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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
157 2nd Ave (between 9th and 10th St)
New York, NY 10003