Sampling Small Plates At Alden & Harlow
A night out, catching up with a friend over amazing food and cocktails is the best, right? I recently got to experience just such a night with one of my friends. We hadn't gotten together in a while because she has a little two-month-old at home, coordinating our schedules is not always easy, and, let's face it, it's winter and getting out of the house is just more difficult. So when we finally got a date on the calendar, we decided to do girls' night right with dinner at a new spot in Harvard Square: Alden & Harlow.
Alden & Harlow is located in the former Casablanca space, and chef Michael Scelfo (formerly of Russell House Tavern) is at the helm as both chef and owner. I was struck by the rustic/industrial feel of the subterranean restaurant when I walked in. My friend was running a little late, but our table was ready, so I was led right over to it through the wood-adorned restaurant and past the bar. We were at a high top with a view of the open kitchen. Not only could I see what was going on back there, but I was surrounded by cookbooks. All of Ottolenghi's books were on a shelf above my head, a statue of a pig sat on the shelf below that, and even more cookbooks were displayed at table height. It was definitely my kind of atmosphere.
Even though it was obvious that I was waiting for someone, the wait staff made sure I was taken care of in the meantime, filling my water glass, suggesting cocktails when I asked, and making sure I didn't need anything. I decided to order the Catania cocktail just because it had Peychaud's in it (I recently discovered I am a huge fan after having it in some cocktails at Eastern Standard). Also in the cocktail: BMD Ethereal (a type of small-batch gin), lemon agrodolce, and Vermont maple. It was light and refreshing and just sweet enough.
When my friend arrived, she tried my drink and almost got the same thing, but our waitress was really excited about the prospect of our trying different drinks and made some recommendations. My friend got the Countdown instead, and we were both glad she did. It's a vodka drink, but you don't really taste vodka because it also has cinnamon and lemon and a garnish of honeyed kumquats. This cocktail was another hit with both of us.
We spent some time poring over the menu, choosing among the many small plates. Our waitress suggested that we get two to three small plates per person and pointed out a few dishes on the menu that were more like full-size portions than small plates, told us about the specials for the evening, and offered up her favorites when we asked. Based on her recommendations, we could have ordered anywhere from four to six dishes, and for some reason we choose to get seven. I think we would have had enough to eat with just four or five dishes, but then we would have missed out on something!
After we placed our order, our waitress brought over some pickled green beans. We were hungry and hoping for bread but soon realized how smart offering pickled green beans is. They take the edge off but also pique your hunger instead of filling you up. We were ready to start digging into our small plates as soon as they arrived.
First up were a couple of salads. (We definitely appreciated that the small plates came out in rounds as opposed to all at once, so we could enjoy each thing.) We ordered the "ubiquitous kale salad," which comes with fennel and a creamy pistachio dressing. It was hearty and light all at once, a good lead-in for some of the heavier dishes to come.
We also tried the butternut squash salad with currants, pecorino, hazelnuts, and brown butter. As much as I enjoyed the kale salad, this one was truly right up my alley. I loved the crunchy squash and hazelnuts and the salty cheese balanced with the sweet currants.
In our next round, we got the mesquite tortellini and the Island Creek oyster gratin. Our waitress said that most people think mesquite means smoky (guilty! I was thinking mesquite wood chips), but that here it's actually a kind of flour. (From what I can find, it's made from bean pods and is gluten-free.) Its dark color reminded me of buckwheat.
The tortellini was my favorite dish of all those we tried. The pasta features grilled broccoli, bianco sardo, and colatura (a fish sauce), as well as a lot of garlic. It sounds so simple, but the flavors are really incredible all together. And the house-made pasta was perfectly cooked, always a plus.
In a weird way, the oyster gratin reminded us both of clam chowder. We spooned it onto the accompanying uni toast and were pleased to discover whole oysters throughout the dish. The creamy mixture is also chock-full of leeks, small potato pieces, and guanciale.
One of my favorite dishes at Russell House Tavern was the Ozark pork trio, so we had to get the pork belly. I'm surprised to be saying this, but the only downfall of this dish is that the crust on the pork belly was too crisp. We couldn't cut it, and we could barely bite through it. I'm used to more of a crispy but melting fattiness to that top layer. Otherwise, we loved it. The fatty layers and meaty layers were perfect and moist and paired nicely with the roasted kumquats. We were both scraping the plate to get every last bite of the Anson Mills grits too.
We found the slow-roasted beef neck reminiscent of corned beef in texture and even a little in flavor. It was totally unexpected but really good, and we enjoyed the parsnip puree and radishes that came along with it.
And last of all, I had heard a lot about the chicken fried rabbit and knew there was no way we were leaving without trying it. Our waitress explained that they actually mix the rabbit with pork sausage. Because of this, the texture and flavor are really more sausage-y than rabbit-y. This was my friend's first time trying rabbit, and I think it was hard for her to know what rabbit really tastes like and what its texture is like. It's probably a nice way to ease people who aren't so keen on the idea of rabbit into trying it. The dish is really good. It has a richness from the sausage and it came out nice and hot with super-crispy breading. We really enjoyed it, especially with bites of celery and radish and a little dip in the accompanying chile oil and creamy blue cheese.
We had finished our cocktails and switched to wine halfway through dinner. Our waitress recommended a Barbera (she even wrote down what it was for us: 2010 Colline Novaresi from Piedmont, Italy) that we both really loved.
By the end of dinner, we were pleasantly full and decided to forego dessert. I felt like we tried so many things, but looking at the menu, there are still so many more I want to sample. I hope to get back to Alden & Harlow soon to do just that! And to enjoy another Catania cocktail, of course.
Have you been to Alden & Harlow yet?
Labels: Restaurant reviews and events