Bhodie and I were due for a meal with Kumatae. What we knew was he worked in midtown and liked Italian, so it seemed easy enough to choose Alto. While discussing the place and its chef/owner, Scott Conant, L’Impero (his other restaurant in Tudor City) came up, as it will. Kumatae explained he lived in Tudor city two doors from L’Impero and had never been.
Alto is a sleek cool room in a part of town where people work; L’Impero is a warm inviting room in a part of town where people live. Both serve Scott’s food, which is that of a modern chef with strong Italian roots (which is not to say modern Italian, think Keller and French) and the difference in distance was negligible to me so we decided to leave the decision for the day of as to which mood we were in. At noon it was snowing.
All I promised was that L’Impero would be a good restaurant for a guy from Tudor city who likes Italian food, on a snowy night. Then, while waiting at the bar we bumped into Chris Cannon, Scott’s partner on his way to some affair. This afforded he and I the time discuss a wine event we had both attended some four nights previously called La Paulée. La Paulée is not the kind of thing that can be described efficiently. Suffice it to say it is a glorious night of true hedonism, and exactly the type of thing you want fresh in the mind of management when their establishment is about to feed you. Chris offered to let the house plan our path, I requested they pair wines, and then this happened:
Marinated Pacific Yellowtail sea salt, olio di zenzero and red onion: spicy gingery oil, pink sea salt, and a tiny dice of red onion combined to offer piquant spikes drawing out the umame qualities in this pristine slice of fish. Yellowfin Tuna cucumber and ricci di mare emulsion: where the condiment of the yellowtail contrasted to draw richness from the fish, here cucumber combined with sea urchin and a rounder oil to play up the fish’s beef-by-way of the sea notes. A dead split between my compatriots for which was better.
Pairing: Petit Arvine 2005 Grosjean Freres "Vigne Rovette" Vallee d'Aosta as round as the fish was but with enough linear acidity to contrast the fish’s richness, aromatic like an Alsatian Riesling or Pinot Gris while remaining slightly more reserved.
Seared Sardine “Crostini” spicy beets, meyer lemon and grape salad: flavors I associate with soar, a fillet of sardine the skin crisped, on a pressed piece of toast with an agrodolce mix of sweet beets, sour lemons, aromatic vinegar, roasted pine nuts, and halved grapes; this was as light as the strong flavored fish oils of sardines can be and still be respected as sardines. The viscosity perceived in the fish’s flavor and texture were drawn out with heat, earthy sweetness, citric sour, the meatiness of the nuts, crispness of its own skin, and the light crunch of white toast.
Pairing: Manzanilla Amontillada Oloroso, "Almacenista 1/21 Jurado" Emilio Lustau definitely the pairing of the evening, an almost excruciatingly dry red sherry with balsam, pine, and walnut notes, it pulled meatiness from the pine nuts while otherwise being austere and tight enough for the components of the dish to bounce off of.
Crispy Sweetbreads Brussels Sprouts, salsify guanciale and potato puree: if only the six year old me could see this me loving thymus, mini cabbage, pork jowl, and salsify (I was always ok with whipped potatoes), I am not sure how he would react, but I am pretty sure all I would tell mini-me is “you will mature and you will see.” Various types of crunch: bits of sweetbread immersion fried till the outer layer crackled housing the rich sweet creaminess of this gland, crisp leaves of Brussels sprouts with their astringent, waxy greenness, crispy/chewy lardons of guanciale, and toothsome salsify, all playing off a smear of buttery smooth potatoes themselves contrasted by syrupy vinegar.
Pairing: Falanghina 2004 Cantine Farro "Cigliate" Campagna, crisp itself with precise enough acids to enrich the qualities of the meats but not draw the bitterness that can lie within them or the dish’s other components. Stone fruit aromas danced with the flavor that I would describe as fry.
Scallion Risotto balsamic glazed eel: I know the things that flavor the rice are what should be interesting here, but the striking sensations I remember from this are actually textures. Luxuriant creamy greenness surrounding individual rice kernels, each with a bite just short of crunch, topped with a lush fillet of eel that behaved as a base in combination with the notes of sweet and sour, with the slightest acerbic scorched touch in its glaze.
Pairing: Ribolla Gialla 2004 Antico Broilo Friuli light and fruity with melon notes, it flitted about right above this rich dish, dipping in to turn green melon with the rice and orange melon with the fish.
