Here is a bowl of New England clam chowder ($15), the stock, thickened with potato, a silky conduit for the flavors of clams, bacon, and bay leaf, served with a bowl of “oyster crackers.” You know this dish, but there are those silly quotation marks, relics of menu-writing, reminding you that things aren’t always what they seem. Culinary tricks can be gimmicky and exhausting, and eaters can’t be blamed for approaching them with a healthy amount of skepticism. But at Alder, the quotes can also be a clue: You are about to witness a delightful and delicious sleight of hand.
See, the cracker impostors are chewy, crisp puffs of fried oyster meat, their briny flavors deep and concentrated, their texture even more exciting when they’ve swum around for a bit in that soup and begun to soften. This reconstituted-oyster magic might not be part of the chowders you’ve known, but it makes the platonic ideal of New England clam chowder, elevated and sharpened by chef Wylie Dufresne. It is clam chowder, squared.
Dufresne, the chef/owner of decade-old wd-50 on the Lower East Side, finally won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef NYC award after several years of nominations; he opened Alder in March in the East Village. His right-hand man, the talented John Bignelli, has come along to run the kitchen, and their collaborative work is far more easygoing (and a bit more affordable) than wd-50. The à la carte menu, strapped to a heavy block of wood, can be a bit hard to figure out—some dishes are set up perfectly for sharing, while others (like the poached egg in broth) are not.
But think of it this way: Since there are no tasting menus, it’s a lovely place to pop in without a reservation for a drink and a few bites—like the sausage rolls ($11) with sharp mustard, which deliver the comforting sweetness of Chinese takeout. Or the coarse, musky chicken liver on cornbread ($17), which gets interesting with shards of crisp chicken skin and smears of grapefruit marmalade, and the delightfully sloppy canapés of pumpernickel toast ($11) with kale and wet beads of smoky trout roe, both of which are particularly well-suited for cocktail hour. But you can also make a real meal at Alder out of the larger dishes, like the rye pasta ($18)—a lump of hot pastrami hiding under a pile of fresh, wide noodles, with more smoked beef shaved on top. The dish hits like a fond, hazy memory of pastrami on rye, immediately evoking the neighborhood’s glory days of Jewish delis and appetizing stores.
Whichever way you go, get a drink or three. Kevin Denton’s cocktails are great with food (with the exception of the Love Oolong Time, which is too syrupy for most of the savory dishes). When it comes to desserts, a dry, prim banoffee tart ($8) passes, but it lacks the deeper, more generous buttery flavors of a great one. Root beer pudding ($8) is a far better option, extremely soft and contained in a glass, with a smoky, crunchy crumble on top.
But some tricks, like the disappearance of a marble up someone’s nose, can be more curious than delightful. And after a few visits to Alder, I wondered if some of the surprises were weighing a few of the dishes down instead of lifting them to new heights. The pastries on those otherwise delicious pigs in a blanket have an unwelcome edge of toughness, without the feathery, fatty softness of a laminated dough. That’s because the casing is made from dehydrated hot dog rolls—an edible play on words that doesn’t taste quite as good as it sounds.
A similar technique is applied to the crisp component in the pub cheese plate, where Martin’s potato rolls are dried into sheets of chips. Potato “chips” sure sound neat, but the process transforms the rolls into something thicker and drier than a stack of baked Pringles. It’s a shame, because the sweet, smooth, purple-hued pub cheese stuck with shards of sweet pistachio brittle (a misnomer; it’s chewy) deserves better—something strong enough to scoop it up, but delicate enough to break.
Another small mystery: That little bowl of finely chopped giardiniera, or Italian-style pickled vegetables, that arrives with a cheerful instruction to “spice up the food.” It tastes very good, but it pairs with so few of the dishes, and I noticed many tables left theirs mostly untouched. So what’s it doing here, exactly? Hard to say. At Alder, you get the sense the kitchen is having a lot of fun sending out dishes that the cooks truly love. When your tastes do line up with theirs, it can be magic.