All'onda Makes Dining in Union Square Fun Again
22 East 13th Street (b/n 5th and University), New York, NY 10003 (map); 212-231-2236; allondanyc.com
Setting: Intimate two-level townhouse with separate bar and dining rooms
Service: Professionally invisible in fine dining fashion
Price: Appetizers $12 to $18, Pastas $17 to $19, Mains $25 to $29
Must-Haves: Uni bucatini, hamachi crudo, treviso, garganelli
Compare To: Piora, Perilla
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations. Pricey for the portions and inconsistent, but an improvement to Union Square's restaurant scene. Good for drinks and snacks at the bar.
Around Christmastime, I was walking around Union Square in need of a good drink and a bite to tide me over. Had All'onda been around, with its civilized bar and menu of stiff-yet-subtle cocktails, I'd have been all set.
I would have taken a seat at the bar and ordered a Rose Point ($12), which puts gin, Cocchi Rosa, maraschino, and bitters to work for something deceptively medicinal with a layered sweetness. I'd have noshed on some exquisite crudo: Hamachi ($17) with touches of olive oil, chili, and soy. And I wouldn't have to shout my order, because the crowd at All'onda knows how to use an inside voice.
All'onda came around just after the new year, and I'm grateful, because truth be told I don't care much for the food options directly around Union Square. Here you'll find solid Malaysian and Neapolitan pizza, or old lions like Union Square Cafe and Gotham Bar and Grill. There's some great casual Israeli food, and the perennially packed upscale ABC Kitchen and ABC Cocina, but by and large, Union Square's greatest culinary asset is its proximity to other, better places to eat.
All'onda improves that outlook, even if it doesn't shift the neighborhood's balance of power. It bears a striking resemblance to genteel West Village success Piora, such as the service, which despite a stumble or two (presenting three dishes as vegan when they very much weren't) has the amiable invisibility of a fine dining restaurant. Like Piora's chef Chris Cipollone, All'onda's Chris Jaeckle does an Italian menu with dabs of Asian ingredients, hitting some next-level moments of radiance. But what they add up to is still up in the air.
There's a special pasta here worthy of Jaeckle's Michael White pedigree: Bucatini ($19) dressed in an eggy cream sauce not unlike the easy mac of your dreams. For some chefs that'd be enough, but Jaeckle both cuts and amplifies the richness with a dashi-Parmesan broth and tongues of sea urchin. It's a move that leads me to ask dates questions with long answers so I can shovel up their portion with greed.
Jaeckle turns vegetables into narcotic substances, like a side of Treviso ($9) roasted until it looks coal-like and unlovable, then taken just back from the edge with a glaze of saba and nubs of chewy pear. It's vegetable caramel—bitter, smoky, and sweet—and it makes me wish Jaeckle would do a whole menu devoted solely to burnt leafy things. I loved another side of Jerusalem Artichokes ($8) almost as much. The blistered tubers swim in a pool of browned butter, soy sauce, and capers, emulsified until creamy and hitting all your pleasure centers at once. Why can't all chefs give vegetables such respect?
The other pastas are well worth your time, such as Lumache ($19) dressed in an aged duck ragu just as brawny as the best bolognese, or Garganelli ($19) cooked with peekytoe crab and citrus. It's a pairing you may have seen before, but perhaps not with the kiss of tarragon.
It's these precision strikes of flavor that sow the seeds of a great restaurant, but they don't come quite often enough. For all the bold awesomeness of that Hamachi ($17) crudo, there's a bland and shy one with pale Scallops and cauliflower ($18). For uni's perfect integration into that bucatini, it sits uselessly on top of gummy balls of squid ink-stained Arancini ($9).
On a main dish of Guinea Hen with foie gras sugo and puntarelle, the only thing that stands out is a crazy-good pile of sweet parsnips. Meanwhile, the accompaniments on a dish of Skate ($25) are mere decorative garnish for a wing cooked slightly too long.
I'd also suggest that a truly great upscale restaurant needs great dessert, and All'onda's offerings, such as an impersonal olive oil cake or a one-note chocolate tart, don't quite cut it, especially when that tart comes with a scoop of grainy, watery ice cream wincingly flavored with soy sauce.
For all its deviation from tradition, All'onda takes a straightforward menu format of small appetizers (crudi, salads, fried bits), mid-course pastas, and mains consisting of big proteins and small everything else. That lends a pleasing stability to the restaurant, which feels more established and comfortable than its two and a half months. But I'd love to see Jaeckle break a little from his constraints to show off more of what he does best. What could he do with a proper vegetarian entrée, of which there are currently none? What other fun can he have with pasta? I get the sense that All'onda is torn between the need for downtown culinary play and uptown elegant class. It nails the latter, and some of the former, but there's room to grow.
All'onda occupies a townhouse on two levels. On the first floor is the bar, and that's where I'll have my next visit for excellent cocktails, affordable sparkling wine by the glass, and selections of the kitchen's greatest hits. Doing so is my response to a fellow diner's comment after one visit: "This was all good, and I had a great time, but I don't think I need to eat here again."
I wonder if she'd think differently had she also tried the bucatini and hamachi and treviso I can't stop craving. But it goes to show that sometimes, when you prove how good you can be, the misses speak louder than the hits.