Just mentioning that you remember Alison on Dominick marks you as a Diner of a Certain Age. (I am one of them.) In the restaurant’s heyday on Dominick Street in the ’90s, Tribeca had more homeless people than millionaires, and taking a cab down there for dinner was an exotic, perhaps life-threatening adventure. Fast forward to now, when restaurants can only appear mysterious by not listing a phone number, papering over their windows to discourage the B-list or serving dinner in the dark.
There was no live-blogging of the opening of Alison Eighteen, the third incarnation of Alison, and it shows. The 20-somethings that cram into every restaurant by the Franks, Ken Friedman or Gabriel Stulman are not here, perhaps because there has to be a certain critical mass of young, bearded and vintage-clad foodies for more to walk through the door. The result is space, and lots of it. So much space that you may feel a little agoraphobic, like a New Yorker in a vast suburban supermarket, confused and slightly alarmed. There are available bar stools at the appealingly grown-up bar at Alison Eighteen, and in the gracious, comfortable dining room with quirkily illustrated wallpaper, there’s room to walk between tables without depositing your derriere on a neighboring diner’s plate. Which immediately begs the question: What’s wrong?
Try to remain calm, or rather partake in the calm that surrounds you. On a slow night at Alison Eighteen it may feel like the energy’s been sucked out of the room, to quote Marie Fromage, but on a livelier night it can feel quite – what’s that word again? – civilized. No one is shouting to be heard over the music, jostling against you, or looking on longingly at your meal from a line outside the window. This place even takes reservations! It’s like a real restaurant, if you remember what those were like.
They have cocktails here, both classics and in-house inventions. We loved the refined variation of a Manhattan, the Escape from Manhattan ($16), made with bourbon, St. Germain and Benedictine. The Lions Tail ($16) is another good bourbon based cocktail, this time mixed with the Bitter Truth pimento dram for an intriguingly spicy finish. If you’re looking for wine, the Perrin Cotes du Rhone ($15 a glass) and Sainte Victoire rosé ($16 a glass) are both quite good.
Of the appetizers the grilled Portuguese octopus ($17, pictured at top) on a pearly bed of fregola and picholine olives was a standout. The octopus itself was incredibly tender and fresh and received a big thumbs up from even the most discriminating octopus aficionados at the table.
We had less success with an appetizer of Anson Mills polenta with foraged mushrooms ($16). While good in theory – I am a fan of Anson Mills – in practice it came off as bland as farina. The sauteed morels were delicious on their own, but the polenta suffered because there’s no chicken broth in here to boost the flavor. Good for vegetarians, bad for the rest of us.
An entree of Maine sea scallops ($33) was another hit among the seafood offerings. Chef Robert Gurvich’s combination of scallops with woodsy slow cooked mushrooms created a modern, lighter version of the surf ‘n’ turf dinner, with beautifully fresh fava beans and pea shoots to finish it off.
For a non-Italian restaurant, the fresh pappardelle with braised rabbit ($29) is surprisingly good. The hint of mustard in the tomato-based ragu with carrots took this dish closer to the French border and lapin au moutarde.
Oddly we liked these dishes better than the straight-up meat dishes, even though these are how Alison originally earned its renown – with Tom Colicchio’s lamb. Here the roast lamb ($29) itself was quite good, but the sauce was sticky sweet. As our friend the Southern belle said, “I feel like I’m eating maple syrup.”
The opposite was true of the roast duck ($28), which had a much subtler demi glace sauce and more of those excellent fresh fava beans and green market veggies, but the meat itself had an odd metallic aftertaste.
Desserts were excellent across the board, from the creative, Indian-inflected cardamom custard with basil syrup ($10) to the little, sugar-dusted beignets served with chocolate and lemon sauces to the cookie plate ($10). “I appreciate a restaurant that has a cookie plate,” Marie Fromage said. Sometimes, you just want a cookie.
The white-jacketed service was as polished as the dining room on the nights we visited. In this regard and several others, Alison Eighteen has something that all of the crammed-full-of-young-foodies restaurants don’t: You can take your parents here.
By the same token, Alison Eighteen can make you feel old when you realize how much has changed since its last incarnation in Manhattan, when Alison on Dominick closed shortly after 9/11. It doesn’t have the 24/7 PR generator of a bad boy chef, a pyromaniac bartender, Paz de la Huerta sightings or run-ins with the neighborhood community board to generate some real buzz. It’s just a tasteful restaurant in a central neighborhood, with good if uneven food and a nice ambiance. If you want more excitement than that, you’ll have to dream it up yourself.
15 West 18th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues
Menus and reservations available online.