February 21, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Alison Eighteen: It’s Nice to Be Nice
Caramelized scallops surround a toss of wild mushrooms, leeks and Brussels sprouts. Photo: Gael Greene
At last, a restaurant for grownups, Alison Eighteen, casual but proper, respectful of threatened values, like enough light to read the menu and a noise-muffling ambience that encourages talk, even flirtation. No need to text message your companion. You can actually whisper to them. If you rushed from the cab to the door through the drizzle already in a frazzle, you’re instantly calmed. And the well-mannered contemporary flavors coming from chef Robert Gurvich in the kitchen are reassuring too.
Even if you’re too young to remember Alison on Dominick or missed Alison’s feeding on the Hamptons circuit, you might sense that this is not just another improvisational feeding station. It has professional heft. Walking past the spottily occupied bar to a host’s podium, there’s a real greeting. You’re expected. No one makes you feel you need a $6,000 tote to belong or it’s time for Botox again. This is no exercise in masochism with 'tween queens putting you in your place. Though the doors just opened here in this vast Flatiron space, the confidence suggests graduation from restaurant boot camp.
The chef’s white bean and kale soup has the smoky scent of ham hock. Photo: Gael Greene
Then Alison Price Becker herself arrives at the dark velvet curtain, surprised to recognize a critic. Yes, it’s early. I have sneaked in for that first impression. Those of us old enough to remember her Alison in Wonderland debut at Alison on Dominick in l989 – she closed it in the aftermath of 9/11 and moved to Long Island – have watched Price Becker’s return to Manhattan with high expectation.
Alas, we cannot recapture twenty years with a vivid memory. Behind the velvet here we will not find the intimate, romantic, candlelit boite on a nowhere street that charmed us with its billowing midnight blue curtains and ivory sails floating overhead. Nor do we still have the innocence to hyperventilate over chef Tom Valenti’s spectacular oven-crusted lamb shank with white beans, favas, and a garlic bulb cut in half like a breakfast grapefruit, with molten garlic essence to scoop out. We’ve been through the dining revolution. We’re spoiled now, though I hope, not jaded.
Lush polenta with a toss of wild mushrooms and a slick of parmesan. Photo: Gael Greene
Settled on a tufted eggplant leather banquette with bright red buttons at a dark walnut table, we feel a rare calm. That’s the unique gift here. Shaded chandeliers cast enough light to see the clever caricature of playful animals, New York scenes and Alison herself in custom-designed toile wallpaper, but the somber light could be warmer. The dark wood table is bare except for a crimson runner that keeps sliding or bunching up. Too vain to wear reading glasses, I struggle with a pocket magnifying light that isn’t working.
“May I get you a flashlight?” the waiter offers, dashing off, returning with a plastic magnifier that has “Alison Eighteen” imprinted on it. “It’s yours to keep,” he says. He is dignified in a waiter’s vest and coat, seems genuinely happy that you’re having New York tap water, and, in response to my question, suggests that the Bitter Truth would be a tangy cocktail.
“But I can’t eat grapefruit,” I lament.
“It could be made with orange vodka instead,” he improvises on the spot. “It won’t be as tangy but it will still be citrus.” Very impressive. Our companion tonight, a restaurateur, is dazzled by the waiter’s performance too. And the straight-up drink is pretty enough with three raspberries on a wooden skewer. But it’s got to make me a little tipsy for $16.
I’m not sure why bitter broccoli rabe and sweet apple go with pork chop. Photo: Gael Greene
Alison’s chef from the Hamptons, Robert Gurvich is here too. His launch menu is tailored, familiar – like every other menu at every other new restaurant these days, it offers octopus, endive, halibut and scallops, chicken, a steak. The shank is veal and it’s first rate, served with fennel, salsify and cippolini onions.
