Alder Statesman: Ten Years in the Making, Wylie Dufresne’s New Restaurant Was Worth the Wait

The bar and dining room at Alder.

The bar and dining room at Alder.

The chef Wylie Dufresne looks a bit like a character out of The Far Side. He is still boyish at 42, with indoor-only onionskin, anachronistic muttonchops, bookish glasses and long, side-parted hair. If you wanted to compare them side by side, however, which would be useful, that might be difficult.

In 1998, when the Internet was just a baby, Gary Larson, the creator of The Far Side, wrote a heartfelt letter to all those Far Side fans—and they are legion, because The Far Side is pure brilliance that no panel can contain, as Mr. Larson captured both a compelling misanthropic weltanschauung and tremendous tenderness—in which he asked that no Far Side comics be posted online. “These cartoons are my ‘children,’ of sorts,” he wrote, “and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me.” Those who wish to join his world of perspicacious cows, disgruntled cowboys and wry aliens must buy the lavish coffee table book, The Complete Far Side, which retails for more than $100.

The work of Mr. Dufresne has proven similarly scarce and pricey. A decade ago, he opened wd~50, the brilliant beacon of modernist cuisine on the Lower East Side. Since then, he has refrained from opening what were, surely, countless other restaurants. He’s on television only rarely. He has no product line, offshoot or brand extension. For a decade, those who wished to experience Mr. Dufresne’s perspicacious, wry and heartfelt cuisine would have to travel to his 67-seat restaurant, pay $155, sit for three or four hours and, perhaps, glimpse the man, usually peering at a plate seriously or doing something with a tweezers in the kitchen.

But in March 2013, a decade after he began, Mr. Dufresne opened a new restaurant. It’s called Alder, and it was worth the wait.

Alder occupies a small space on a block of Second Avenue between East Ninth and 10th Streets long given up for dead. (After the 2nd Avenue Deli decamped to 33rd Street in 2006, the funeral home was the only building left with a soul—and that became luxury condos.) On a recent Sunday night, however, there were signs of life at Alder.

For a newly opened, long-awaited restaurant from one of New York City’s best chefs, it wasn’t nearly the rowdydow one might expect. This has something to do with the unique space Mr. Dufresne holds in the city’s culinary firmament (and something to do with it having been a Sunday). Mr. Dufresne is a chef’s chef’s chef in the same way Elizabeth Bishop was, according to John Ashbery, a writer’s writer’s writer or Les Blank was a director’s director’s director. But unlike Bishop, or Blank, who passed away last month, Mr. Dufresne isn’t deceased. He’s very much alive.