157 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10003 (b/n 9th and 10th; map); 212-539-1900; aldernyc.com
Service: Professional, casually smart, unobstrusive
Setting: Clean and modern but warm; sound level relatively civil
Must-Haves: Pub cheese, fried cauliflower, chicken liver toast
Cost: Small plates $9 to $24, cocktails $12 to $13 (select half-pours $6); expect to pay around $30 to $40 for food
Compare To: Pearl & Ash, The Pines
Hours: 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Recommendation: Highly recommended; excellent cocktails and everything you want in a small plates restaurant
For 10 years at wd~50, chef Wylie Dufresne has proven that you don't need to be brand new at the game to be on the cutting edge. The restaurant has doubled as a lab for modernist technique, from meat glues to wobbly gels, in an artistic-meets-scientific endeavor to show how far we can take our food—and how fun the journey can be. You lose count of the chefs that owe their insights and chops to working in his kitchen.
His new venture Alder—his first since wd~50—is a subtler place, casual in its setting and more reined in. Dufresne is a master of the baroque—you don't make noodles out of seafood without dreaming big—but he also knows restraint. He has stayed with wd~50 for a decade, an eternity in today's New York restaurant years, avoiding television fame or branded pasta sauces so he can keep to his work. This new restaurant (with executive chef Jon Bignelli) and bar (director Kevin Denton) takes the best of that studied creativity and deploys it with great care.
Ambitious but unfulfilling small plates restaurants are a dime a dozen these days, so leave it to Dufresne to school them on how it's done. Because Alder may be the very definition of a great small plates restaurant. It's fun here. You can drink well. The food is exciting even when it's not perfect. And you can eat to feel nourished, not just entertained. People have been calling Alder a "pub," which is wrong both for pubs and for Alder, but the restaurant makes a strong case for better living, and drinking, through chemistry.
It starts with cocktails, most of which are $12, though some are available in half-pours for $6. Small plates? Meet small drinks. Given how easy-to-drink they are, it's a smart move that lets you sample the bar's talents a little at a time, at your own pace. My favorite is Dr. Dave's Scrip Pad, an Old Overholt rye and Ramazzotti amaro drink that doesn't taste like every other bitter brown whiskey thing; there's smoked maple syrup and yuzu juice for a super-smooth, multi-dimensional sipper that revives your faith in sweet drinks and their role at the dinner table. The Hey Rube comes in at a close second, a lightly fizzy mix of Ford's gin and Pimm's with rhubarb and cucumber: a Pimm's cup refined down to the essentials, a little tart, a little sweet, more thoughtful than you'd think on first sip. This is how Alder gets you. The Bikini Season, grassy Avua cachaça mixed with makrud lime and Velvet Falernum, is less inventive but superbly balanced, and the thought of having it around this summer is enough to make Alder my new favorite East Village bar.
The 17-item menu ranges in price from $9 to $24, starting with Dufresne'd bar snacks and ending with something analogous to entrées. It's hard not to stare agog, if only for a moment, at the Pub Cheese ($9), a purple blob of cheddar, cream cheese, shallots, red wine, and carageenan blended until Velveeta-smooth, smeared on a black slate with crumbles of sweet pistachio brittle. Not just for the weirdness of the thing, but for its generous portion—the spread with its compressed Martin's potato roll "chips" is the kind of bar snack you wish never ends, and it doesn't.
More finite are the Pigs in a Blanket, six little bites for $12,* a cute and effective Chinese takeout mashup of fatty-sweet Chinese sausage wrapped in compressed hot dog buns (the pasta machine doubles as Bread Compressor at Alder), then deep fried and served with sinus-clearing mustard (like the packets, but better) and duck sauce-esque chili jam. These are bar snacks I can get behind. A lineup of four Caesar Nigiri ($16), where romaine hearts and egg yolk replace rice and wasabi, doesn't wow as much, but that's okay, there's still more pub cheese to eat.
* Alder's menu actually tells you how many pieces of composed bites come to an order. Hooray!
You can treat Alder like a cocktail bar with great food and have a lovely time. Or you can make a reservation and commit to a DIY tasting menu, sampling bites here and there until you've had your fill and then some. In a way, these are the easy things for a small plates restaurant to do well: a couple good little bites or a blowout meal of one big ticket. But I like that you can also visit Alder for a regular dinner, order a few dishes, and get enough to eat without breaking the bank. Look to the middle of Alder's menu and you'll find surprising value items.
For one, take the Fried Cauliflower ($15), a whole head of cauliflower deep fried naked until it's browned all over and just-tender within, and portioned like the vegetable equivalent of prime rib. It comes on a purée of preserved lemon, almonds, and lemon oil and gets toppings of melty lardo and crunchy cacao nibs. Here we have a cauliflower dish that tastes unapologetically of cauliflower, tender and sweet, enriched but not overpowered by its creamy, nutty, and crunchy accompaniments. A slight quibble for the kitchen: remove the lardo, which is mostly unnecessary, and throw vegetarians a tasty, tasty bone.
Alder has two liver dishes on its menu: one with foie, creamy and refined, the other with chopped chicken liver ($17), something my grandmother might love after a couple bourbons. It's all about texture: soft nubs of chicken liver piled on a crisp slip of cornbread toast, surrounded by equally nubby grapefruit-shallot marmalade. Oh, and chicken skin as good as the best chicharrones, because chopped liver ain't chopped liver here, and the kitchen knows there's more to the organ than just pâté.
Towards the bottom of the menu you'll find light entrée portions of Rye Pasta ($18) and Fish & Chips ($18). Skip them and save room for dessert. That pasta really does taste like rye, distressingly like rye, more rye than rye bread—and nothing else to balance it, a noble attempt that doesn't deliver beyond its concept. And though the sweet pea tartar sauce accompanying the fish and chips is an all-star sandwich spread, it can't rescue limply fried, underseasoned fish.
So maybe the small plates fundamentalists are on to something, and larger entrées don't deliver the same punch as their appetizer-sized cohorts. But you should keep the dessert to yourself, at least the Root Beer Pudding ($8), an airy custard complete with foamy head that gets its sasparilla soul from root beer candy. After seven courses and five drinks between a table for two, it couldn't go down fast enough.
That's what makes Alder so compelling to me. So many restaurants fail where it succeeds: in keeping you engaged, taking active pleasure in your meal, from start to finish, no matter how long. Professional and friendly service helps, as does an understated dining room that's modern but warm. They show that Alder's about more than the food on your plate and the drink in your hand; it's about the sheer pleasure of being there, and the nagging need to return for more.