August 14, 1989 | Vintage Insatiable
Alison’s on Dominick: Tripping the Bite Fantastic
“Meet me at Alison’s for lunch,” I tell three adventurous friends, asking my assistant for the address and racing out the door. My pal the Cookiemonger is standing outside Alison’s on lower Eighth Avenue as I pull up.
“This is a surprise,” I murmur as we wander past the lunch counter and jukebox and recruit an agreeable waitress to clear six or seven cakes from a table so we can sit. “Really, this is amazing.” I study the menu, Buffalo wings. Idaho-potato skins. Hot nachos with guacamole. “What a change for Allison from her days at Rakel and the Gotham. But I kind of like it. Fun.”
Just then, a second friend walks in the door and props a press release on the table. “Its Alison,” she says, “not Allison.” Dropping a small tip to cover our embarrassed retreat, we grab our fourth, still in his taxi, and race downtown to a cheerful blue awning on the tranquility of Dominick Street.
Buffalo chicken wings are not what Alison Price had in mind when she decided it was time to trip the entrepreneurial fantastic with Tom Valenti at the range. Behind the billowing deep-blue velvet curtain, I assume. “It’s a funeral parlor,” whispers one of my chums. But the gloomy intimation quickly fades as we succumb to the perfume of butter turning the deep hue of hazelnut. The chef, after making his way from Le Cherche-Midi and the Gotham via Guy Savoy in Greenwich and Paris, Chelsea Central, and Café Greco, is riding a high that could make this forgotten artery between SoHo and TrBeCa an imperative detour.
Alison is modest in concept, the way restaurants used to be in a more innocent time. Not a moldering Roman ruin. Not a chintz-and-wicker veranda in Charleston or a tropical jungle. Not a Western saloon. It’s simply well-bred, cozy, and romantic, clotted-cream walls, royal-blue velvet banquettes, sound-muffling carpets, and black-and-white photographs by Alison’s brother, Jonathan Becker, scenes of France mostly and a portrait of Elaine Kaufman, hung in homage.
“Elaine said, ‘Don’t open a restaurant,’” Alison says. “But then once I had, she sent a very nice note: ‘Well, you did it.’ “ And she has. All very civilized, with an ivory sail floating overhead, tall tapers on the tables, and a well-instructed crew. No one seems to be auditioning for Saturday Night Live or The Gong Show.
Even before you order, there are good chewy sourdough rolls and a tumble of cracklings in a napkin cradle – “deep-fried river fish,” says the waiter. Eat fast, while they’re hot, convinced by the little black eyes but not by the airy texture that river fish do exist.
At first, Valenti seems more style than substance. Food that is pulled, poked, piled high, pretty. A mussel here, an artichoke heart there, a single chive as quivering antenna above a few perfect leaves. A tic-tac-toe grid of mustard on charred slices of lamb with orange and green lentils. Prissily perfect spears of endive with Roquefort. Salmon, tuna, cabbage, and spinach, layered, rolled, and cut like a Japanese hand roll. Little white balls, painted nail polish red on one side (actually radish cut just so), scattered about the luscious terrine of rabbit and foie gras studded with wild mushrooms.
But gossamer-shrimp-and-salmon mousse in a heavenly aromatic broth, and fresh mackerel sporting a doodad of caviar-speckled crème fraiche floating in a fragrant nage with mustard seed and parsley flowers are sublime. Beyond artifice.
Soon, Valenti’s sure hand and flavoring strength shine through. Even on a warm summer night, I hunger for his spectacular oven-crusted lamb shank with white beans and favas, wilted chicory, parsley puree, and a garlic bulb cut in half like a breakfast grapefruit with molten garlic essence to scoop out. Meaty, moist guinea hen flaunts a leg like a cancan dancer. His olive-tomato-and-thyme-touched risotto is perfect one night, sodden the next, but still wondrously savory. Splendid rabbit loin is wrapped in bacon, the leg is roasted, and the two are garnished with barley, mushrooms, and neatly carved, perfectly inflated pommes soufflés.
To me, filet mignon (like filet of sole), is the first resort of those who hate to eat, but Valenti’s very rare, buttery filet is elevated by the company it keeps – sautéed arugula and creamy garlic-scented Savoyard potatoes (though the Madeira-and-mushroom stock is too salty). Sliced Muscovy duck breast wears a blackened crust, delicious contrast to sweet glazed turnip rounds on caramelized onion. Three trim filets of striped bass drift in a tomato-tarragon broth with bits of leek, artichoke, and shallot and a timbale of nutty couscous. So much robust flavor seems to make the excess forgivable.
At lunch, unseasoned halibut with lentils and cubes of turnip and bacon is too needy of its shallot sauce for personality, and a seafood cassoulet with white beans and arugula suffers from overcooking – early flubs, easily corrected.
I suppose these are what pass for moderate prices in a wanton time: appetizers from $6 for a pinch of salad to $10 for terrine of rabbit and foie gras, entrées $17 to $25, some items a dollar or two less on the abbreviated lunch menu. Add in the commuting fee for most of us (though it’s still a cinch to park at the moment). Still, I’m much too happy to complain.
Even the pastry chef is an astonishing find. Like Alison Price before she found her true métier, Paula Smith was an actress, waitressing to pay the rent. Then one day she stepped in to assist the dessert cook at Lola and proved to be a natural. They sent her to pastry school. Except for a wimpy crackle-less crème brulée, she does no wrong. Her fragile orange-and-grapefruit terrine is a miracle of piquancy and texture surrounded by a subtle tea-and-grapefruit sauce. Pistachio-and-fig tart served with citrus crème fraiche is a Fig Newton gone to heaven. The lemon-meringue tart wears an elegant stripe (and overly gelatinous blueberry sorbet).
Smith confects complicated pastry architecture where every layer – whether hazelnut, chocolate, raspberry, or rhubarb – is thin, intense, and striking. I can hardly force myself to order canteloupe bavarois – it sounds so effete. What a surprise. The shimmering, quivering jelly on a sliver of génoise with a hint of sweet Beaumes de Venise and a puddle of vanilla-flecked sauce is celestial, an artful balance of tang and yang.
Alison on Dominck is only ten weeks old. But already, its performance more than matches its serious ambition. I never knew there was a street named Dominick. I wish I didn’t have to tell the world.