Postmodern Bar Food at Alder

Alder isn’t really a place to go to for a proper sit-down dinner. It’s more of a place to go when you’re in the mood to drink, and the food revolves around accommodating your buzz. In essence, it is a modern day gastropub. But, this being a Wylie Dufresne restaurant and all, the bar food here isn’t your run-of-the-mill burger and fries. Expect highly inventive takes on familiar favorites that we typically pair with our beer or wine. This is extremely refined hangover food, which means it will taste good even after you sober up. Unlike that dollar 2 Bros. pizza you ate at 5 am in the morning, which tasted awesome at the time but horrible in a sober state of mind.  

Alder is seriously the third “small plates” restaurant I’ve been to in the past month that seems to offer a menu consisting entirely of appetizers. I guess this whole “let’s do away with entrees” movement is here to stay. This makes me a little sad, because I have a big appetite and I actually enjoy eating a full-sized entree in addition to appetizers. And a meal of small plates is exactly the reason why I hate tapas–I feel like I’ve nibbled on a lot of things but I’m not particularly satiated. I also find it very curious that these appetizers are priced like entrees. $21 for a “small plate”? Seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Despite my reservations about the small plates trend, I would definitely come back to Alder solely for its pigs in a blanket dish, an absolute culinary smashing success. Pigs in a blanket is a pretty standard if uninteresting offering that makes the rounds on the hors d’oeuvres circuit, but Alder’s rendition is like the hot Asian mistress to the homely wife. The traditional frank was swapped out for Chinese sausage, which provided a distinctive and unique tangy flavor, and the pastry enclosing the meat was so rich and dense in the best possible way. This is one of my favorite dishes of all time.

alder - pigs in a blanket
pigs in a blanket

I’m going to backtrack now and talk about the cocktails we ordered at the start of dinner. The pigs in a blanket was so good that I felt it was necessary to single it out in the beginning. Alder offers a menu of creatively named cocktails like Pinchelada, Bikini Season and Spring Fling, as well as a thoughtful selection of wine and interesting beers. We ordered the Red Zeppelin, a fizzy and refreshing strawberry cocktail that resembled a spiked artisanal Boylan’s soda, and the Hey Rube, a Pimm’s cup with a very generous pour of gin.

alder - hey rube
the hey rube
alder - red zeppelin
the red zeppelin

I gave so much of my love to the pigs in a blanket that there wasn’t much leftover for the other small plates we ordered. Sort of how a parent really fusses over the first child and then pays less attention to the younger siblings. Despite this, the other dishes were able to hold my attention, which is a testament to the cooking at Alder. Some tasted better than others, but they were all very cerebral in their execution, which I appreciated.

The pickled beets was my second favorite dish of the night. This was another example of Alder breathing new life into a pretty conventional and somewhat boring dish. Who really gets excited over beets and goat cheese? Nobody, really, unless you swap out standard goat cheese for a beautifully fluffy and creamy coconut ricotta, as well as throwing in some fragments of Thai basil croutons for exotic flair.

alder - pickled beets
pickled beets

I really wanted to like the rye pasta. The notion of deconstructing a pastrami rye sandwich into noodle form seemed so fun and playful, but the dish did not live up to expectations. I felt like I was eating pasta that had been infused with liquid pastrami smoke. It was very strange. This was a reinvention that was inferior to the original. I would have much preferred a thick, juicy sandwich from Mile End.

alder - rye pasta
rye pasta

The fish and chips were surprising in how conventional they were. It’s like Alder didn’t do enough of the out-of-box thinking here. I thought the fish was fried perfectly, and I did really enjoy the chips, which in this case consisted of extremely crunchy and satisfying potatoes. It was an extremely solid dish, but it lacked the mad science genius that characterized the more memorable small plates.

alder - fish and chips 2
fish and chips

For dessert, Alder had some zany and experimental sweet treats on the menu. We decided to split an order of the root beer, despite my hatred of the beverage. I chose to do this as a test: if Alder could make the extremely strong and polarizing flavor of root beer edible, then it was further proof of its remarkable culinary skills. Plus the waitress really sold me when she said that she too hated root beer but considered this her favorite dessert. The cold and creamy dessert was refreshing and certainly made root beer very edible, but at the end of the day I wanted something more conventional like banana pudding.

alder - root beer pudding
root beer pudding

The moments I enjoyed most at Alder were when I was savoring the delicious flavors of a dish rather than thinking about its experimental qualities. This is why I enjoyed the pigs in a blanket, which was unbelievably good in its own right, and why I didn’t particularly care for the rye pasta, a dish that was too self-consciously postmodern. There’s no doubt that the kitchen staff is extremely intellectual and talented, let’s just hope that their fervor for the odd and inventive can be tempered with great flavors for every dish.


