>> Thursday, February 13, 2014
It's finally, finally here.
There's been a ton of anticipation for the opening of this restaurant by Chef Michael Scelfo, formerly executive chef of the (still) dearly-loved Russell House Tavern. Chef Scelfo's first solo project, Alden & Harlow, is a HUGE undertaking.
It's located in the space that was formerly occupied by Casablanca, a Harvard Square institution that's been there for over fifty years.
Scelfo has a soft spot for that space.
"I used to dream at Casablanca about what I would do if I opened up my own restaurant. I would look around at the space, using it as a model."
"Never in a million years did I think Harvard Square would be the place for it."
And now here we are, Scelfo himself taking over the exact same space where he dreamed so many late nights as a young chef.
Scelfo decided to expand the already large Casablanca space, taking over the neighboring eyeglass shop and remodeling the whole space from the ground up.
And the result?
It's rustic yet sleek and modern. It maintains a ton of old world character (paying homage to the history of the space), yet clearly has touches of style that make it feel current.
It's also a bit loud.
After all, it's a huge space, and the bar is enormous.
We went at peak time (around 7PM on a weekend evening), and there were times when I had to lean in closer to my dining guests to hear what they were saying.
The place was packed, which is not a surprise considering this was pretty much the first week for this highly anticipated restaurant. I'm seriously impressed at the hardworking team in the kitchen, churning out so many small plates to so many guests.
It must be an organizational nightmare to keep track of it all.
Did I hear you say small plates?
The entire concept of this restaurant is small plates. That's pretty much all they have on the menu. There are a few slightly larger "entrees", such as the burger, the steak, and the lamb sirloin. Most of the other menu items are smaller. The plates range in price from $8 to $17, and they recommend ordering 2-3 plates per person. We came with a party of four and ended up ordering ten plates, which was plenty.
We started with some house pickled green beans, which were complimentary. They were surprisingly sour (I guess they ARE pickles) and a nice way to cleanse the palate.
The Market Crudo that day was striped bass, and it came with cauliflower kim chi, chili oil, and uni aioli ($15). The fish was quite tart, almost like ceviche. The flavors were decent, though the uni cream did give the entire dish a hint of that slightly fishy uni "stink" that makes some people shy away from uni.
The Smoked Moosabec Farm Mussels ($13) were fantastic and one of the favorite dishes of the night. Flavorful smoked mussels were piled high on top of a large, toasted crostino and tossed with parsley, tarragon, and aioli. Locally Foraged Mushrooms ($11) came topped with a perfect, creamy 60-degree egg and tossed with pine nuts and a citrus crumble. Lemony and salty, the mushrooms had less umami than what I typically associate with mushrooms. Perhaps the citrus and salt muted the earthy flavors of the mushroom? The creamy egg was delicious, and tempered the saltiness of the overall dish.
I loved the flavors of the Mesquite Tortellini ($13), homemade pasta tossed with grilled broccoli rabe, Bianco Sardo (a pasteurized sheep's milk cheese) and Colatura (anchovy sauce). The sauce was deeply flavorful; I loved how the slight bitterness of the broccoli rabe stood up to the strong anchovy sauce.
Furthermore, the dish had just the right amount of heat to give each bite a pleasant kick. Perhaps there was just a tad more oil than I would have preferred, but it was very, very tasty and I would totally order it again.
The Island Creek Oyster Gratin ($16) was a rich and decadent dish where oysters were cooked in a velvety sauce of uni, creamed leeks, and guanciale. The leeks were sweet and super tender (almost like caramelized onions).
Though I'm not the biggest foie gras fan in the world (of course, there are exceptions), I actually enjoyed the Grilled Foie Gras ($17) here. This one was mild and did not have a strong "liver" flavor (which I don't like). It came with spiced fruit, sherry vinegar, and a warm crumpet.
The Earl Gray cured Crispy Berkshire Pork Belly ($13) had a lovely crispy top and came with cold smoked corn grits and roasted kumquat. Though I'm not sure how I feel about the kumquats, the pork belly itself was executed beautifully.
Bryan couldn't resist when he saw the Secret Burger (limited availability - $14) on the menu.
It has a mysterious ingredients list: an eight ounce "House Creekstone Grind" patty, a house made Parker roll, and "Your Faith."
"Your Faith" turns out to include these addictively crunchy house made potato chips (which we couldn't stop picking at!) . . .
. . . as well as an excellent burger.
Made from a blend of ground short ribs and chuck, it was cooked a juicy medium rare, served with house made pickles and a creamy, tangy sauce. The ratio wsd perfect: juicy patty, crisp pickles, soft Parker House roll, and a zippy creamy sauce. This is one solid burger that definitely stands up well to the crazy competition of burgers in the Square.
One minor note: We did ask for the burger to be cooked medium (my friends prefer it that way), though Bryan was more than happy that the burger actually came out medium rare instead.
Overall, this was another one of the favorites of the table.
The Chicken Fried Local Rabbit ($14) was served with celery, apple, blue cheese and chili oil. The rabbit reminded me of a breaded and deep fried chicken "patty". It was crunchy on the outside yet juicy and flavorful on the inside. It was fine - nothing super memorable about it.
The Grilled Lamb Sirloin ($16) was rubbed with cocoa nibs and served with a grilled carrot and coriander mash on a splash of ramp greens. The lamb was cooked beautifully (you can totally tell from the photo), though the sweet, almost raisiny flavors of the rub on the lamb was a bit weird for me. Perhaps I'm not as used to such flavor combinations.
Bryan always prefers a salty "dessert", so we went with the Single Composed Cheese Selection – $11. They were serving Oma from Von Trappe Cheese Makers, which I absolutely loved. This cheese is creamy, salty, yet has just enough stink to make it beautifully complex without being too strong that I can't handle it.
It worked with the fruity accompaniments: kumquat, house torrone (nougat) and honeycomb.
The server recommended the Smoked Chocolate Bread Pudding ($9) which was topped with Jacobsen Salt Ice Cream. I'm a sucker for bread pudding, so it's no surprise I would be drawn to dessert.
I especially appreciated how the dessert was not too sweet at all. I really liked how I could really taste the essence of the chocolate (which was high quality) without being overwhelmed by sugar. Of course, the salt ice cream added even more of a savory component, balancing out the dessert perfectly.
All in all, we had a nice time at Alden & Harlow.
Considering how crazy huge the place is, and that this was just their first week open, I thought things went very smoothly. This team knows what they're doing, and they are executing solid dishes. There were definitely some standouts. The smoked mussels was a universal table favorite, and we all loved the burger. I personally really enjoyed the pasta and desserts as well. Though there were some dishes that I didn't love, I'm sure Chef Scelfo will continue to refine and change the menu over time in response to the seasons, available ingredients, and customer feedback.
I love the small plates concept. There's really nothing quite like this in Harvard Square. You really do get to try a lot more different tastes in a single meal, which is something my easily-bored palate prefers.
Congrats Chef Scelfo!
Alden & Harlow
40 Brattle St
Cambridge, MA 02138