Sunday, February 11, 2007

I miss NYC!!!

Dean Kagan refers to Harvard as the "New York of law schools" so often that it's become something of a campus cliche. While HLS has been pretty great so far (caveat: I have not yet gotten any grades, so we'll see if I revise that opinion), my new town can't hold a candle to NYC food-wise. Cambridge has a couple of good restaurants (Rendezvous and Oleana are two faves), but in general the variety and quality leaves something seriously to be desired. So, when unhappy circumstances led to a last minute trip to New York yesterday, we decided, at the very least, to take culinary advantage. Korn is always game for a good meal (at least since he started having money to burn) and we convinced Chilton to come along with promises of red meat on the menu. Anyway, we finally got around to trying Scott Conant's Alto! Seeing him on the Top Chef finale* recently had reminded me that I wanted to try Alto, and it's been awhile since we've had really good Italian, so ended up there for a 9:15 reservation on Friday night.

Our table wasn't quite ready, so we clustered around the smallish bar, ordered cocktails and generally (apparently) made asses of ourselves. Adam got some slight variation on a Negroni, which was done in the classic style, singed orange peel and all. Andrew and I ordered the zenzero, which had white tequila, honey, ginger, and lime (I think?). Very delicious, but when the indecisive Chilton decided that he wanted one, the bartender told him that we'd gotten the last of his ginger. Since it was pretty obvious that Chilton was looking for an easy-drinking cocktail, the bartender offered to make a unseasonable cocktail that was currently off the menu. Gin, sugar, lemon, and lots and lots of fresh basil! The G&B Combination (or something like that) was fantastic! Apparently it's so popular that he keeps the ingredients around all year, because people will ask for it even when it's off the menu. Anyway, here we were--the guys all in suits since we came straight from the wake--making jokes about unsavory (i.e. potentially disease-ridden) ex of Chilton's current gf, and generally questioning whether it would be wise of us to share drinks w/ Chilton as a result, when the bartender asked how we all knew each other. After the moment of slightly sheepish silence that always accompanies this question, we said that we'd all been debaters. The bartender sort of chuckled as though this was what he'd expected...apparently he'd gone to Stuy years ago and had known the debate coach/team there. Here's to fulfilling stereotypes so many years after graduating from high school...oy.

Anyway, we're seated soon after, and quickly decide that the four course prix-fixe is the way to go. Andrew looked enthused over the tasting menu, but as all but one course had meat in it, Adam and I were not so keen on the idea. In the end, because we ordered two raw fish dishes and one cheese course a la carte, it was functionally a six course meal. So, finally, to the food...

The "Branzino Tartare: avocado, gremolata, and preserved lemon vinaigrette" was very good, nicely lemony, but the "Yellowfin Tuna "Susci": preserved truffles, baby watercress and sea salt" was amazing. The deep red tuna was rolled around the fillings, and it was so rich that it was practically meaty in its intensity. Even Chilton really liked it, and he doesn't generally like fish (much less raw fish).

For our real appetizers, I got the "Puree of Curried Butternut Squash Soup: whipped burrata and guanciale." I was assumed that the stock was vegetarian (which seems rare), but the soup was delicious. The "Seared Diver Scallops: caramelized potatoes, mushrooms and sunchoke puree" were also very good, basically as described. The boys liked the "Wagyu Beef Albese Style: shaved parmiagiano and picked baby mushrooms" and the "Slow Braised Short Ribs of Beef: vegetable and farro risotto," though obviously didn't try them.

For the pasta course, since I'd asked about vegetarian options, the waiter offered a polenta with mushrooms and some sort of semi-soft cheese which melted into the dish. It was absolutely fantastic! I have no idea why it wasn't on the regular menu. By far the best of the pasta course, in my option. The "Chanterelle and Braised Lumache Ravioli: truffled watercress puree" were good (didn't really taste snaily), but the watercress puree, though a lovely vivid green, could have been less intense...maybe something else in the sauce to cut the cress a bit? Adventure-averse Chilton ordered the "House Made Spaghetti: fresh tomato and basil" (the vegi pasta on the menu), which, while an excellent version of what it was described as being, was nothing more than that. The waiter had recommended it highly, but how could he think it could compare w/ the polenta? Korn got something with meat...can't remember...

For entrees, we got the "Imported Turbot: caramelized leeks, onions, endive, salsa verde and lentils" and the "Poached Dorade: caponata and golden raisin-pignoli mostarda." Both good, but weaker than the amazing tuna and polenta. Korn and Chilton both ordered the "Grilled Dry Aged Ribeye of Beef (18oz): hen of the woods mushrooms, fingerling potatoes, truffles and parmigiana." I'll admit, I tried the things underneath, which were sort of all stuck together w/ the melty parm, and it was sooo great. I'm sure it was soaked in meat juice or something, but I'm going to ignore this.

For dessert, I got the cheese, which included some sort of fresh cheese (a ricotta salata?) w/ figs, parmesan with truffle honey (SO GOOD), and something else...can't remember. Too busy remembering black truffles suspended in sweet, golden honey. Mmm...and the parmesan was good too. However, definitely enjoyed this board. I whined about two people wanting to get the "Apple "Tatin": muscovado gelato, dry fruit compote," convincing Chilton to order something else for variety, which was probably a mistake. This was the best of the desserts. The pumpkin creme brule with an espresso granita (I think) and the cardamum panna cotta with grapefruit (in sorbet, supremes, and foam) were both fine, but not nearly as good as the apple dessert. I can't remember anything in particular about the subsequent petit fours, except for one. Chilton (reaffirming his discerning palette) tried a chocolate one, said he liked it but couldn't identify the filing, so I tried it and discovered it was coffee-filled. I choked it down, unwilling to spit it out in my cloth napkin and making faces at Chilton the whole time. He was then like, "yeah, you're right, it was coffee!" Bad Chilton.

Anyway, a really fantastic meal, probably one of the best we've had in awhile. The service was friendly and attentive in the non-stuffy way we enjoy. Even if the dishes weren't all equally strong, all were at least enjoyable and some were outstanding. Definitely on the list to revisit! Why can't Boston have restaurants this good?

*Random side note: I love this show! Adam (and Korn) ate at Casa Mono about a month ago and saw Ilan still working the line, which led him to assume that this meant Ilan didn't win...but I guess he proved the old saying about what happens when you assume...Anyway, last week, Adam and I were sitting around Gannett w/ the gf of the VP, who told us that she's known Ilan since they were 14 and she's the one who, having been a big Season 1 fan, suggested he try out for the show! Now Ilan is Top Chef, I'm the VP gf, and Adam will likely become even more imaginary...


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