All’onda: Midtown Italian in Downtown Digs

Tonight’s dinner at All’onda was made on a whim. It was 7 pm, on a Friday, and we needed a place to go. I was browsing some food blogs, randomly came across the name “All’onda”, saw “in East Village” attached to it, and chose it due to proximity and newness. I had no idea that it was one of the most highly anticipated restaurant openings of 2014.

It wasn’t until we got there that I learned what a big deal this place was. Industry heavyweights like former Ai Fiori chef Chris Jaeckle and restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow were backing the place, no wonder it got so much attention. Surprisingly, for a restaurant this hot, the wait for a walk-in party of two on Friday night was only 45 minutes, and only 10 minutes for the bar. I like this place already!

I did a double take when I entered the room–the downstairs entrance and bar area looked strikingly similar to The Elm’s. Did they hire the interior decorator from King & Grove? Seriously, it was that same upscale suburban chic aesthetic! Upscale Italian tends to attract a certain crowd, and the usual suspects made a big showing. Rich men with their plastic wives, dressy girls’ night out crowds, and a whole ton of bankers, from analysts to MDs. It was so wrong wearing a plaid shirt. Had I known the Ai Fiori crowd was moving downtown, I would have put forth more effort.

The fusion of Italian and Japanese flavors at All’onda reflects the very popular cooking trend of Asian collaborations in the city (Jewish + Japanese at Shalom Japan, Korean + Italian at Piora). For the most part, I found that the Italian influences overwhelmed the Japanese ones, but when they coexisted, the combination brought an intriguing depth and complexity to the dish. This was especially true for the garganelli, a pasta dish seasoned with yuzu koshu, tarragon and peekytoe crab. If All’onda had stuck with the Italian rendition, this dish would have been extremely dense and briney. However, the Japanese aspects of citrus, spice and breadcrumbs brought balance and texture to an otherwise dark dish. With each bite, I was very aware of how unfamiliar yet rewarding each serving was.

all'onda - garganelli
garganelli with peekytoe crab, yuzu koshu and tarragon

As a contrast, the bucatini pasta tasted 100% Italian. It was very characteristic of the highly refined and incredibly rich pastas that have made Ai Fiori so successful. The noodles were cooked perfectly, plump and al dente, yet yielding ever so slightly to touch. They were lightly coated in a decadent cheese sauce, which was especially splendid with the smoked uni. But after switching over to the garganelli, I was struck by how the bucatini seemed one-note in comparison. They’re both excellent, and pastas are definitely All’onda’s strong suit, but they serve different purposes. If you’re in the mood for indulgent excess in a more conventional way, the bucatini is the way to go, but if you want something a little more challenging, order the garganelli.

all'onda - bucatini
bucatini with smoked uni and spicy bread crumbs

To balance the meal out, we also ordered the sardines, the skate and a side of the Jerusalem artichokes. The sardines came highly recommended, and rightfully so, since they were pretty delectable. Sardines can be a bit fishy and intense, but these aspects were smoothed out by a bright and creamy fennel saffron puree, which tasted like an incredible honey mustard cream, and the golden raisins and bread crumbs further finessed the flavors. The skate was more thought-provoking than mind-blowingly delicious. It was covered in a dense Japanese tonkatsu gravy, which imparted a meat-like quality to it. You almost felt like you were pulling away pieces of pulled pork, which I thought was a clever culinary sleight of hand. But I prefer preparations that emphasize fish in its original form, not as reinterpretations of other proteins, so I couldn’t fully embrace this one.

all'onda - skate
glazed skate with semolina dumplings and beets
sardine with pickled pearl onion, pine nuts and fennel, courtesy of All’onda restaurant

A surprising highlight from the night were the Jerusalem artichokes. First of all, I never knew such a vegetable existed, and second of all, these artichokes aren’t even indigenous to Jerusalem (it’s a species of sunflower native to eastern North America). If you’ve ever had the chance to eat some crispy duck or bacon-fat potatoes and loved the experience, then you should order these artichokes. Although the flavors will remind you mostly of potatoes, you’ll also taste remnants of daikon and carrot, all to good effect.

all'onda - jerusalem artichokesjerusalem artichokes, the best sides you won’t find in the Middle East

Overall I thought All’onda lived up to the hype (although that was news to me). The food was well executed, inventive yet still homey. There’s no doubt that this is high-end cooking, but it doesn’t have that stuffy, inaccessible feel to it. Although the crowd of Real Housewives and bankers leaves much to be desired. I don’t like to feel like I’m at a midtown power lunch on a Friday night–I don’t like to bring work home! The ” biggest opening of ’14” won’t let you down, only if it isn’t able to seat you, that is.

