Wylie Dufresne revolutionized the culinary scene at his up-scale restaurant WD~50 on the Lower East Side. His utilization of molecular gastronomy has perplexed diner’s expectations of where something is supposed to be.
When word broke early this year that Dufresne was planning to open a gastro-pub offering more affordable options, all foodies couldn’t contain their excitement. I made a reservation a month before heading to Alder, his new East Village spot. However, after a few dishes, I quickly realized that the high quality and playfulness utilized at WD~50 wouldn’t be fully translated in the cheaper dishes.
The restaurant lacks any signage, but sticks out with its simple front next to all of the bars with neon signs.
The inside is equally simple, with light grey colored brick and wooden panels on the ceiling. The bench seats are relatively close to each other, with cubbies underneath the seats to conveniently hold purses and other items. It doesn’t give off any whimsical vibes you might expect. I should have taken it as a sign of what was to come; the fact that dishes ended up being much simpler then I had anticipated.
We glanced over the cocktail list, noting the fact that you’re able to order short cocktails for half the price. This way you can taste a few different drinks, without feeling it in your wallet. We each ordered individual cocktails, tailored exactly to our likes.
I decided to order Mai Tai Me Up Tie Me Down, which was a rum based drink, while Leigh ordered the Red Zepplin, made with Gin.
My drink had a lovely smokiness coming through from the blended cashew with a light cream base from the olorosso. It was remarkably strong, with the umbrella playing tricks on you to think this is a girlier drink. Leigh’s Red Zepplin had a nice little kick of heat from the chile salt rim. Fresh strawberries made it bright and refreshing on a beautiful summer day.
Next, we turned to the menu. I had set extremely high expectations for every dish, telling Leigh to expect the unexpected in everything we were getting. This was my first serious mistake. Setting unreasonably high expectations for a chef you have never tried before, especially at their less-expensive restaurant will cause most dishes to fall short. In retrospect everything really was good, but not as wild and crazy as I would have expected. That being said, here’s the rundown.
We decided to start with the Caesar Nigiri, which is a cross between a deconstructed Caesar Salad and Sashimi.
The bite sized pieces of Nigiri created the sensation of a Caesar dressing without having been combined together. The crisp piece of romaine lettuce is brushed with egg yolk. The hamachi creates a slightly salty sensation, similar to that of an anchovy, utilized in the caesar dressing. The shaved parmesan on top rounds out the entire bite, finishing off the idea of the Caesar Salad. The hamachi is probably the most memorable, delicious flavor, left lingering on your tongue after the lettuce and yolk had been consumed.
Next, we ordered the Grilled Octopus with Cashew Pesto.
I’m not exactly sure what the molecular twist was on this dish. We kept trying to uncover what the unexpected element was and kept coming up short. Once we finally looked past the fact that it didn’t exist, we were able to fully enjoy the dish. The octopus was grilled to perfection having a light, sweet and crunchy texture. The cashew pesto had notes of smokey flavor, which worked well with the grilled octopus. The pickled onion added a burst of acidity rounding out the whole dish. It was a really good version of grilled octopus, just not at a place known for its molecular gastronomy.
Our next choice came down to two simple words; Ritz Crackers. We were both absolutely fascinated about the way Alder would transform the delightful, buttery cracker. To make the entire dish that much better, a disc of Foie Gras Terrine came on top of the dish.
To say that this dish was a disappointment is an understatement. To quote Leigh, “it feels like the Ritz Cracker was an ingredient in the Chopped basket, and the judges would criticize the chef for not transforming the ingredient.” In addition, the utilization of foie gras terrine, instead of the pure version, gives off a more buttery texture. The watermelon component was sweet and watery, with a very simple texture that didn’t seem to fully meld with the foie gras. The shiso sauce on top wasn’t spread out enough that it was only tasted in one bite of the two-bite dish. I generally love foie gras, and this just was a weird dish that left both of us perplexed, and not in a good way.
Finally, the Rye Pasta arrived and was the saving grace of the meal. This is really when our experience turned around.
The deconstructed Jewish Deli sandwich turned into pasta is borderline genius. The rye pasta gives off the illusion of the bread, with the shaved pastrami and thick slices of pastrami, along with the saurkraut-like pieces of onion as the filling. It’s an awesome dish that makes more sense with each bite.
For our next part of the meal, we decided to move to a cheese dish, since we were still hungry.
The unsettling blob of purple cheese studded with pistachio-fig brittle initially throws you off. Then you dig in and experience the greatness of Alder. The cheese is a silky, addictive update to the port-wine cheddar cheese you would find in a plastic container. The cheese is made by combining cheddar cheese with mustard and red wine to make the stark purple color. The “chips” are confusing in flavor, which the waitress described to be made from potato rolls smashed thin and baked until flat and crunchy. This gives the subtle sweetness and extreme crunch. The brittle is wonderful on its own, but with the cheese and crackers adds an additional sweetness and element of texture. It’s a big portion, so they happily offer extra chips or will pack extra cheese to go and enjoy later.
Finally, we needed some kind of a dessert to end on a sweet note. We decided to order the Rootbeer Pudding, which seemed confusing and delicious all at once.
The pudding had the illusion of a slight carbonation, hitting home the idea of a Root Beer float. The whipped country cream was super sweet, light and airy. On top of the pudding, smashed pieces of root beer candies and smoked cashew add an element of crunch. It’s a delightful dessert, which we licked clean. It’s unlike any other dessert I have ever enjoyed, and ended the meal on a really high note.
Alder was full of serious highs and low lows. Reasonable expectations need to be set in advance in order to enjoy this meal to its fullest. The Caesar Nigiri was good, as well as the Octopus, but both dishes didn’t blow our minds at a place known for its molecular gastronomy The foie gras, I would skip all together and trade for another dish. The last three dishes made up for the entire meal, with the Rye Pasta blowing my mind, along with the delightful re-interpretation of Pub Cheese. Finally, the Root Beer Pudding left the two of us wanting more.
Try it out, and see for yourself. But again, make sure to come in with the understanding that you are not going to get the full Wylie Dufresne, WD~50 experience. Think of it as Diet Dufrense.
Alder – 157 Second Avenue – New York, NYW
Location: East Village, NY
Type: Pub, Molecular Gastronomy
Perfect For: Adventurous Eating, Impressing Foodies
Reservations: Recommended via OpenTable
Favorite Dishes: Rye Pasta, Pub Cheese, Rootbeer Pudding