Plenty of top New York chefs are adding new restaurants to their portfolios now, but what happens to the existing restaurants that made them famous? That’s what we set out to find out the other night, when Michael White’s Marea was fully booked, but Alto had some tables open.
“Michael White” may not be a name you’d immediately associate with stellar pasta – it seems like there should be a few more vowels in there – but keep in mind this is a man who studied pasta making in Italy for six years.
Under the stewardship of chef de cuisine Gordon Finn, the trademarks of a three-star restaurant were still here, starting with an amuse bouche of mackerel with citrus vinaigrette and fennel seed. The mackerel had a light, clean taste, without the fishiness that non-mackerel-lovers associate with this variety, and the citrus and fennel seed added another bright, intriguing note.
Risotto with brussels sprouts and sausage ($15) had a wonderfully nutty, smoky taste and the perfect al dente texture without any of the gloopiness that plagues lesser risottos.
For a lesson in ridiculous decadence, go for the duck and foie gras agnolotti with wild mushrooms and marsala-veal sauce ($16), pictured at the top of this post. These plump pillows of delicately meaty ravioli came dressed in an equally lavish, buttery sauce spiked with just enough red wine to balance the fattiness.
Alto’s scallops ($17) were seared to a nice buttery char on the outside, while the inside was cooked no longer than necessary. On top, an almond and grappa-soaked raisin paste under microgreens was an unusual and successful twist.
A mammoth veal chop ($37) could have used a little more seasoning, but the quality of the meat was excellent, and it arrived perfectly cooked.
The surprise standout of the entrees was the sautéed branzino with caramelized brussels sprouts, acorn squash and pomegranite jus ($30). The filet had just the right buttery, crisp note, the brussels sprouts and acorn squash gave it the earthiness of fall, while pomegranite jus added a sweet top note to the whole formula.
While the pasta with lamb sausage, mint and chili was spicy and tasty ($26), it didn’t rise up to the heights of the risotto or the duck agnolotti. In general, many of Alto’s pastas are better ordered as appetizers, as they are in Italy. (All of Alto’s pastas can be ordered in appetizer or entrée size.) Pasta was never meant to be some kind of huge filling comfort dish; it’s actually meant to be a starter, usually followed by a more filling meat or fish course.
Polenta with mushroom ragu and cock’s combs ($16) hit a very authentic note – you rarely find something like this outside of northern Italy. All the flavors were exactly right; the only problem was that it was so watery it slid right through our forks.
You could tell this chocolate soufflé by pastry chef Heather Bertinetti with was made of the best quality chocolate, and the tableside pouring of a hazelnut crème anglaise in the warm interior was a nice touch.
Bombolini ($14) were predictably sugar-encrusted, airy and delicious.
The Alto space is still as sleekly elegant as ever, with racks and racks of wine bottles backlight by cool blue light climbing up to the double-height ceiling. This is no red sauce joint, but high Italian as it’s meant to be.
11 East 53rd Street (Between Madison and Fifth Avenue)
New York, NY