Alto is the newer of a duo of Italian restaurants by chef-wunderkind Scott Conant. Eric Asimov awarded three stars to L’Impero in December 2002, while Frank Bruni gave Alto a two-star kiss-off in July 2005. For a restaurant helmed by so well regarded a chef, it was a significant slapdown. Bruni seemed almost vengeful in that review, calling Alto “haute and bothered,” but it never really made sense. A celebration for my friend’s birthday provided the excuse to see for ourselves whether Bruni was right.
Alto is named for the Alto Adige a region of northern Italy. It’s a companion to L’Impero, which features the food of southern Italy. But Conant plays with flavors and ingredients, and aside from an emphasis on pasta dishes, one is not really conscious of a focus on Italy. We ordered the seven-course tasting menu ($115) with wine pairings ($75). The server said that the kitchen would substitute freely, but we took the menu as printed. After a delicious amuse-bouche of smoked trout, we had:
Branzino Tartare (avocado, gremolata and preserved lemon vinaigrette)
Poached Black Sea Bass (caponata panzanella and lemon thyme broth)
Veal and Fontina Angolotti (organic baby carrots, baby mushrooms, and parmigiano emulsion)
Risotto with Frogs Legs (summer squash and black truffles)
Roast Suckling Pig (smoked corn, chanterelles and black pepper agrodolce)
Braised Beef Short Ribs (vegetable and farro risotto)
Warm Chocolate Ganache (milk chocolate gelato, roasted peanot froth)
We found the pacing and variety of the dishes, the combination of ingredients, and the quality of the presentation, all impeccable. The first four dishes were unanimous hits. The branzino tartare was meltingly delicious. The crunchy caponata was a perfect contrast to the soft black sea bass. We noted that the risotto ran rings around the one we had at Del Posto (for which Mario Batali charges $50). I found my suckling pig a bit tough, but my friend said that her portion was wonderfully tender. Short ribs, I suppose, were a rote inclusion not quite as exciting as the other items. The staff were alerted in advance that it was my friend’s birthday, and her dessert came with “Happy Birthday” written on the plate in chocolate calligraphy.
Conant has made some changes since Frank Bruni’s two-star review. Some dishes that skewed towards German-Austrian cuisine have been dropped. There is no longer a bottle of olive oil on every table. The menu, formerly prix fixe-only at dinner ($75 for four courses), is now available à la carte. It was a Saturday night, and the restaurant was not full — I suspect they are starting to get desperate. The décor, which Bruni hated, appears to be unchanged. For us, it was elegant, refined, serene—delightful.
We found the service attentive and impressive. Many dishes were delivered with half-moon covers, and the food uncovered with that voila! moment that is so seldom seen these days in restaurants. I was mildly irritated when we ordered champagne, but the sommelier could not explain what it was. (“It just came in and I’m not too familiar with it, but I’ll be happy to help you with any of your other wine selections.”) At $15 per glass, she should know.
There was an addictive selection of homemade breads, but oddly enough they came with no butter, and the bread server’s accent was so thick that we couldn’t quite understand all of the five choices. A couple of the other dishes were dropped off by barely-comprehensible servers. Am I asking too much when I suggest that at a restaurant of Alto’s calibre, a reasonable command of English should be required of those entrusted with describing the food?
These minor complaints aside, Alto did a lovely job on a special occasion. We would gladly go back.
Update: The day before our visit, Eater put Alto on deathwatch, with an over/under of January, noting that “Conant’s investors can’t be very happy with the thin dinner crowds. There’s even a rumor circulating that the venue is up for sale, which, no, does not bode well at all.” I hope it survives, but I must admit the same thought crossed my mind when I saw the number of empty tables on a Saturday night.
Update 2: Since our visit, Scott Conant has departed, and Michael White is now the chef. For an early look, see Randall Lane’s review in Time Out New York.
Alto (520 Madison Avenue, entrance on 53rd Street, East Midtown)