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Alto (review - long)

We were invited by some visiting friends of my husband's family to join them at Alto last night. What a treat. This Italian restaurant is on East 53rd Street, between 5th and Madison, and the entrance is tucked back off the street, so you wouldn't notice it if you weren't looking for it. We arrived just before eight and were taken to join our hosts at our table. The room is beautiful - the area in which we sat has very high ceilings, and the walls are lined with wine bottles between panels of glass. The decor is modern and sleek and fortunately our groovy looking green swivel chairs were actually v. comfortable. The crowd seemed to be mostly business men, I'd say.

Our host had already ordered wine while enjoying a drink - a 1999 Barbaresco Bruno Giacosa ($219) per the wine list - http://www.altorestaurant.com/wp-cont... - which we obviously didn't get to see, but is very impressive as I noted while perusing it this morning. I ordered a Gray Goose vodka martini - the olives were brought it a small bowl with a spoon - the waiter added one olive, leaving me to add more to taste - a nice touch I thought and beautiful bright green olives. Their daughter and her husband arrived shortly thereafter, as did the menus. I wanted to order everything!

They offer a tasting menu - maybe $120, and then a prix fixe at $70 for four courses (antipasto, primi, secondi and dessert or cheese). Although many of us were keen to try the prix fixe, we weren't sure if it would be too much food, and inquired and were reassured that the portions are slightly smaller when you do the prix fixe, though that did not actually appear to be the case when the dishes were served as dishes that were ordered as part of the prix fixe were the same size as those ordered a la carte. That did not stop me from polishing off all but a polite bite of my dishes. Two of us opted for the prix fixe. We were offered bread from a large basket with a wide selection, including round foccacia (sp?) rolls and a black olive bread, which I had and enjoyed.

Unfortunately, the online menu has not been updated for fall, so I have to rely on my somewhat faulty memory. I started with a beautiful plate of sliced scallops, served with bottarga and dots of a green sauce of which I do not remember the details. Followed this with agnolotti (sp?) - tiny and ravioli-like, stuffed with meat - I believe it was described as Piedmontese (?) and had a lovely wine reduction. For a main course I had a prosciutto wrapped halibut - my only quibble with the food was that my fish was on the verge of being overcooked - but not enough so to be a real issue. Two people had a rich looking puree of mushroom soup with truffle oil, and two had a pasta dish that looked like one large ravioli - I don't know what was in it in addition to the egg yolk which apparently pooled out beautifully upon cutting into the "ravioli". There were lots of purrs from those eating this. The person next to me had gnocchi dish with sausage, among other things. He wasn't feeling well and left much of it and it was very hard for me to resist asking for a bite - but I don't know him well enough to do that. The gnocchi themselves looked delectable - golden soft pillows. My husband and our host shared, as a main course, a show stopper dish - a duck - presented to the table whole, then carved and brought to them. I think there may have been some fennel involved, but I was too far away from them to really get a good look.

There was a nice assortment of dessert, but I opted for the cheese plate, which included a parmesan served with black truffle honey, a gorgonzola dolce with an orange marmelade type accompaniment, and a provolone with a mostarda of some sort. I followed this with a perfect decaffinated espresso and a variety of biscotti were brought to the table as well. My husband and our host each had some kind of Italian sweet, dark afterdinner wine, but again, couldn't catch what it was.

During our meal, we were talking about food generally, and cooking, and they asked me where we liked to eat Italian food in New York, to which I replied that we don't often do so, because I enjoy cooking it at home and it is often better than what we can find in restaurants. Not true here! I think that is the case because of the complexitity of the dishes and combinations of many ingredients.

So, as you can tell, I thought the food was excellent. So was the service - the waiters are dressed in suits, formal but friendly in a good way. We did have to pour our own wine on a occasion - but that may say more about our wine drinking than anything else. Unlike the room at say Daniel - which is one large square room - this one has a lot of "angles" to it, making it difficult I think for a waiter to discretely loiter etc. to note the need for more wine!

Didn't see the bill - fortunately(!) - but I'm sure it was high as we had two bottles of wine. The prices make it a bit expensive for us, but certainly a special place worth experiencing and food worth trying. And, at least I was able to thank them (in addition to verbally, of course), by directing them to Di Palo's to buy bottarga this morning!

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  1. Tried to add the Place, but it didn't work. The address is 11 E. 53rd Street.


    1. Update on the duck - my husband said that when it was presented, it was deboned and he imagines it was cooked that way. The skin was very crisp, and there was a layer of fat between the skin and the meat - which made him happy because he likes duck fat.

      1. Thank you for that detailed and enticing review. I am glad to hear that the menu has changed since the one they have posted- I love the sound of what you describe vs. what I read on their site. Do you happen to recall, or did you catch a glimpse of any pasta dishes other than the raviolo/agnolotti/gnocchi? (I am such a glutton). Thanks again.