Alder
157 2nd Ave (between 9th and 10th St)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 539-1900

Stylish Small Plates at Pearl & Ash

Pearl & Ash is one of those restaurants that needs to better define its dining style, because right now it’s all over the place. The whole time I was there, I was trying to figure out what the restaurant wanted to be. When you first step in, you are greeted by a big flashy bar and deafening acoustics that scream Meatpacking night club, but then the surrounding walls are outfitted in a muted Dutch aesthetic with white, Mondrian-esque shelves that are more befitting of a stylishly casual sit-down restaurant. Is this a scene-y place or a serious establishment? You can’t quite figure it out. The extensive wine list and cerebral menu suggest the latter, but it’s not obvious from the get-go.

The food is all over the map as well. There’s no real theme that unifies the dishes in some way in terms of key ingredients, flavor profile or region. Sometimes the food tastes Asian, other times it seems to have no real context and falls under that ambiguous “New American” category. The origins of the name Pearl & Ash don’t reveal much either. The chef Richard Kuo said that the name came from a story he heard as a child “about how a fine jewel does not need a showy setting.” That is probably one of the least helpful and insincere statements that I have ever heard. The molecular gastronomy tricks and techniques that I witnessed in certain dishes, as well as the extremely chi-chi, clubby feel of the restaurant itself (LOTS of glammed out women here for date-night or girls’ night out), are the exact epitome of “showy setting”.

It seems like the trend of expensive small plates is here to stay, which is alive and well at Pearl & Ash. We had heard great things about the raw scallops and the long beans, so we ordered them without any deliberation, as well as the octopus, pork meatballs and the skirt steak, which we upgraded to a larger portion size.

The raw scallops were seasoned with berbere, a dark spice mixture of Ethiopian origin that gave the scallops the illusion of being pan seared, which I thought was clever. From a flavor perspective, however, the dish fell a little short. Raw seafood in my opinion should be largely left alone, and I thought the strong flavors of the spice blend and the fennel were too overpowering. The long beans reminded me of tasty Szechuan stir-fry, which I loved, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t taste any of the uni in the dish. There’s no point in showcasing a rich, delicate ingredient if it gets buried beneath everything else.

pearl ash - diver scallop
diver scallop with fennel, lily bulb and berbere
pearl ash - long beans, chili uni
long beans with chili and uni

My favorite dish of the night was the octopus, which made it clear that Richard Kuo can indeed cook and that the nomination for “Best New Restaurant in America” wasn’t totally out of the blue. The sweet and crispy char around the octopus was pretty incredible, and the meat inside was nice and tender. The pork meatballs unfortunately brought me down from my octopus high. The meatball texture was really off-putting and reminded me of canned dog food.

pearl ash - octopus
octopus with sunflower seed and shiso
pearl ash - pork meatballs
pork meatballs with shiitake and bonito flakes

The skirt steak was solid but not spectacular. I also had issues with the sizing, as the “large” portion left much to be desired.

pearl ash - skirt steak
skirt steak with tomato, basil zucchini and pine nuts

For dessert, we set ourselves up for disappointment and ordered the over-hyped fernet-branca ice cream sandwich. I don’t see what is so revolutionary about spiking ice cream with an Italian spirit. And the surrounding chocolate layers were dry and tasteless. The generic private-label ice cream sandwiches from Food Emporium taste better than this.

pearl ash - fernet-branca ice cream sandwich
fernet-branca ice cream sandwich
pearl ash - fernet-branca ice cream sandwich2
an ice cream sandwich with a smile

I think there’s definitely a lot of potential at Pearl & Ash. If the restaurant improves its service and edits its menu a bit, than it can be a really great restaurant. Start first with apologizing when you forget to bring out one of your guest’s dishes and not taking away plates when the guest is still working on them (having horrible flashbacks to my dinner at Charlie Bird, the ultimate offender of aggressive clearing of plates). But right now, America’s Best New Restaurant it is not.


Pearl & Ash
220 Bowery (between Prince and Spring St)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 837-2370

Estela, the Don Draper of Restaurants

Stumbling upon a chance dinner at newly opened restaurant Estela was a little like falling into the arms of Don Draper. The unmarked doorway and dark, chic surroundings were mysterious and intriguing, much like the tall, dark and handsome stranger himself. Engaging with Estela through its food further perpetuated the mystery, as the flavors revealed little about its culinary origins. Blood sausage croquettes pointed to Spanish, yet Virginia ham was undeniably American. And there were times when I even tasted some Asian flavors. There was a familiar, comforting aspect about the food, as if you’ve had this dish before in another setting, but you can’t quite remember where and when. My takeaway was that Estela has no definitive roots and has instead embraced the culinary influences of the multiple cultures it has come into contact with. This absence of a definitive past shouldn’t matter, because, like Don’s work, the food speaks for itself.

