My boyfriend and I started going to Alta well before this food blog existed. We went there before we even knew about the Le Bernardins and the Jean-Georges of the city, before things like ratings and Michelin stars mattered to us, and well before I’d even consider eating seafood. It feels homey to me.
Now that I’m a fish-consuming machine, we decided to go back last weekend to see what we’d been missing out on. It’s giant menu full of small plates, and every one sounds delicious in its own way. (Which is why I really should’ve tried harder to talk Dr. Boyfriend into trying the Whole Shebang: $310 for the entire menu.) Plus, I’d gotten a new 35mm f/1.8 lens and wanted to see how it would perform under the nothing-but-candlelight conditions. (Not too shabby, but it was clearly not happy with me.) Here are the very few dishes we were able to summon up the bellyspace for:
fried goat cheese with lavender infused honey
This is the dish I associate Alta with. I’ve ordered it every time we’ve eaten there . . . until this time; we decided to branch out and give some new things a try. But lucky for us, the kitchen said they made extra and didn’t want to throw it out. It may have just been that they saw my camera and thought I might be important (ha). Whatever the case, I love these things. The crispy outer shell collapses into sweet, creamy goat cheese. Roll all of that in the honey, and you basically have dessert. For an appetizer. Which means life couldn’t be better.
The Philadelphia Truffle Surprise
The surprise is that this will make you sick of truffles! No, just kidding, but these little purses aren’t for the faint of heart: the cream cheese is almost runny from the amount of truffle oil mixed into it. Luckily, the plain crunchy stem of phyllo gathered at the top really tones it down and balances it out. I really, really liked this, but one was definitely enough for me.
grilled stuffed grape leaves with chicken confit and jasmine rice, lebne (yogurt cheese!) and grape molasses sauce
This was like eating a better version of chicken salad. The chicken was spicy at first, but then the sweetness of the fruit kicked in; I’d thought the sauce was some sort of hummus, so the sweet tang of the yogurt and molasses was a welcome surprise. There was a nutty crunch (possibly pine nuts) and the crisp leaf to add texture. A nice twist to your usual rice-only grape leaf stuffing.
seared foie gras
I don’t know if a photo can convey the wildness and unexpectedness of this dish. We thought we’d be getting a neat, little square of foie gras, and we did. Only it was covered in a wrapper of what I can only describe as fruit skin. It was like a huckleberry Fruit Roll-up made of Jell-o, and it was entirely appropriate to the dish. The texture contrasts between the gelatinous skin, the slick foie gras, and the caramelized nuts were really nice, and while the dish was almost offensively salty, I’d rather have too much salt than too little. This was definitely the most interesting dish of the night and was a welcome addition to Alta’s menu of usually more straightforward preparations.
This was probably my favourite dish of the night, and again, it was just a lucky gift from the kitchen. It was everything I like: spicy, sour, cheesy, rich, hearty, and bacony. The corn retained a bit of its crisp freshness and was complimented by the chewy, thin slivers of bacon on top. The truffle flavor added depth, and the spice brightened everything up. I would order this for sure on my own next time. Serendipitous!
fritto misto de mare: shrimp, calamari, whiting, sepia, and sardine crisply fried with sea salt
My boyfriend was pretty nice and let this be the only seafood dish of the night, and it couldn’t have been more tame. Well, partly because he ate all of the whole fish (I’m definitely not ready for heads), and partly because it tasted like French fries. The seafood was very lightly battered, but the hearty sprinkling of lemon juice and salt covered up any fishiness. (It couldn’t cover up the chewiness of that squid, though.) The shrimp, my favourite part, were buttery as can be, and the deep-fried parsley added a nice crunch. This fulfilled the weird craving I’ve been having for fish & chips lately.
We’ve had the cheese plate at Alta before and think it’s improved since last time. The ratio of cheese to bread to strawberry paste couldn’t have been more perfect, and the card showcasing the cheese names was a very welcome addition. The roncal was meaty, the patacabra like Swiss. The nevat had a rich nuttiness, and the mont enebro was pungent and blue-like. The idiazabal was almost flavorless to us, but we luckily finished off the plate with the woody valdeon.
This was the fresh version of a strawberry Starburst candy; it was more strawberry than strawberries are. The ice cream was like a cream cheese icing, and that of course perfectly complemented the dense, strawberry-juice-soaked cake serving as a base. This was easily my boyfriend’s favourite of the desserts.
I was under the impression that the torija at Degustation couldn’t be touched, and while Alta’s version just didn’t have the same juxtaposition between very crunchy and very doughy, this was easily my favourite of the desserts.
The bread tasted like bananas were used in it, and the ice cream, though not nearly as sour as I would’ve wanted it to be for lebne, had a layer of what seemed like raw sugar underneath (but may have been a marcona almond croquant, if the menu is correct), creating a contrasting crunch. The sour, buttery sauce tasted of lemon and maybe cardamom and was probably the best part of the dish, but bread that dense and sticky doesn’t even need sauce.
A lot of the restaurants I love are stark and pristine, with overly-complicated dishes and perfect, borderline-robotic service; that’s the exact opposite of where I come from, so the novelty is fun. But sometimes I just want a relaxed, pretension-free meal, and that’s why I keep wanting to return to Alta. I love the warm colors and candlelight, the rustic small plates menu, and the feeling that everyone there is having a good time with much-loved friends. It’s not quite perfect for the diner who cares more about the food specifically than the experience as a whole–when I asked our server what was in the torija sauce, he neither knew nor offered to ask anyone–but Alta isn’t trying for any James Beard awards. And what they’re doing is working for them: just try to come without a reservation, and you’ll see what I mean.
64 West 10th Street
New York, NY 10011 (map)