        1 Reply
        1. re: vvvindaloo

          Hmmm - there were others, and two risottos, but I can't remember. Hopefully they'll update their menu on the website soon and I can report back. I've been trying to be better about including details about the food, as I realize when I search for places, more and more I'm finding just the name of a place, and no details about why someone liked it.

          BTW - I just bought another bag of orecchiette from Puglia - at Ideal Cheese - different one than the one we discussed before from Faicco's.

        2. Thanks for your wonderfully detailed report, MMRuth. Given our recent experience with Chef Michael White's stellar cuisine at L'Impero, your rave doesn't surprise me. But still, all I can say is, Wow! I'm literally drooling all over my keyboard. I want that duck!! lol We definitely must get to Alto asap.

          1. Thanks for your great review. I was wondering how Alto was faring with the loss of Scott Conant. I had never had the chance to try it before he left, but now I would like to try it (especially for the duck--it sounds perfect).

            1. Thanks for taking the time to write this lovely review. I went there twice for the less expensive summer lunch, which was excellent though obviously not as good as your dinner. I had wanted to try Michael White's cooking for years and I wasn't disappointed.

              11 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

              1. Just wanted to link to today's NYT review of Alto - three stars - http://events.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/...

                (Also reviews L'Impero)

                5 Replies
                1. re: MMRuth

                  that mushroom soup they mentioned sounds good enough for me to make a reservation.

                  1. re: sam1

                    I didn't have it - but it looked and smelled divine - the other people I was with really enjoyed it. And my husband had that duck.

                    1. re: MMRuth

                      IIRC you also had a stellar meal at Ouest.
                      Between the two restaurants, which one would you consider the
                      better one? I know they are both upscale with Alto being the more expensive of the two. Is it worth the extra expense?

                      1. re: idia

                        No question that I would go to Alto - different level of food altogether. Ouest was very good - but this is more "haute cuisine", I would say.

                2. Thank you for the great recommendation.......will cancel Butter for sure now.

                  1. Excellent review. If you don't already write for a living, perhaps you should consider it :)

                    1. We went again on Friday night, again as someone's guest. Overall, the food was wonderful, with the exception of one dish. We did the four course prix fixe ($88 - quite a bit higher than this time last year, I see).

                      I had:

                      Calamari Ripeni con Fiore di Zucca // 23 (oven baked mediterranean calamari filled with shrimp and zucchini flowers) - delicious dish, with wonderful crunchy fried fresh bread crumbs on top.

                      Pappardelle with Wild Mushrooms - silky pasta, nice selection of wild mushrooms, including chanterelles.

                      Dentice Rossa D'Amo con Caponata di Carciofi // 38 (sautéed pink snapper, artichoke, mint and olio nuovo) - this dish was a problem for me. First, as I experienced last time with fish, I thought it was slightly over done. The real issue was the side dish. There were beautiful small artichokes, halved, some smashed, green olives, sauteed onions and LOTS of capers - far too many capers, so many that I don't want to eat a caper for a long time, and I only took a couple of bites of this. I kept hoping to enjoy the artichokes, but they were so infused with the flavor of the capers (which were large), that I couldn't. No hint of mint that I could discern. One of our dining companions had this as well and ate all of it, so it may just have been me. Edit - I just looked up caponata - and it sounds like capers are a normal component of the dish.

                      My husband:

                      Uovo, Pancetta, Asparagi e Bruschetta // 18 (poached egg, double cooked pancetta, asparagus, parmigiano crema and grilled pane rustico) - had a quick bite - loved it - my husband said it was his favorite dish.

                      Gnocchi con Cozze, Calamari, Olio e Peperoncino // 29 (potato gnocchi, mediterranean mussels, calamari, garlic and chilies) - had a bite of this too - gnocchi with seafood strikes me as odd, but it was a nice bite.

                      Nodino di Vitello con Funghi e Polenta Bianca // 49 (roasted amish veal chop, chanterelle mushrooms, white polenta sformato) ($18 prix fixe supplement) - did not try a bite, but looked amazing.


                      Tartaletta (dark chocolate tart, espresso crema, mocha gelato)

                      Torrone (piemontese nougat semifreddo, hazelnut cake, warm chocolate sauce) - this was mine - quite good, but my taste buds were still overwhelmed by those damn capers.

                      Torta di Melone (vanilla cake, yogurt cream, charentais melon, lemon verbena ice cream)

                      Bomboloni (cherry-vanilla custard filled doughnuts, sour-cherry brachetto sauce) - tired this and loved it.

                      We had a Brunello with the meal that was fantastic - will try to find it on the wine list.

                      Overall, an excellent meal, but that fish dish really was problematic for me. Next time I think I'll skip the fish and have meat or poultry instead. Very good service etc.