This restaurant is closed!
11 East 53rd St
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 308-1099
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Chef: Michael White
Area: East 50s
Entree Price: >$30
Payment: Amex Visa Mastercard
Italian food has never really been one for frilly garnishes or the fussy preciousness of haute cuisine. Rather, it is food that speaks to your gut, to your innermost hunger, to deep hollow pangs that can only be sated by steaming bowls of Bolognese, and dishes ending in ragu. Its hallmark has always been simplicity, and its masters (take Lidia Bastianich for instance) often set themselves apart by offering dishes born of the old country, perfectly prepared with an eye to the best ingredients and the most technically correct technique. Even the Italian restaurants around town that elevate the cuisine—Babbo, Felidia, and San Domenico come immediately to mind—leave the rusticity and the hominess of the cuisine in tact. Indeed, L’Impero followed this track in some ways as well—serving a spaghetti and tomato sauce that was as simple and as perfect as the orange glow of a sun setting beyond a white sandy beach, and a moist-roasted capretto (goat)—the braised lamb shank of Italy.
But Alto, the second restaurant from L’Impero’s team—chef Scott Conant and partners Chris Cannon, Jane Epstein and Vicente Wolf—strays from this formula. It leaves the safety of rustic Italian food behind and instead, reaches higher—both in terms of cuisine and geography—to Alto Adige, the mountainous North of Italy bordering France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia—than any Italian restaurant the city has known.
The experience is vaulted in every sense.
Take the wine list for instance, which boasts over 750 bottles. (Eric from Veritas is here. There is an impressive Petrus collection, including a 1990 ($3000) and a 1947 ($7500). Then have a look at the room—a tall, clean and lean space with the same modern design elements as L’Impero—soft blue and brown tones, pillared candles, plush banquettes, amazingly comfortable high-backed armchairs. But Alto is more intimate than L’Impero. It is smaller, and windowless, encased in a wall of wine that shuts out the universe beyond Alto and leaves you in a sort of time warp, unaware of the world outside. Not such a bad thing, but the dining room is eerily quiet—management does not believe this food needs a soundtrack—and without music of any sort, the place can feel a bit too sedate and a little too grown up, and overly serious. Then again, management has a point. Why have music competing with Conant’s orchestral cuisine? Indeed, at Alto, it is the food that truly reaches the greatest heights—spontaneous levitation may occur while eating here. Fasten your seatbelts.
I had dinner at Alto about a week ago, and like a play that is expertly acted, exquisitely directed and brilliantly written with layers of nuance, intricate plot twists, and tiers of beautiful complexity, I am still digesting it.
As at L’Impero, dinner at Alto is a prixe fixe ($72) experience, which forces diners (life is so hard) to sample several life-altering assiginos (say Assa-GEENO)—Italian for amuse bouche—followed by an appetizer, pasta, entrée, and dessert. The world should always be this difficult. Being the gluttons that we are, Susie and I skipped the prixe fixe option and instead had a 20-course tasting menu. (Hey, if you are going to do it, you might as well do it right.) Dinner started with a cascade of those assiginos—pearly slices of fluke dotted with flakes of sea salt, set in a fresh cucumber water that screamed summer, a fabulous codfish mousse (think flan made from baccalo) with a smudge of black olive puree, a quarter-sized round of monkfish liver poached with brandy and set in a zesty saline clam and scallion vinaigrette that cuts through the liver’s creamy richness.
We were already moaning in our seats (and since it was so quiet, everyone could hear us), when our first round of first courses arrived—a smoked goose liver carpaccio that may been the most thrilling dish I have had in eons. The gently smoked liver was flashed with bright notes from a shower of diced apples and pickled ramps. The effect was like a soft, warm cashmere wrap pinned with a dazzling vintage broche. We were doing cartwheels over the veal tongue roulade—miraculous! Just try it, quit thinking that it is a veal’s tongue—and floating through the air from the yellowfin tuna dressed with sea urchin and sea salt—a dish I slid off my bar stool for at Bar Tonno, Conant’s short-lived Italian crudo bar on Cleavland Place. Another Tonno relic that I was so thrilled to see that I almost sprinted across the dining room to get at it was the sepia “cappuccino” in squid ink with potato and mussels. This was the starter that used to come in the small beaker at Bar Tonno. Do you remember it? Anyway, it’s just as good at Also it was at Tonno—a rich inky stock, steeped in the flavors of the sea, bobbing with diced potatoes and sweet, plump mussels. Paced in perfect time, several other courses arrived—the frog’s leg fricassee in zuppe de vino (such tender, sweet meat on those jumpers), and a brilliant house-smoked Tasmanian sea trout with horseradish froth and chickpea blinis that may cause Jewish grandmothers to turn to Jewish grandfathers and say something like, “Herb, this is some good appetizing, but what’s with this pancake? Where’s the bagel and a schmear?”