Roasted Striped Bass lobster, fregola and baby turnips and smoked bacon: I imagine cooked only on the skin side, a small fillet with crunchy skin and perfect flesh, with turnip’s bite and fregola’s chew dressed with a lobster foam. Yep foam and yep Italian; any other way of saucing would have lost this dish its lightness, and without the sauce it would not have had the gravity to play in the progression of courses. As it was served, it had the certain depth of flavor the rest of this meal displayed as well as the play in contrasting textures.
Pairing: Canaiolo 2000 Castello di Modanella Poggio 'Aiole Toscana: throughout this report the as yet unsung hero was our sommelier, James. Grooving on grapes and regions not necessarily untrodden but most certainly paths less traveled, he provided thoughtful evocative pairings, each well reasoned and explained. This meal could not have happened without these wines. Here, one of the traditionally constituent grapes of Chianti gets to play alone, with bright acidity and red fruit flavors suited to the beautiful layer of melted fat between skin and flesh on the fish, without tannin to mess up the higher notes of the lobster and herbs.
Duck and Foie Gras Agnolotti moscato passito di sardegna reduction & House-Made Spaghetti tomato and fresh basil: served together this is the ying and yang of pasta majesty. Both simple, one decadent, one zippy, both showing off the pasta over its dressing. The dish served each of us was the agnolotti which in its gamey richness is one of the best arguments for duck and all its parts as an ingredient I can think of. And then, as if to say the beauty of pasta is simplicity, the most simple of spaghetti “pomodoro” is refined to be what it always should be – a chewy noodle with a thin glaze of tomatoes’ essence with enough salt to coax its acidic zing and peppery basil notes making it seem even more simple.
Pairing: Recioto della Valpolicella Bertani "Valpantena" obviously chosen as hedonistic accompaniment for the duck, stewed autumnal fruits and spices came together as if prune juice and mulling spice had been reduced and trapped in a raisin, then stored in a cedar room. There were layers and layers of flavor and aroma always favoring the tarry over the sweet and constantly adding dimension to the opulent pillows of game.
Moist Roasted Vermont Capretto artichoke, speck and potato “groestle” here the chef has pulled out the ring mold and stacked toothsome bits of goat (at least three discernable cuts represented) studded with bits of smoky pork and the meat of artichoke hearts, on a potato cake. It is hard to separate this one from its wine except to say this would get someone that says they won’t to like goat.
Pairing: Barolo 1988 Bruno Giacosa "Villero" Piemonte at this moment in time in this bottle the flavors of this wine are pulling apart from each other, cedar, dripping cherry, sweet black tea tannins, tarragon, and so standing more alone than together and each note choosing the part of the dish it was best suited to. Glorious in its decay the combination was perfect.
Cheese: Robiola Bosnia with spicy marinated grapes, and Tillimook Burn with figs poached in chamomile and mustard seed syrup. I tend to prefer my cheese on a utensil with little accompaniment, however a couple of places have such exactly paired and perfect condiments that I must concede some things other than wine and forks can pair well. Both of these offered sweet and piquant foils in tune with the rich and funky notes of their cheeses.
Pairing: Primitivo 1959 Antonio Ferrari "Solaria Jonica" the story on this one is as good as the wine and almost as long as that of La Paulée. Find someone that knows it and have him tell it to you while you sip, but hurry because the wine will run out and then all we’ll have is the story.
Olive Oil Cake: dense, moist and nice but not getting me in the dessert camp.
Pairing: Grappa di Cammomila Marolo I don’t know why anyone would want to appreciate grappa, it’s a horrible habit that equally trades the power for blinding drunkenness with a somewhat medicinal relief from overeating, beating even Jagermeister for the most often repeated flavor memory the morning after. That being said, if you still want to develop an appreciation this is probably a wonderful jump-off point. The best grappas tend to have subtle flavors of woods and brambles that are not unlike tea; infusing this one with chamomile ends up working like training wheels for the nuances to be found.
When I first reported on Alto I enjoyed my meal as well as my anonymity immensely. I haven’t seen cause to update that opinion because that report brought me to the group’s attention and my opinion has not changed. I think Scott’s food is unique for its melding of Italian tradition and modern technique. Where some make their food the way Italians would here in New York, and others make Italian food the way French chefs would, Scott makes fine modern cuisine that is nothing but Italian.
Chris knows about Augieland, and he also knows that I don’t generally report on places that know I write a blog. Maybe he thought his place could blow me away so fully I couldn’t help but write, maybe he was just taking care of another enthusiastic diner he had recently shared a food and wine passion with at an over-the-top gala event. Whatever his inclination, this meal was flawless. Seldom have I experienced any cuisine at this level, especially Italian. Before dinner, Kumatae explained he didn’t like talking about food much except maybe while eating. The next day little else was discussed.