Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Restaurant 60: Alto

Clockwise from top left: Polenta; Gnocchi; Peach Strudel; Guinea Hen.

LOCATION: 520 Madison Ave.
DATE: July 28, 2005
FOOD: Four Course Dinner Prix Fixe: Polenta Integrale – Chanterelle mushrooms, white asparagus, braised lumache & preserved truffles; Potato-Spinach “Stran golapreti” – ricotta and potato gnocchi with rabbit “en civel” shaved parmigiano; Guinea Hen – “poached” breast, roasted leg, foie gras emulsion, speck & haricot verts; Peach Strudel – vanilla custard and fresh blueberries; Additional Cheese Plate: Brunet: goat’s milk – Piedmont crystallized rosemary, apple and pinenuts; Hoch Ybrig: cow’s milk, Ybrig, Switzerland – caraway and shallot marmalade with fennel salad
BEVERAGE: Glass of Proseco; Split a bottle of red wine
PRICE: $145.00

L’Impero wasn’t enough. For, Scott Conant, all heady youth, ambition dripping like purified olive oil, it was time to make the next jump. He wanted his fourth star. Thus, Alto was born, a restaurant set on transforming Italian food by adding the influences of German cuisine.

And by all accounts, Conant is close – close but still not quite there.

Alto has all the trappings of the traditional four stars: smooth, knowledgeable service; creative presentation; a menu with as many languages and cultural influences as Mario Batali has restaurants. Yet, Alto is still young, still in need of the refinement only time and countless repetitions can bring.

The four course dinner prix fixe is a bargain by New York standards at $72. Including three savory courses and a dessert, it follows the same model Conant made popular at L’Impero. However, it’s not just the two menu’s structures that show similarities; the offerings also nod towards one another. At L’Impero, Conant’s polenta with mushrooms has become the stuff of legends. At Alto, he adjusts the dish, adding escargot, truffles and white asparagus, while maintaining the brilliant coupling of grain and mushroom. Alto’s polenta appetizer was soft and fluffy, delicious and complex. When a bite took in all the dish’s ingredients, the taste was magnificent, the earthy chew of the mushrooms mixing with the saltiness of snail and polenta to dazzling effect. Yet, the polenta itself lacked the creamy resplendence to stand on its own which made L’Impero’s polenta as memorable as it was. At Alto, the whole worked, but the components equaled something far less great.

The same frustrating case of stunted development hindered the gnocchi course from reaching its full explosiveness. The large, spinach gnocchi were sensational on their own. So too, the tender meat of the rabbit. But while deconstructed dishes may be all the rage, at least for a pasta course, its better to build than tear down. With a presentation evoking sushi, the gnocchi was a disparate blend of flavors. A more traditional cohesion of the rabbit and gnocchi (and a sauce of some kind instead of shaved parmigiano) would have reduced the austerity and seeming overly ornate-ornateness of the potato dumplings. Whereas with the polenta individual aspects needed to be improved to survive on their own, with the gnocchi it was the cohesion that was lacking.

However, when it came to the guinea hen, Conant left no reason to question his methods. Inverting the traditional roasted chicken, Conant injected the guinea hen with a stuffing of almonds and currants before covering it in a foie gras foam, the taste of which are testimony enough of the chef’s prestigious talents. Cloudlike in texture, the emulsion was densely packed with a rich and intriguing smokiness. As he did with the rabbit in the gnocchi course, Conant mixed light and dark meats of the same bird, presenting the diner with an entire spectrum of flavors in the same dish.

The peach strudel was the only true disappointment of the evening. Sweet and enjoyable, it was far too simple for a restaurant attempting to push the boundaries of traditional cuisine. It was the type of excellent strudel easily found at unassuming German restaurants throughout the city or any Milwaukee bakery. But, with the bar set high during the rest of the meal, it was a let down for dessert to be so normal.

And as convivial as the service was, there are still kinks at Alto no four star restaurant would and can permit. One instance occurred when the cheese course was brought at the same time as dessert, with a complete disregard for adequate spacing. It meant either the ice cream melted or the cheese, better prior to dessert than after, had to wait until later.

So Alto isn’t there yet. It may have the petit-fours, but it doesn’t have the grace of a Le Bernardin or the class of a Per Se. Conant is trying to scale a German sized Alp and is having some technical difficulties on the way to the apex. But if Conant’s success at L’Impero is any indication, there’s little doubt that given a little time, Alto will start rising to the heights its name suggests. And who knows what Conant will think to do then.

RATING: 8.0/10

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