At Alder, a fine little East Village spot, pigs-in-a-blanket cost $13 for six bites. Line them up and they barely equal the length of a Nathan’s footlong.
Then you try them and they’re outstanding.
The sausages are porky, Lap Cheong-style morsels wrapped in compressed hot dog rolls and topped with sinus-clearing mustard. The flavor takes us back to the Cantonese-American carry-out joints that nourished us before we got obsessed with micro-regional Chinese cuisine.
Chefs Wylie Dufresne and Jon Bignelli have set up an ambitious and affordable alternative to WD-50, where a meal for two can approach $650.
A fully-loaded dinner date at Alder can run to $150. That’s inexpensive by New York standards, if spendy for pub grub, whose traditional role is to slow down the infusion of alcohol into the bloodstream.
April Bloomfield earned a Michelin star doing this sort of thing with Devils on Horseback and other British snacks at The Spotted Pig. Dufresne’s challenge is to elevate the gastronomic melting pot that is American bar food. It’s something he’s done before at WD-50, sending out whimsical riffs on beef jerky (made with mushrooms) and Combos (he called them pizza pebbles).
At Alder, we’ll make do with $16 clam chowder. The soup is great alone, its clean oceanic tang coming through the velvet sheath of cream and smoky bacon.
What makes it great is the side of oyster crackers, which look like tiny pork rinds and taste like Barren Point oysters. The trick results in an interactive dish that tastes as much like oysters (or clams) as you like. Follow with a juicy grilled brat ($20) and a strong Lucifer Belgian Ale ($11) and you have a brilliant $60 meal worthy of Arrows of Ogunquit, Maine.
All that’s missing is a battery of high-def TVs showing the Sunday night game. Alder’s is a civilized outlier on this stretch of Second Avenue known for its sports bars harboring spicy wings, pale beer and drunks. Alder is a rectangle of a room with a long counter, reasonably-spaced tables and servers who care about the food.
Dufresne transforms French onion soup into a wonderful PoMo-poutine of beef gravy, stinky gruyere and crispy onion rings ($16). He reinvents hideous port-wine cheese as an elegant spread of purple cheddar dotted with pistachio brittle ($11).
Even better is the pastrami sandwich, deconstructed into a caraway-flavored fettuccine that tastes precisely like fresh rye bread from Orwasher’s. Pickled tomatoes and spiced deli meat are tossed with the noodles, while a leaner cut of pastrami is shaved on top like parmesan.
Some will pair the pasta with a nutty oloroso sherry ($11), others will partake of the Dr. Davie’s Scrip Pad ($12), an easy-breezy rye, yuzu and smoked-maple concoction that pours from the tap like a beer and drinks like a punch. Too strong? Half-portions of the cocktail are available for half-price. Nice.
Other dishes need work. Curried goat was under-rendered and under-seasoned. Roasted chicken over charred romaine ($22) was as boring as it sounds.
But beet salad, often the apotheosis of salad-bar banality, is a game-changer, with the root vegetable getting a much needed pickle treatment and a fragrant “coconut ricotta” standing in for goat cheese.
Fish and chips (slightly overcooked) is zapped with malt vinegar powder instead of the liquid stuff so as not to turn the tempura-like crust soggy. With halibut, Alder keeps things simple, roasting the filet perfectly and pairing it with a spicy Korean soffrito of Brussels sprouts and carrots.
Finish with root beer pudding. Dufresne and Bignelli are refining an American style of dining with heartfelt nostalgia.
Rating: ** 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: All dishes under $25.
Sound Level: Reasonable for a pub, around 75 decibels.
Date Place: Yes, great for a quick bite before bar hopping.
Inside Tip: Great foie gras on Ritz crackers for $19.
Special Feature: Al fresco dining, weather permitting.
Back on my own dime? For sure.
Alder is at 157 Second Avenue. Information: +1-212-539-1900 or http://aldernyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Manuela Hoelterhoff on television.