Photographs by Danny Kim
Those of you interested in studying the rise and fall of the many chaotic dining epochs that have rippled through the New York restaurant world over the past 30 years should pay close attention to the career of Alison Price Becker. She began in the eighties, answering phones at Jams, the seminal Jonathan Waxman establishment that introduced the city to the seasonal wonders of California cuisine. She worked at Gotham Bar and Grill while Alfred Portale was inventing his much imitated vertical cuisine, and was the manager at a short-lived restaurant called Rakel, which is notorious as the place where a talented young cook named Thomas Keller first set up shop in New York. In the late eighties, she opened Alison on Dominick, which was one of the original outlier dining destinations to open way downtown during the late eighties, and is still famous, among aged carnivores, as the place where the great Tom Valenti popularized that iconic delicacy of the early nose-to-tail era, the braised lamb shank.
Price Becker closed Alison on Dominick not long after 9/11 and then, for a time, skipped town. But now she’s back, after a spell in the Hamptons, with a new big-city venture called Alison Eighteen. The original Alison restaurant was known for its darkly baroque interior, but the new one has been modeled (by the designers of the original restaurant) in a classically clean, if slightly generic, neo-casual style. The space, on 18th Street in the Flatiron district, features a commodious tavern area up front, which was filled, when I dropped by, with dignified professional couples sipping fruity Champagne cocktails at the bar. The dining room is decorated with arrangements of forsythia blossoms and white wallpaper depicting Bemelmans-style New York street scenes. Long purple banquettes line the walls, and the waiters are dressed, like ghosts from a bygone fine-dining era, in classic white topcoats and straight purple ties.
“I find this curiously comforting,” said Mrs. Platt, as we sipped our Harvey Wallbangers (you’ll find the drink under the Classics section of the cocktail menu, for the non-classic price of $16) and tapped our feet to the dusty easy-listening hits (the Eagles, Springsteen’s “Glory Days”) looping softly over the sound system. The chef, Robert Gurvich, also ran the kitchen at Alison on Dominick, and though his straightforward New American bistro-style menu has been streamlined for today’s simpler, more robust tastes, it contains conspicuous echoes of the past. There’s a Rotisserie section (chicken, lamb), and the entrée list is divided, in accordance with current fashion, by ingredient group (Fish and Meat, including the inevitable pork chop). But my bowl of chewy herb-steamed mussels tasted like a relic from the great mussels boom of the eighties, and the only thing that’s really new about the extravagantly priced foie gras ($28) is that it would have been called “seared” instead of “sautéed” a decade or so ago.
The soups and salads were better received by the tasters at my table. Mrs. Platt liked the escarole scattered with hazelnuts and shavings of apple. The nourishing soups included a classic rendition of Tuscan white bean threaded with kale, and an opulent oyster stew laced with puréed celery root and nuggets of smoked bacon. The pasta snobs at the table weren’t pleased with a “droopy and underwhelming” helping of fettuccine topped with shell-on razor clams, although no one had any major complaints about the standard, professionally cooked polenta appetizer, which is larded with butter and Parmesan and garnished with what the menu calls “foraged” mushrooms.
Most of the better entrées at Alison Eighteen tend to fall into the familiar and comforting category, and even by today’s standards, many of them aren’t cheap. The black sea bass I sampled one evening ($32, over a mild Catalan stew of white beans, cockles, and chorizo) had a dry, faintly fishy quality to it, and Mrs. Platt’s scallops (nicely cooked for $34) could have done without the strangely rubbery garnish of what appeared to be mushroom stalks. The house steak ($45 with an old-fashioned Bordelaise sauce) is well aged and properly tender, but could have been more generously cut for the price. If you want a full, carnivore meal, I suggest the braised veal shank ($34), or any of the spit-roasted dishes from the Rotisserie section of the menu (a decent country chicken, tender crispy-edged slices of lamb shoulder), all of which are served with fresh farm vegetables and a splash of their own juices.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about any of this. But if you’re pining for a neighborly place that offers the little touches that New Yorkers from another dining era used to take for granted when they dropped $100 on dinner out and a nice bottle of wine (a spacious room; solidly professional service; the blessed opportunity, even on crowded evenings, to hear yourself think), you could do an awful lot worse. Or so I thought to myself as I sipped my drink and nibbled on one of the classic, French-style beignets, which are made fresh in the kitchen and shot through with little deposits of passion-fruit cream. The other desserts include a strange chestnut pudding that tastes faintly like bath soap and a crumbly franzipan tart loaded with satisfying amounts of butter. If these options sound slightly too experimental, try the milk-chocolate mousse, which is shaped, in that classic twentieth-century way, like a dome, and flecked on its top with gold leaf.