Before the democratizing chaos of the Internet; before the rise of scruffy Greenmarket chic; and before upstart, kitchen anarchists like April Bloomfield and David Chang came along, aspiring chefs followed a settled, almost monastic road to the top of their profession. As young acolytes (most of them men, most of them European), they studied the ancient cooking texts of Carême, Escoffier, and Child. They did penance as kitchen slaves in restaurants around Europe and, if they survived these trials, many of them came to New York, where they worked their way slowly up the ranks at gourmet temples like Le Cirque, La Caravelle, and La Côte Basque. If they learned their lessons well, they’d attain the coveted titles of sous-chef or chef de cuisine, and in due course (after a decade or two), they might open their own little temple to la grande cuisine. There, they’d indoctrinate new acolytes to the calling and turn out the same catalogue of sacred recipes (duck magret, clams Cassino, crème brûlée), which they had trained all their devout lives to do.
Nowadays, of course, the old orthodoxies have mostly melted away. Which is why Alain Allegretti’s eponymous restaurant in the Flatiron district has a nostalgic, almost wistful quality to it. All around the small, unassuming space, there are hints of old-world grandiosity preserved, as if in aspic. In the bar area, there’s a wooden display case filled with giant wineglasses and crystal snifters. In the dining room, the tabletops are covered in crisp linen and the curving silver sconces on the walls look like they’ve been heisted from a grand, neo-imperial estate on the Côte d’Azur. Allegretti grew up in Nice (where he studied under that high priest of haute Provençal cuisine, Alain Ducasse), and his menu is filled with old chestnuts like salad Niçoise, Mediterranean rouget, and, yes, crème brûlée. He also worked at Le Cirque 2000, and seems to have brought some of that restaurant’s spirit with him. The captains wear coats and ties, and call their patrons “Sir” and “Madame,” and several of the murmuring, uptown patrons I noticed talked that way too.
“I feel like I’m eating out with my grandmother in Westchester,” said my suburbanite friend, as he regarded the menu with chagrin. He decided to order the tagliolini as an appetizer, which he compared unfavorably (“soft, mushy, underseasoned”) to the mundane pasta dishes he’d sampled during his dining adventures outside the city. But many of the starters were better than that. I liked the chunky, thick-cut tuna tartare dressed with bits of pistachio and Montasio cheese, and also the salty, basil-flavored heirloom-tomato salad, which was crowned with a big milky scoop of Burrata. I’m also betting that Allegretti’s deeply flavored “Provençal” fish soup (with a rich, oily rouille) is more competent than any bouillabaisse knockoff you’ll find on the streets of Chappaqua or Mount Kisco. Ditto for the sweet sausage “Perugina” (presented with real panisse made with chickpeas) and the octopus, which is seared “à la plancha” and sprinkled with a lightly honeyed salad of potatoes, onions, and cool, thin-cut slices of green apple.
These capable early dishes lead into a series of entrées that aren’t cheap (seven of them cost over $30) and that seem to grow in complexity and heft as you go along. For a Niçoise chef, who, presumably, has experience with the great canon of noodle dishes across the border in Italy, the pastas are disappointing. The risotto I sampled (with goat cheese and zucchini blossoms) had a fresh, if slightly watery quality to it, but my suburban friend was right about the grimly bland tagliolini, which is made with cherry tomatoes and an overcooked mash of cuttlefish. The heavy oxtail ravioli had the opposite problem, and so did the gnocchi, which were obscured in a starchy, Chinese-restaurant-style sauce made with artichokes and shreds of “spicy” lamb. A few of the potentially lighter entrées were overworked in a similarly aggressive way, like the cod (carpet bombed with chorizo and a fishy, orange ragout made with nuggets of baccalà), and the duck magret, the perfect, gamy taste of which was muffled in a mix of summer beans, honey, and too much lavender.
Allegretti tends to do his best when he lets the ancient classic recipes do most of the work for him. The crispy, coral-colored fillets of rouget (with sautéed discs of zucchini, pine nuts, and a brushing of saffron sauce) looked and tasted like they’d been beamed in from one of the grand seaside hotels in Nice. You might not find your dorado splashed with coco beans and a lemon verbena jus in restaurants along the Côte d’Azur (actually, you might), but the fish was well cooked and cost slightly less than it would during the high-summer season on the Mediterranean coast ($36). The grumpy gentleman from suburbia pointed out that his sea scallops were radically overcooked, which they were. But the “milk fed” veal is a tender piece of beef (it’s served with mushrooms sautéed in butter and a rich stock flavored with Gorgonzola and rosemary), and the lady to my right deemed her helping of fresh, ivory-colored halibut ($38 with a paella rice cake and tomato-flavored white-wine sauce) commendable, provided she didn’t have to pick up the check.
Those of you not privy, in these tenuous economic times, to deep expense accounts or vast baronial fortunes, might find the cost of dining at Allegretti an issue. But you shouldn’t be surprised. “Thou shalt charge top dollar” has been one of the central tenets of the ancient haute cuisine doctrine going all the way back to Escoffier. The wine list, accordingly, is a Eurocentric document, stocked with an impressive number of big-ticket items, including a ’98 Guigal la Mouline Côte Rôtie for $1,500, and nine types of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, selling for $250 per bottle and over. The desserts are similarly old-fashioned, although many have been spiced up, in a halfhearted attempt to make them look new. There is licorice in the mini-size panna cotta, and imperceptible traces of grappa liqueur in the standard-issue chocolate fondant. If you have to choose between a crème brûlée blasted with too much lavender and a simple brioche stuffed with Chiboust pastry cream flavored with lemons, take the brioche. After a rich meal, simplicity is sometimes a relief.