Alison is back, having dropped the "on" from the old Dominick street location, and added Eighteen to confirm her new address. I hardly recall the old space from such a long time ago, except for that I remember it fondly- enough so that when I heard Ms. Price Becker was endeavoring anew in Manhattan, I felt giddy anticipation. For the past nine years, Alison has been in East Hampton, gearing up to this return. And for it, she has reenlisted Robert Gurvich, who was at the helm when Alison on Dominick shuttered in '02.
The room borrows a little of that monied, East Hampton feel, a warmly lit, cooly tiled, spacious room with toile-print wall paper and purple banquettes with contrasting red buttons, and big, looming chandeliers. There is a French feel to the room, although the menu itself reaches to all corners of the globe, with hints of Basque, African, French and Italian culminating in what amounts to New American, in that New York, melting-pot style. For the most part, the food, while precious, is exquisitely done.
An octopus appetizer pairs the tenderest of tentacles with perfectly chewy fregola pasta studded with olives and and tomato confit. The portion is perfect and preparation flawless, as which is the case with everything we tried. There seems to be, however, a lack of much excitement on the plate, as if perhaps in this economy, the risk wasn't ... well, worth the risk. A salad of escarole was crisp beyond compare, with paper thin discs of juicy Honeycrisp apple, sunny golden beets and watermelon radish, lightly dressed with a cider vinaigrette and spritzed with a flurry of chives and toss of roasted hazelnuts. A perfectly undisappointing, respectable salad, but with price points that mirror those of nearby ABC Kitchen and its inimitable chutzpah, I was left wanting a little more. Something to say wow about, instead of just yum.
I was ready to arm wrestle my dining companion on who got to order the scallops, but being the winsome gentleman that he is, he opted for halibut and left me to my mollusks. The dish boasted my favorite ingredients: mushrooms and brussels sprouts, but both were found in meager quantity. The sprouts were leafed out and the fungus but three small shreds, but richly flavored in a buttery broth that buoyed four, bronzed scallops tender as the night and sweetly oceanic. Three of them were perfectly sufficient as an entree, leaving one to spare as a peace offering to my scallopless friend. Who, by the way, was perfectly happy with his halibut. A snowy white filet (although I'm surprised after this Winter that Wasn't that I remember what snow looks like) perched atop a coarse fennel marmalade spiked with capers and blood oranges, with some toasty pistachios thrown in for crunch. A gorgeous crown of unidentifiable, deep green foliage was strong for visual appeal, but it was tough and bitter, an inedible garnish posing as an edible one. We tried a side order of spinach, which was robustly garlicky and slicked with oil, decadently tasty but perhaps overpowering to actually complement any of the mains that we ordered. Might pair better with one of the spit-roasted rotisserie meats, or what would've been my second choice, a mustard pappardelle with rabbit ragu.
Although the calendar said spring had sprung, winter was still going strong outside, beckoning me to order a wintery sweet like the Franzipan cake with spiced poached pear, or a chestnut cream with caramelized apple and vanilla chantilly. Instead, inspired by the warm spell days before and daffodils already emerging about town, we opted for a lighter, spring-friendly cardamom yolk custard with coconut tapioca and passionfruit sorbet. A tangy, grassy syrup pooled around the milky flan and lead, in droplets, to a marvelous, chewy pudding of tapioca, pearly little orbs scented of coconut and shoring a pungently fruity quenelle-shaped scoop of passionfruit sorbet. A small dish of cocoa-covered almonds followed to accompany the last drops of a richly brewed decaf for a harmonious finale.
Economists say that in this financial climate, the conservative investor wins. Perhaps Alison is playing the same, smart game: the lack of "wow" factor here on eighteenth street concedes to a safe, reliable menu, savvily sourced and flawlessly executed. Aside from the dessert, none of the dishes in isolation were exceedingly memorable, but all beautifully plated and inarguably delicious. There are enough glimmers of wonderful that, along with the elegant room and gracious staff, Alison almost guarantees satisfaction. So you may not feel the thrill of hitting the jackpot on a successful stock option, but there's virtually no risk of losing your investment here, either. Sometimes safe is very, very rewarding.
15 West 18th Street