Alto is the most ambitious Italian restaurant to open in New York since San Domenico arrived on the scene 17 years ago. Scott Conant and his partners in Tudor City’s L’Impero-Chris Cannon, Jane Epstein and designer Vicente Wolf-have set out, as the chef put it, to create “the sort of very high-end Michelin-starred restaurant you find in Italy.” The cuisine is from the Alto Adige, a mountainous area in the north close to France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. This cooking is new to me, and I’m willing to bet that any dish served at Alto would come as a surprise to the people who live in the region it’s named for as well.
There must be a band of elves with little fingers in Alto’s kitchen, putting together such jewel-like food. An array of wonderful, thimble-sized dishes arrives at the table when you sit down: sashimi of sea scallops; tuna and yellowtail topped with an unctuous sea urchin and caviar emulsion; fluke with smoked paprika and orange and lemon segments; a serving of brandade no bigger than a quarter; and a crab consommé that hides a whole, peeled baby tomato at the bottom of its doll-sized cup.
Tiny agnolotti float in a cloud of Parmesan foam, laced with mushrooms smaller than a fingernail. A miniature lobster salad topped with slivers of shad roe bottarga accompanies a small white cup of squid ink “cappuccino,” black as tar and foaming at the brim.
There is no sign outside the restaurant, which is tucked away in a midtown courtyard behind a piece of the Berlin Wall. A small bar at the entrance leads into a sleek, two-story space with a central mezzanine, enclosed with frosted glass, for private parties upstairs. Gray carpeting covers the floors, and the tables are set with white linen cloths, red velvet chairs and dark gray banquettes. The dining room is divided, like Gaul, into three parts, and the effect is odd. The middle section, directly under the mezzanine, is long and narrow, with a low ceiling and curtains along one side. It feels like the first-class dining car on a train, except for the two foot-high iron candlesticks that are secured on the end of each table like tapers in a medieval banquet. On either side of this room are two other dining areas, one with a double-height ceiling and rather bright recessed lighting beaming down from above. The walls are covered by rows of glass-enclosed wine bottles dramatically silhouetted by a whitish-blue glow that my companion one evening described poetically as “like the light at dawn when you’ve stayed up all night taking drugs.”
In fact, dining here can be something of an out-of-body experience, what with the outsized Alice in Wonderland lampshades hanging over the two round tables on either side of the room; the intricate plates that need a jeweler’s eyeglass to assemble; and the captains and sommeliers, who are dressed, as my friend put it, like a stockbroker’s senior advisors on important transactions. The rest of the wait staff wear dark gray tunics subtly emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo, and the service on all counts is flawless.
There’s a separate pasta course on the prix-fixe menu, but apart from that the food here bears little resemblance to Italian food as most people know it. I would call it more haute European, with strong references to Italy, Germany and Austria. What could be more German than the combination of potato schupfnudeln (gnocchi-like pasta), roast loin of pork and caramelized cabbage? Mr. Conant uses freshwater fish such as pike, a moist filet served with spaetzle and pickled shallots on a bright swath of green pea purée striped with a line of Gaeta olive oil. Crispy speck and a foie-gras emulsion garnish a guinea hen cooked two ways: the breast poached in an olive oil bath, soft as butter; the roasted leg boned and stuffed with a mixture of the bird’s liver, currants and almonds. Ravioli are served on a bed of delicately seasoned sauerkraut.
This food isn’t as intellectual as it sounds. It’s certainly original and innovative, even visionary, but like Mr. Conant’s cooking at L’Impero, it’s passionate and sensual. Where does he get his ideas? Venison bresaola, a neat line of seven perfect slices, arrives with ramps, fresh juniper, apples and a sprinkling of black powder on the plate that turns out to be made from burned spices. Ramps show up again in a sublime risotto, topped with roasted eel glazed with balsamic vinegar and chicken stock. Smoked trout comes with dollar-sized pancakes made with chickpea flour and chives, a refined version of Ligurian street food. A braised snail sits on top of a creamy puddle of polenta topped with porcini, white asparagus and preserved truffles.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s eaten at L’Impero that the pasta here is terrific. Mr. Conant serves trennette, a long thin pasta, with raw spot prawns that are just barely cooked at the table when a hot sea-urchin froth is poured on them by the waiter. The raviolini, with buffalo ricotta in a light Parmesan broth with asparagus and peas, are ethereal. For the more adventurous, bigoli-strands of long whole-wheat pasta-are tossed in a robust financière sauce made with cockscombs and tripe.
Sommelier Eric Zillier, formerly of Veritas, created the wine list with Chris Cannon. It’s wide-ranging and affordable, with interesting selections from the Alto Adige region as well as other parts of Italy and France. A red Muscat went beautifully with a ripe glop of Gorgonzola with pickled dates from the cheese menu.
Pastry chef Patti Jackson, who was previously at Le Madri, turns out an impressive, architectural array of desserts from Austria and Italy. The rhubarb strudel with roasted strawberries is outstanding. So is the Sacher torte with kumquat marmalade and crema fritta, scented with orange-blossom water. The meal winds up with a selection of inspired petits fours and chocolates and exquisitely crafted, colorful marzipan vegetables.
Eating at Alto is a thrilling, dizzying experience. If a four-course menu doesn’t seem like enough, Mr. Conant offers his customers a seven-course and even a 20-course tasting menu. Bring your magnifying glass.
Follow Moira Hodgson via RSS.