years later). This is a once in a lifetime wine and has a raisiny finish that may make it another forty-five years. It is dried fruits, coffee, chocolate, and dried plums.
The wine list as a whole has some real value on it at the upper end, a great collection of great wines, from great vintages. The wine alone is a good reason to go to Alto, then there is the food.
Appetizers are what got us there. Last time we needed a midtown restaurant I chose The Modern and, after what a let down that was, my right to even suggest was taken away. Urchin picked Alto. She had been to the bar before and had three appetizers, with that as a base, she felt confident it was the right place to go. So when Bubby, Trombone, Urchin, and myself sat, it was she who was hanging out for ridicule if we were let down again, especially if we didn't love the first round. Everything was shared; here is how it went:
Augie: Sliced Raw Diver Scallops olive oil, flaked sea salt, and manilla clam salad. A very large scallop, sliced horizontally, topped with the olive oil (which was grassy) playing off the protein richness of the scallop. The clams brought the flavor of the sea, and a mix of micro greens addied contrasts to the package.
Urchin: Bluefin Tuna Carpaccio baby greens and preserved truffles. If this dish was not superb it was only not so in that so many people in New York are doing a version of it and it is simply very good.
Bubby: Seared Foie Gras creamy polenta, pears, pistachio and pear cider reduction. Rather than contrasting the richness of the seared foie with something cloyingly sweet, this played up the richness with the polenta and pistachios and then drew it out with the vinegar and crisp sugars of the pear. A fantastic preparation.
Trombone: Roasted Baby Beets La Tur Goat Cheese, endive salad and a banyuls vinaigrette. This one I didn't catch a taste of but it was very pretty.
Me & Urchin Braised Snail and Black Truffle Ravioli Chanterelle mushrooms and Parmigiano. I've really only had snails either in garlic butter or en croute. These had a great bite in the middle of the pasta envelope. They tasted rich and, when a piece of the chanterelle was put on the fork with one, it ended up with a very pleasing earthy richness.
Trombone & Bubby: Veal and Fontina Agnolotti organic carrots, baby mushrooms and Parmigiano emulsion. The dumpling was really more about the meat than anything else. It was nicely focused on the flavor of the veal with everything else coming together to draw out its richness.
Trombone: Olive Oil Poached Pacific Yellow Tail Black barley-greens onion broth and gremolata. Trombone wasn't very hungry, so the rest of us selected and ate this for him. All the other ingredients were well represented but the revelation of this dish was the confirmation of how perfect slow-poaching is for steak fish. The flesh tightens, but none of the volatile oils are released. It maintains the flavors of the fish while still benefiting from the bite of tighter flesh.
Bubby: Roasted Breast of Squab semolina gnocci, winter squash and truffle reduction. This was the huge winner of the round. It was juicy and flavorful, with a perfect texture. I assume it was done sous-vide, but that went unmentioned. It was so good Bubby was bad about sharing it, but the two bites I had were great.
Me & Urchin: Slow Cooked Four Story Hill Rib Eye for Two braised short rib, preserved truffles, shaved Parmigiano and broccoli rabe. Not mentioned is a cranberry bean side that was served table-side when the beef came back sliced after presentation. Not often, but occasionally, I will try a steak outside a steak house. If it always went like this I would do it more often. The rib-eye was great meat -- juicy, tender and deeply flavorful -- and enjoyed additions no steak house could make. After it had been sliced off the bone, some pepper and shaved Parmigiano were put on top. The sides were unique -- the rabe a little bitter and a little crispy proving a good foil for the steak's richness, while the beans added a nice texture that potatoes wouldn't have.
Although dessert was mostly about the Solaria Jonica, Urchin and I did order two plates, which showed all the cheeses. Each cheese had a unique accoutrement and the parings were all excellently executed and would have been perfect with the cheese had it been eaten alone, but did not work as well in the scheme of our overall wine-drinking. Bubby had black truffle ice cream served with caramel that was fantastic. Trombone had Tiramisu and our front waiter also added a chocolate mille feuilles that tasted like devil dogs would taste if talented people made them.
The food French people eat every day is not like the food fine French restaurants sell. Seriously fine French restaurants sell food rooted in French tradition that has been taken to a new place, for lack of a better term. This is exactly what Scott is doing with Italian food at Alto. All these dishes are clearly grounded in Italian tradition but he has taken foods of the north (on which the menu concentrates) and applied his expert hand. The food is truly great and the restaurant takes it's place among other worldwide greats whose cuisines are first and foremost defined as "fine" but nevertheless remain rooted in their places of origin.
To begrudge Alto its break from tradition is to insist that Italian food must remain the humble, authentic cuisine mothers make their families. Although wonderful when prepared by expert chefs, it is not haute. New Yorkers and Bruni alike insist they are ready to welcome a chef making extraordinary Italian food. The good news is, based on the level of business I witnessed at Alto the other night, the New Yorkers were telling the truth.