22 E. 13th St (between 5th Ave and University Pl)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 231-2236

Italian Storefront Dining at Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria

Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria is the casual Italian spin-off of more formal sister restaurant Il Buco. “Alimentari” refers to the restaurant’s gourmet food market concept, which is located near the front entrance. Here, you can stock up on all of your high-end Italian essentials–it’s hard to resist the beautiful displays of amazing cured meats, local and imported artisanal cheese, loaves of fresh bread and scoops of sweet gelato.

“Vineria” refers to the restaurant and wine bar portion of the restaurant, which is located behind the retail storefront. About a third of the space is devoted to the wine bar, and the remaining area is filled with large, communal tables. The four of us slid awkwardly into a table already occupied by an older couple. I usually don’t mind communal dining in a really casual restaurant like Mighty Quinn’s or Back Forty, but I was a bit annoyed to have to go through it here. When you charge premium prices for your food, and when a large portion of your clientele is older and more formal looking, then communal tables don’t seem to be that appropriate. Luckily, I got over my discomfort and annoyance when the hearty and flavorful cooking won me over.

house salumi plate for two
house salumi plate for two
whole grain bread basket
whole grain bread basket

Any meal here must be preceded by a plate of the house salumi and a basket of the freshly baked bread. The hogs that Il Buco Alimentari uses must be the happiest, most well-fed pigs on the planet, because the pork meat here is the richest and sweetest that I’ve ever tried. The extremely delicate slices of salumi literally seem to melt in your mouth like a savory piece of lard. Placing a slice on top of the bread is a winning combination.

orecchiette with housemade sausage, ramps, parmigiano
orecchiette with housemade sausage, ramps, parmigiano
roasted gnocchi with mushroom
roasted gnocchi with mushroom

The appetizers were an excellent prelude to the equally delicious main courses that followed. The orecchiette was one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had in a long while. The quality of the freshly made, house-extruded ear-shaped pasta was quite impressive. It had that springy, chewy texture and slightly salty taste that you get from a perfectly cooked noodle. The salty fennel seasonings from the homemade sausage provided more depth to the flavor, and the parmigiano coated everything in a creamy, velvety sauce. The roasted gnocchi was also well executed although less memorable than the orecchiette. I personally think gnocchi tastes best when left in its soft, billowy form, which better absorbs the flavors of the underlying mashed potatoes and the surrounding sauce. With the roasted version, the char created from roasting the gnocchi dominates the flavor profile, and the more delicate flavors of the seasonings get lost.

show stopping slow-roasted short ribs
show stopping slow-roasted short ribs
crispy polenta with parmigiano
crispy polenta with parmigiano
grilled asparagus and aioli
grilled asparagus and aioli

The enormous plate of slow-roasted ribs arrived at the table in dramatic fashion. Huge slabs of tender meat fell off a piece of bone the size of a grown man’s forearm. The moist, fatty rib meat was so delicious that not even our “flexitarian” friends Tim and Caroline could resist a taste. As much as we raved about the ribs, the four of us could not finish the Paul Bunyan-sized portions. The crusty polenta didn’t even stand a chance, although the small bite that I did have was very satisfying and comforting.

As much as I enjoyed the meal at Il Buco Alimentari, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just eaten dinner in the area reserved for a cooking demonstration at Williams-Sonoma. I understand that low-key is the theme that the owners were going for, but that seems a little disingenuous when entrees are priced over $30 a plate. I think it works better as a lunch place, where the lower price points and the quicker pace of the midday meal are more fitting for the cafeteria-like atmosphere. If you want something romantic or intimate, the sister restaurant is a better bet. If mood is secondary to good food, then by all means make multiple visits to Il Buco Alimentari.

Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria
53 Great Jones Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 837-2622