Last month, Ryan Henderson replaced longtime Dufresne protege Jon Bignelli as chef de cuisine of Alder (157 Second Avenue, 212-539-1900). This is a promotion for Henderson from sous chef, a role he auditioned for — and snagged — with a dish that eventually made its way (after some tinkering) to the neo-tavern’s opening menu: a Caesar salad “nigiri,” featuring a slab of egg-yolk-sauced, cured mackerel draped over a rib of romaine lettuce. Tinkering happens to every dish at Dufresne’s restaurants, but Henderson emphasizes the communal aspect of working for the progressive pioneer.
“The whole menu at Alder is a team effort,” Henderson tells the Voice. “My sous chef, Sarah, and the cooks will work on dishes, add input, suggest various techniques. Every dish gets tasted by lots of people and goes through a number of iterations before we put it on the menu. Wylie and I will just chat about things we think are fun or we’ve seen or that interest us and then see what we can do. I will always love the pigs in a blanket and the rye pasta, but we’ve been putting on a lot of fun new dishes.” One new addition? Another play on the Caesar salad, now a basket of chicken wings and celery stalks dusted with anchovy-spiked powdered salad dressing.
Earlier this month, Henderson and team introduced a Sunday menu with several tongue-in-cheek odes to brunch: ham and cheese eclairs, a bacon, egg, and cheese riff, and hanger steak and eggs with “tots” made from vadouvan-spiced rice. With wd-50’s impending closure, it’s nice to see Dufresne celebrate past victories, as with the return of a potato, bacon, and goat cheese tart — a dish from the 71 Clinton Fresh Food days.
Those eclairs are a very present triumph, a fun drinking snack that, like the Caesar wings, plays to Alder’s strengths as a place for high-minded grazing and imbibing. Shot through with béarnaise sauce, the choux pastry shell supports a melted flap of gruyere tweezered with twirls of crispy ham. They’re a much better bang for your buck than dinner plates like a “Goatoaber” special of three goat mini-meatballs in pho-style broth for $16, or a teacup saucer of side-plated lamb tartare with black garlic and injera chips that costs roughly $6 per teaspoon.
Henderson’s even counted himself among the brunch haters, saying it’s just “the same pancakes and eggs.” Now he’s breading and frying scrambled eggs Filet-O-Fish style. Served on English muffin halves and topped with slices of pepper jelly mimicking American cheese, this dish would make a killing if the chef turned it into a proper sandwich and wrapped it up to-go.