Then came the pastas. Insert aria here. These pastas are so deliriously good that I am quite certain I will not be able to find words to do them justice. But I will try. Plin—tiny pinched pillows the size of diamonds in the rough are filled up with a melting fonduta of veal, pork, and chicken with fontina cheese and set in a broth of spring onions finished with fresh black summer truffles from Umbria. Wow. House made Tajarin, a Piemontese flat pasta, is drawn with Japanese spot prawns, mussels, and a briny whiff of cold ocean waters from a ricci de mare froth made from sea urchin and zucchini stock. Then came the creamy buffalo milk ricotta filled raviolini, and a bowl of potato and spinach strangolapreti—“priest stranglers”—light as air buttons (careful though, eat them too fast and you might get strangled) tossed with the most smashing red-wine braised rabbit loin.
As luck would have it, we are not yet through. Main courses take you from a state called bliss to land named euphoria. Bring it baby! Seared pike, a rarely menued fish, makes an appearance here with crispy twists of lemon spaetzle (a nod to neighboring Austria) and gaeta olive oil. A lovely Japanese sea bass—firm and sexy, with tight white flesh—grazes caramelized Brussels sprouts, Honshimeji mushrooms and a sweet cream of pureed sunchokes. The squab—slow roasted, with a crisped skin—is served on lentil stew flecked with fava beans, with polenta, leek and speck canerderli—polenta dumplings from Alto Adige. FORGET ASIA! I LOVE DUMPLINGS FROM ALTO ADIGE! But it was the last dish of the evening—the lamb shoulder and rack—that really got to us. The shoulder is braised until ridiculously tender in tucioleto vinegar (a barrel-aged red wine vinegar), and the rack is roasted to meltingly tender and just past pink. Susie was quite taken with it. “I want to sit in a bathtub of this braised lamb and slurp it up while drinking red wine through a straw,” she said, adding: “I’d like to be naked while doing it.” Guess she liked it. But she’s right. Like a sweet, sweaty romp, this is the sort of food that makes you crave a cigarette.
Since we do not smoke, instead we ate cheese—served in magnificent L’Impero form, paired up with matching condiments—fruit mostardas, chutneys, and the like—sort of like Garanimals de Fromage. Then we went onto desserts from Patti Jackson, a seriously talented pastry chef who most recently was chef at Le Madri but previously spent 18 years on the sweet side of things. She transitions diners gently from savory to sweet with ricotta and poppy seed knuedle—munchkins made from fresh fluffy ricotta rolled in poppy seeds, resting in a gloss of brown butter. And then, well, she lets it rip. There were crema fritta—fried cream dumplings—a common streetfood in Italy, with orange flower essense. (Can these become a common streetfood in New York too please?) A delicate rhubarb strudel was topped with roasted strawberries and vanilla custard, a sfortmata, traditionally a savory sort of soufflé, was fashioned stracchino (a cow’s milk cheese) served with red currant stuffed gnocchi, and a steamed Tyrolean (referencing the region) chocolate pudding. The pudding is a riff on the German dessert Mohr in Hemd, which I learned from Katy Sparks while writing our book (due out in January!), translates to Moor in a shirt. Traditionally, it is a lightly souffled chocolate and nut cake drenched in a dark chocolate sauce (the Moor) then topped with a fluffy cloud of whipped cream—the moor’s shirt. Patti’s version is a flourless chocolate disc, sort of like a hot and custardy chocolate pudding, with crème fraiche as the fluffy shirt. Gotta love those moors.
As we rolled out of Alto, with Susie muttering about a bathtub filled the lamb shanks, I felt drunk on life and completely in food love. And this is not just because the food is utterly dazzling, and not just because Conant is clearly growing more talented by moment, having started out as a cook at San Domenico, and then moved onto City Eatery and Chianti before hitting gold with L’Impero. It is because Alto is different. It shakes you up and makes you feel alive again as an eater. (And we eaters can get bored and lazy when we are assaulted by sameness.) It is Italian food that is stripped of its coziness. It is out there in another realm—naked in a way—taking a chance on a new approach to a very familiar genre. There is courage in this food, and more than courage, there is immense thought and talent. There is brilliance in the air at Alto. Take a deep breath. Be sure to inhale.
Review By: Andrea Strong