In The Midnight Hour: Alta
Open Until: 11:00 pm, Mon-Thu; 1:00 am, Fri-Sat; 10:30 pm, Sun
Drinking Until: close, 7 days
Food Until: close
That more New Yorkers don't know the name Harrison Mosher, executive chef of Alta in the West Village, is a crying shame, though you wouldn't guess there was a dearth of press trying to push your way through the long, crowded bar and foyer on your way to the main dining area. Formerly a sous-chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, Mosher gives the small plates at his subterranean multi-level townhouse whimsical touches that apply progressive techniques in a way that's both fun and seamless. Presenting this kind of food in a setting with such old-world charm only heightens the experience.
Quirky is a pretty apt description of the restaurant's layout, which utilizes space the way shanty towns do, cramming seats wherever they fit (there's a two-top stuffed into the vestibule outside the entrance, where—were this still a residential building—they might put their garbage cans), though the tables don't feel cramped in the slightest. If possible, try to get a seat in the main room or its secluded upper deck, whose wooden accents, dim lights, and glowing fireplace evoke a saloon in medieval Spain.
Finding foie gras ($13) in this city for under $15 is an automatic win, and the airy smoked mousse hidden under a cabernet-huckleberry gelee "veil" melts with gamey richness, its smoke barely registering (a good thing, as smoke can often dominate a dish). The hidden liver comes accented with fresh huckleberries, micro basil, marcona almonds and marcona almond butter. Foie gras pairs wonderfully with tart fruit, marcona almonds lend their nutty crunch, and the the basil adds a nice herbal note. The flavors are all familiar, the presentation anything but.
As readers of this column are aware, we've been known to play a game of "shrimp hands" or two, so a plate of enormous whole shrimp ($13.50), was just begging to be ordered, and indeed these prawns are gargantuan—seared in a wok and served simply with a wedge of lime and a small bowl of sea salt. In every way the opposite of chef Mosher's more elaborate creations, these shrimp eat like lobster, with a pleasant chew and a smoky-briny flavor that tastes like a beachside campfire without the unwelcome sand wedgie.
Lamb tataki ($11) nearly disappears under its fruity accoutrements: dehydrated muscat grapes, citrus segments, white peach puree and lemon verbena, which, while working in harmony, threatens to drown out the subtleties of the barely-seared lamb. Sliced thin, the protein is nice and gamey, though its rosemary crust registers as barely noticeable. Wrapping the other ingredients inside the lamb let its flavor shine through, and when the plate finally comes together, the combination is thought-provoking, with a ripe sweetness that complements the raw, grassy flavors of the lamb.
In a last-ditch effort to celebrate last season's bounty, we opted for the summer corn risotto ($13), a loosely creamy hodgepodge of sweet corn, roasted jalapenos, smoked pecorino and truffle butter topped with crispy pancetta. Aggressively spiced, the dish's heaviness benefits from the bright, fresh corn, and the truffle butter actually rounds out the dish with earthiness rather than dominating the other players, as truffle-spiked condiments often do.
Not to step on Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler's toes, but Alta seems to us to be the perfect date night spot. Between the inventive food and romantic atmosphere, it's an ideal place for those who celebrate food to celebrate each other.