If you know anything about Wylie Dufresne and his original Lower East Side restaurant, wd-50, it’s hard not to enter his newest spot, Alder, with certain pre-conceived notions. After all, the mad scientist chef brought tools like Paco Jets, spherification powders and tabletop smokers into the public consciousness, along with off-the-wall dishes, like “Cyber Eggs” with hardened coconut milk and egg whites, as well as Chicken Confit “T.V. Dinners,” garnished with carrots that look like peas.
But in reality, the two-month-old Alder represents a more sedate side of the chef, without being too buttoned up or serious. It starts with the restaurant’s back-to-nature name (Alder is a type of birch tree) and is also reflected in the rustic, rough-hewn décor… think ceilings made of reclaimed wood slates from a farmhouse in upstate New York. And while innocuously named dishes can yield unexpected surprises just like at wd-50, none of the dishes at Alder are overwrought, overthought, or off-puttingly tongue in cheek.
As has become de rigeur at many restaurants nowadays, you’ll make your meal from a progression of shareable plates. And while there’s no actual breakdown on Dufresne and executive chef Jon Bignelli’s menu, it’s pretty easy to suss out the intricately arranged small bites from the larger, entrée-worthy feeds. The items listed first are entirely delicious, but noticeably fussier, like Pub Cheese, a vividly purple take on port wine cheese served with potato chips fashioned from Martin’s Rolls, and a New England Clam Chowder, topped with oyster crackers made from dehydrated oyster dust.
But the most talked about dish at Alder is actually the most straightforward. In fact, the Rye Pasta, a riff on a deli classic, pastrami on rye, kind of flips the script. Rye flour, which is hearty and nutty like whole wheat flour, is used to make the noodles, which then get tossed with shavings of pastrami from the fatty end (no odder than using pancetta, guanciale or bacon), and flavored with caraway seeds (akin to adding fennel to sausage), and pastrami jerky dust (well, they had to get the dehydrator in there somewhere). Diced green tomatoes add a fresh, citric bite, and a creamy mustard wine sauce ties the flavors together and drives the “deli” idea home. All told, the dish is rich, comforting, and perfectly balanced and — especially when compared to the more extravagantly priced small plates — the best deal on the menu by far.
Don’t get us wrong. We continue to love and rely on Dufresne for his ability to push the envelope, take culinary risks, and go where no chef has gone before. But when it comes to the increasingly mature and thoughtful fare at Alder, we also appreciate that he’s learned to edit himself and bring accessibility into the mix.