As with diva opera stars, there’s a certain ritual sameness to the trajectories of aspiring four-star chefs in New York. He (or she) works for a number of years to master the requisite ancient techniques. Then the chef opens his own restaurant in the hinterlands (Tudor City, perhaps), gaining praise from critics, throwing temper tantrums of his own, and cultivating a claque of admiring diners. After this comes the grand uptown debut. As at the Met, this is attended by many obscure traditions. It should take place in a polished venue, with fleets of waiter extras dressed in dark costume, whispering in hushed, stagy tones. There must be $12 cocktails available from the bar, and a tall, dramatic wine rack sheathed in glass. Domed warmers should accompany dishes to the table, and many of these dishes should contain truffles or some form of foam, or, if possible, both. Desserts must be baroque in appearance and byzantine in their complexity. And when you are done deconstructing your meal, you should wash it all down with pots of ethereal Chinese tea.
520 Madison Ave., nr. 53rd St. (entrance on 53rd); 212-308-1099
At Alto, his urbane, sophisticated, somewhat calculated new establishment in midtown, the talented chef Scott Conant follows this script with a practiced acolyte’s zeal. Conant made his reputation serving an elevated brand of Italian cooking (braised baby goat, polenta with truffles) at a well-received restaurant in Tudor City called L’Impero. Alto is Italian also, but the tone is elevated to such a refined, even high-strung, degree that you might have a difficult time knowing it. The restaurant is located behind a small courtyard, discreetly tucked behind the Thomas Pink store on Madison Avenue. There’s a gleaming metal bar out front where you can nurse diminutive $12 Campari cocktails with muddled lemons and glasses of grand crû wines. The rooms, which are neatly designed to give a sense of intimacy as well as loft, are filled with wait staff gliding to and fro in a practiced, choreographed way. Great oversize lamp shades hang from the ceiling, and three walls of the main dining room are given over to a towering wine rack, which is filled, upon closer inspection, with mostly empty bottles, stretching up to the sky.
Given this backdrop, you would expect dinner at Alto to proceed with pomp and ceremony, and indeed it does. Conant is a connoisseur of crudi, the trendy Mediterranean version of sashimi, and before any real food arrives, we are treated to tiny bites of raw scallops (delicious), tuna (not so delicious, thanks to a dab of funky, overage uni), and fluke (not bad), all arranged on a variety of silver spoons. The first appetizer I encountered was a bowl of mushroom consommé, which had a weak, wan taste, like hospital broth, and has since been mercifully removed from the menu. But the pea soup (poured over a dissolving black-truffle-and-goat-cheese terrine) was excellent, and so was the polenta, which has an almost unearthly vanilla smoothness to it and is folded with truffles, porcini mushrooms, and fresh snails. De rigueur debut dishes like lobster and foie gras are also good. The lobster is dusted with tiny shavings of bottarga and presented with a weirdly bracing demitasse chaser of squid ink, and the foie gras is hickory-smoked, cut in carpaccio-style slices, and served on pieces of crackly toast.
Alto is named for Alto Adige, the northern Italian region that abuts the border with Austria. The area is known for hearty Aryan food like pork dishes and lots of dumplings, although I doubt you’d encounter anything there quite as rarified as Conant’s porcini-and-Swiss-chard ravioli, which are encased in a light, crispy skin, like pot stickers, and served with a deliciously sweet form of sauerkraut. Other dumplings appear on the excellent pasta section of the menu, like delicious little pouches of agnolotti (they’re stuffed with veal, pork, chicken, and fontina cheese, and decorated with Parmesan foam) and green ricotta-spinach gnocchi, which are mingled in an awkward way with dry medallions of rabbit. My nice bowl of ramp risotto didn’t quite go with its topping of glazed eel either, although everyone at the table admired the perfectly cooked farfalle, which is decked with morels and nickels of crispy sweetbread, and the perfectly cooked tangle of trenette (a flat pastalike linguine, but thinner) tossed with fresh mussels and spot prawns, and poured with a lightly frothy uni broth.
These inventive Italianate flourishes are more muted in the entrée section of the menu. Among the fish dishes, my neighbor’s baby turbot seemed overly subtle, even oily, although both the pike (with a purée of fresh peas and a sprinkling of lemon-flavored spaetzle) and the crunchy-skinned Japanese sea bass were very good. In confident diva fashion, Conant eschews chicken (you can get it at lunch) for a decorative plate of guinea hen wreathed in a foie gras emulsion, and an excellent rendition of squab, which is cut in segments and sunk in a bowl over lentils, baby turnips, and a melting brick of polenta. Of the standard lamb, pork, and beef dishes, the lamb chop (garnished with a giant flap of radicchio) is the most ordinary. Beef is conceived as a “duo” of soft, well-braised short ribs and a faintly salty portion of sirloin cut in delicate pink ribbons. The pork is also a duo, consisting of roasted loin and a cured cheek, served with a stack of schupfnudeln, a variety of fried potato spaetzle popular in the better kitchens of Alto Adige.
Jackets are required for gentlemen dining at Alto, and once seated, diners are strafed relentlessly by waiters proffering bottles of spa water (Hildon) and baskets of artisanal bread. The wine list is a learned if mildly overpriced document, and there are a variety of good cheeses to choose from, all garnished with bits of crunchy speck or fig sausage or light gelées made from amarone liqueur. Among the desserts, the mini Sacher torte had the odd, grainy consistency of a Power Bar, but everything else was pretty good, particularly the rhubarb strudel, which is stacked in a pool of lightly creamy vanilla custard. I confess I didn’t sample any of the six designer teas, although the selection of amarones and grappas is impressive. So is the crowd, which is filled with the usual opening-night characters dressed in their subdued uptown finery. As dishes issue from the kitchen, the diners whisper among themselves and peer discerningly at their plates. And when Conant tours the room, as debut chefs are prone to do, you can practically hear the murmurings of “bravo,” the faint patter of polite applause.
Address:520 Madison Ave.,
nr. 53rd St. (entrance on 53rd);
Hours: Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 P.M. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 P.M., Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 P.M.
Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $18; entrées, $24 to $33.
Ideal Meal: Polenta integrale or foie gras carpaccio, trenette with mussels and spot prawns, squab, rhubarb strudel.
Note: Petit fours are another de rigueur fancy restaurant experience. Here they’re exquisite, particularly the little chocolate drops filled with toffee and a touch of salt. Casual chic.