Wylie Dufresne might have put the Lower East Side on Manhattan’s fine-dining map, but he’s not the only high-flying chef stirring Clinton Street’s pots. (You’d be forgiven for thinking so—his protracted move across the street has been scrutinized more closely than Paris Hilton’s pre-Fox “acting” debut.) Just beyond the white-hot spotlight trained on Dufresne at WD-50, another ambitious kitchen has undergone a transformation so discreet, only the freshly posted menu and a renewed, intensifying buzz give it away.
From the festively lit outside (and, except for some recently hung black-and-white photographs, from the inside, too), Alias looks just like it did when it opened nearly two years ago. It’s the food that’s gotten a major face-lift, courtesy of new chef Anthony Rose, who used to work at Washington Park and has clearly internalized that restaurant’s seasonal-food philosophy. Rose tweaks the menu nightly, highlighting Greenmarket produce (especially squash, these days) and paying homage to his purveyors in menu descriptions and 4H-Club-worthy photographs.
California cuisine on Clinton Street sounds hokey, but it works—especially when it’s as tasty as Rose’s. Creamy oil-dappled hummus and great crusty bread get things off to a good start, as do well-crafted cocktails and aperitifs supervised, like the appealing wine list, by fellow Washington Park alum Warren Fraser. Menus aren’t often fun to read, but Alias’s is—short, eclectic, and packed with announcements for upcoming wine dinners and seasonal specials (Hanukkah latkes, Christmas ham, and a vegetable-of-the-day spotlight).
The appetizers are categorized by plate size; we gravitated to “medium” and “bigger” ones like roasted beets and soft, pungent shallots paired with ricotta from DiPalo’s, and a ramekin of rich chicken-liver mousse garnished with port-soaked apricots and a pile of salty potato chips. “Grilled leeks and Long Island squid” might sound like a fancy way of saying fried calamari, but one bite renders the description woefully inadequate: These exceptionally tender ringlets are expertly fried, still crispy somehow beneath luscious parsley-mint aïoli. We’d never come across chestnut pizza in our travels, but after tasting the autumnal combination of earthy roasted nuts, sweet cipollini onions, and sharp Parmesan on crispy flatbread, we wonder why.
Sides like a simple salad dressed with oil and salt highlight local produce. (The greens come from Long Island’s Satur Farms; one night, chef turned gentleman farmer Eberhard Müller dropped them off himself.) But this isn’t diet food: Rose swathes Brussels sprouts in crème fraîche and drowns crosnes (tiny Asian tubers) in butter and mint. The full- flavored approach extends to entrées like pumpkin-braised rabbit stew with gnocchi and Parmesan, and succulent grilled Vermont pork on a bed of polenta tinted green from puréed kale.
This is wind-chill-warding-off food, even the fish: Flaky Chatham cod hunkers down in a soft bed of puréed Jerusalem artichokes, its mild flavor accessorized with crispy pork belly and red-wine brown butter. Grilled chicken is juicy and crisp-skinned, a fine version, but the potatoes it comes with—halved, allegedly butter-roasted but tasting more like deep-fried—steal the show. They’re better than the mushy fingerlings that accompany the duck, but no matter: With its slices of fat-ringed breast and rustic duck sausage, that dish triumphs anyway.
It seems right to conclude this kind of hearty repast with cheese, of which there are two, and linger over the rest of the wine or a glass of port. Alias offers these niceties without pretension; locals would be just as welcome to sit down for a quick sandwich (or half-sandwich) of the day—brisket, most recently—and a Victory Prima Pils. There’s a black-and-white soda made with Fox’s U-bet and ice cream from the nearby Il Laboratorio del Gelato, and a very sweet, very rich Canadian butter tart that will send you out into Clinton Street grateful for a definition of “local” that extends that far north.
The fact that the Underground Gourmet used to live across the street from the space that recently became a great Turkish restaurant called Divane, run by restless kebab king Orhan Yegen, is a source of both deep regret and mild relief. Had we seen Yegen coming, we might never have moved. Had we stayed, the temptation to toddle no farther than half a block for dinner every night and gorge exclusively on astonishingly delicious Turkish food for the rest of our gluttonous lives, thereby forfeiting our illustrious careers, would have been hard to resist.
As we’ve noted before, Yegen has the type of forceful personality and piercing stare that makes Soup Nazi Al Yeganeh (note the curiously similar surname) seem like a bashful schoolgirl. As he demonstrated at Beyoglu and Efendi, Yegen is out to instruct as well as to nourish. The lesson we learn at Divane is that hummus, a finely chopped tomato salad, cacik (homemade yogurt and cucumber flavored with garlic and mint), and lahmacun (a small, crisp Turkish pizza of sorts topped with ground lamb and served with a tangy onion salad) are not, in and of themselves, meze. Meze, Yegen tells us, flitting by our table one night, is what you eat at a meze house, not at an establishment like Divane. Yegen calls them starters and wisely offers only the above four to prevent overdosing before diners get to the main event. Our advice: Pretend they are meze and order all four anyway. They are simply superb, exquisitely fresh and flavorful, not to be missed, especially the red-pepper-and-pomegranate-laced tomato salad, which has to be the best thing ever to happen to that fruit in its out-of-season slack. Among the 24 grilled or roasted meat, chicken, and fish dishes, all generously served with excellent rice, salad, and cracked-wheat pilaf, the lamb kebab, lamb chops, and a whole grilled sea bass are standouts. But the prize undoubtedly goes to the doner yogurt kebab, seasoned minced lamb and beef carved from the vertical spit and smothered in a succulent sauce of tomato, yogurt, and heavenly croutons. It’s almost worth forgoing the meze, or rather, the starters.