Estela - menu
Estela’s menu, subject to revision

The similarities between Don Draper and Estela end there, because the warm service and hospitality at Estela are nothing like Don’s cold, terse temperament. The restaurant is run by head chef Ignacio Mattos, formerly of Isa and Il Buco, and Thomas Carter, a former wine director at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In a recent interview with Eater New York, the partners said that they wanted the restaurant to be a place “where people go to drink good wine and eat good food without having to behave too much,” and they’ve certainly achieved that. Estela was only into its fourth day when I dropped by for dinner, but I was very impressed by the congenial, knowledgeable staff and the smooth and prompt delivery of dishes to our table. I definitely didn’t sense any growing pains here.

The food is served tapas style to encourage sharing of many dishes, with sizes increasing further down the menu. Since Estela is so new, we were completely in the dark as to what to order, which was pretty liberating. We weren’t anchored to expectations of what was good or not and could judge our meal in a more objective way. We decided to order several small plates, including the raw scallops with citrus and bronze fennel, the trout with fava, yuzu, and horseradish, and the egg with gigante beans and cured tuna, as well as a larger dish of the pork with carrots, Marcona almonds, and dandelion greens.

This was one of those rare dinner moments where every single dish that came out was truly well-executed. There were no hit-or-miss inconsistencies here. The ingredients used in each dish were minimal but to the point. I did notice that there was a common thread of utilizing citrus flavors to bring some lightness to the food. This recurring yuzu and citrus theme was a good example of the hard-to-place, global flavor profile that is a byproduct of Estela’s itinerant culinary lifestyle. 

For instance, the raw scallops were reminiscent of the sashimi yuzu appetizers that are staples at Japanese restaurants, yet the fennel and red pepper accents threw you for a loop so that the dish couldn’t completely claim Asian origins.

Estela - raw scallops with citrus and bronze fennel
raw scallops with citrus and bronze fennel

The trout similarly had that Asian quality with its yuzu seasoning, but the fresh and seasonal fava beans and peas seemed very American farmers’ market to me. I thought the wispy ribbons of horseradish were a pretty brilliant and unique way of imparting some spice to a dish.

Estela - trout with fava yuzu and horseradish
trout with fava, yuzu, and horseradish

The egg with gigante beans and cured tuna was my favorite out of the small plates. I loved the warm and savory broth, and the combination of eggs, chunky beans and tuna was a highly satisfying and hearty one. The broth is light, more akin to a dashi soup than a thick stew, so it was perfect for the summer months.

Estela - egg with gigante beans and cured tuna
poached egg with gigante beans and cured tuna

I normally don’t seek out pork at a restaurant, because I find that it usually ends up occupying two extreme ends of the spectrum–dry, tasteless pork chop loins or extremely fatty, heavy belly pieces. The pork at Estela occupies a happy medium between the two. The meat was lovely and tender and rimmed with just a touch of fattiness to provide rich, juicy flavor. The carrots and almonds provided some nutty depth and nice texture, and the slightly bitter dandelion greens kept things from being overly heavy.

Estela - pork with carrots Marcona almonds and dandelion green
pork with carrots, Marcona almonds, and dandelion greens

Desserts can be an afterthought at many places, but that wasn’t the case here. I thought the chocolate sherbet thoughtfully showcased its main ingredient in all sorts of lovely ways. You had a scoop that was decadently rich and fudge-like in nature, and another icy sherbet scoop that was a delightfully cool counter response to that. I loved the crunchiness of the hazelnuts and coffee beans and thought they provided some nice, light accents to a dish that could have been overly dense and rich.

Estela - chocolate sherbet
chocolate sherbet

Estela currently enjoys a somewhat anonymous existence in its unmarked address on E. Houston, but this won’t last for long. It’ll be in your best interest to drop by for a walk-in during its low-key phase before favorable word-of-mouth makes it impossible to score a table. I’m hoping to sneak in another order of the pork as well as the ricotta dumplings and anchovies on my next visit, hopefully before the onslaught of diners crowd me out because they want a piece of Estela’s globetrotting cuisine for themselves.


Estela
47 E. Houston St (between Mulberry and Mott)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 219-7693

Tiny Japanese Plates at Bugs

IMG_0424Everything about the East Village Japanese restaurant Bugs is tiny. The restaurant only seats 15 people, all of the plates are small, and the head chef Sho Boo herself is a petite woman, personally preparing every order in the mini-kitchen set up behind the sushi bar. These thoughtful, diminutive bites pack quite a tasty punch, however, and like the critters after which it is named, Bugs will be crawling with diners eager to get a piece of Sho Boo’s cooking.Read More