The chef’s splendid white bean and kale soup has the heady scent of its smoked ham hock flavoring. I’m intoxicated by the richness in his stew of foraged mushrooms on polenta sealed with a glaze of parmesan. Many chefs would cater to the current craze for pig by throwing in some bacon. A point to Gurvich for restraint. Bacon is not needed here.
I never get enough of that venerated America classic pan roast, a Valenti trademark, by the way. Tonight it’s translated into celery root-oyster stew, a bit clumsy, thick, with not enough oyster flavor coming through. The menu’s promised black truffles seem to be missing but would be unwanted glitz anyway. The kitchen’s gift of seared foie gras with parsnip purée, pickled chanterelles and beets strikes me as too facile or maybe too thought out. Less might be more.
A quartet of smartly caramelized, carefully cooked, Maine sea scallops ($34) surrounds a toss of mushrooms, leeks and Brussels sprouts. There’s just one pasta – fettuccine with razor clams in the shell and bottarga, sophisticated and very salty and minus the uni we were told it contained. Was that the busboy’s description? I think so. I can’t imagine our smartly drilled waiter making that gaffe. His only misstep is insisting on confiding his favorite dish. I lower my eyes to keep from paralyzing him with killer rays of annoyance. I never understand diners who actually ask a waiter what is their favorite dish. It’s like consulting Yelp for a restaurant review.
This satiny caramel chocolate tart wears a delicate tuile veil. Photo: Gael Greene
Not that I’m beyond reproach. I definitely should have ordered the spit-roasted lamb shoulder. It’s an irresistible cut and rotisserie cooking is a specialty here. Without thinking, I chose the pork chop instead, a bit tough, a tad dry. And I’m not sure why anyone would garnish pork with such warring partners as broccoli rabe and sweet apples. Shouldn’t the roasted vegetables that come with rotisserie items be available as a side? Rhetorical question. I’ll be back for that lamb.
It would be civilized and grownup to sip a Sauternes along with the marvelous caramel chocolate tarte that wears a chocolate tuile veil and rests on streaks of chocolate, vanilla ice cream melting alongside. But our guest is yawning. Just time to taste pastry chef Ted Kanellopoulos’ “Franzipan” cake with spiced pear and salted caramel ice cream. Franzipan. Is that a joke or a misspelling?
Almond cake with spiced pear alongside salted caramel ice cream. Photo: Gael Greene
Grownup prices mean appetizers from $13 to $28 and entrées $26 to $45, as well as $16 cocktails and that means we’ve spent $90 per person without even a glass of wine. Alison leads us on a tour of the lounge below where a piano and the 80 inch television screen will be joined by a billiard table. “I want it to be a place for people to hang out. A private party and benefit space,” she says. She has talked about author round tables, film screenings and backgammon nights.
Price Becker tells us she had no plan to open a restaurant when she returned from the Hamptons. It was the ground floor Flatiron space in her partner Michael Namer’s Alfa Development headquarters –7,000 square feet in a 1905 building – that enticed her.
Alison Price Becker wants to turn the downstairs lounge into a hangout. Photo: Steven Richter
Soon the counter up front will be a shop selling pastries, sandwiches and food to go. Breakfast, along with lunch, in two or three weeks, will be served in the bar area. “I want to keep breakfast very simple, very sexy. Real oatmeal. Great eggs that we get from farmers in the Greenmarket. Eggs are wonderful now. They even come in blue shells. Maybe just a boiled egg with toast points. I like thick, slightly sweet bacon, not too well done... there will definitely be an egg sandwich. A fried egg just done enough to be still runny, with salt and pepper on a great toasted roll.” She imagines one of the street’s ad men or publishing moguls seated at the bar, eating an egg sandwich and reading his paper.
I guess a lot of us have seen that show.
15 West 18th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 212 366 1818. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till midnight. Breakfast soon 8 to 11 am. Lunch soon Monday through Friday 11 am till 3:30 pm. Brunch soon Saturday and Sunday 11 am till 3 pm.