Restaurant Review: Alden & Harlow
The menu at chef Michael Scelfo’s new Cambridge restaurant is fresh and local, but that’s beside the point.
Chicken-fried rabbit with celery, apple, blue cheese, and chili oil.
So maybe this whole farm-to-table thing has run its course. Maybe it’s time to tell chefs they really don’t have to base every single dish on the spring-dug parsnips, chervil, and stalks of asparagus that come through their back door, or name-check them everywhere on the menu. Maybe a lovingly sourced menu doesn’t have to revolve around the farms that supply it. Maybe it’s time to let chefs be chefs again.
Or so I thought after three dinners at Alden & Harlow, the new restaurant in the big, semi-underground space where Casablanca served—and helped define—Harvard Square for more than 50 years. Much about chef Michael Scelfo’s menu makes you think, Oh, that farm-to-table thing. Again. It’s heavy on the vegetables. It’s focused primarily on small plates. And it lists the provenance of many farm-fresh ingredients.
Once you start eating, however, you’ll see that Scelfo has moved far beyond “farm to table.” The menu, with its dishtowel-ready black-and-white drawings of lemons and chickens and herbs on cutting boards, conveys just-like-home simplicity. But the food, with its sometimes- unconventional ingredient combinations, extra doses of butter and salt, and flavor jolts in the form of hot peppers, fish sauce, and smoke, says, “Here’s an ambitious, strapping chef.” Scelfo is more interested in putting his stylistic stamp on his cuisine than he is in tenderly showcasing the English peas, wild mushrooms, and Little Gem lettuce that his dishes are named for.
Take the chicken-fried local rabbit with chili oil ($15), which might have been my favorite dish on the menu. The rabbit meat is ground into an aromatic forcemeat, shaped into an ingot, dipped in buttermilk and breaded with panko crumbs, deep fried, and served with artfully strewn pieces of blue cheese, celery, and apple. Yes, the rabbit is local, the blue cheese is Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farm, in Vermont, and the presentation is quite pretty. But pure-of-heart artisanal food this is not. It’s a deep-fried wedge of shredded meat flanked with cheese—bettered-up bar food.
In this vein, Alden & Harlow is a direct successor to Casablanca, which was reinvented in the late ’90s when then-chef Ana Sortun wrote a bar menu that rightly stayed mostly unchanged for more than a decade. Scelfo knows tavern-style food well, having worked at various barroom restaurants, including the Good Life and Temple Bar. Most recently he was executive chef at Russell House Tavern, where he cannily used Twitter and Facebook to create a craze for his “secret burger,” constructed using a different special ingredient each time. A version is now openly listed on his menu at Alden & Harlow ($14), though the menu teases with an asterisk that it might not be available if the limited quantity runs out.
It’s worth asking if the kitchen still has any of those burgers left—slightly smoky and sweet with his bread-and-butter pickles—because Scelfo shines with meat. A few well-grilled slices of lamb sirloin ($17) in a rub of cocoa, Urfa pepper, and coffee was tender and steaklike, and the crispy Berkshire pork belly ($15) might have been the best version I’ve had in Boston: slow-roasted and rendered meat that was succulent and soft but not mealy, with addictively crisp skin that tasted of bergamot and orange zest. It was less like pork and more like improved duck confit, served with meaty little local strawberries. After one square of the typically overly fatty meat, I was ready for another.
But when it comes to the menu’s vegetable-driven plates, Scelfo’s heart just doesn’t seem to be as into it: more of the farm-to-table dissonance. The kitchen has a tendency to freight produce with sauce and salt, as if a good-tasting vegetable will never really satisfy a customer on its own. The wittily named “ubiquitous kale salad” ($8), coated in a pistachio yogurt and topped with shaved fennel, sounded refreshing, but was so salty two of the three times I ordered it that it was hard to take a second bite. Butternut-squash salad ($10), the raw squash cut into threads like pasta, contained raisins, pecorino, hazelnuts, and enough melted brown butter to make it seem like a very heavy vinaigrette; it was both oversalted and strangely soapy.
These were, however, extremes: Many of the produce-driven dishes were nice, if a little complicated, like the milky-fresh burrata with English pea and radish ($12), freshened with mint and peperoncino-spiked honey and served with a garlic crostino; or the charred broccoli ($8) tossed hot with honey, olive oil, and red pepper flakes and served with a cashew tahini mixed with puréed butternut squash—a clever take on hummus.
Complexity works to Scelfo’s advantage in other dishes, too. One night, the chili aioli and minty salsa verde served with a grilled fresh sardine ($17, and the biggest I’ve ever seen) brought out the flavor of the fish, as did the accompanying pickled ramps. Anything pickled, in fact, is good (another reason to ask for that burger): Scelfo told me that his grandmother used to fill her cellar with her own pickles, and he often uses her recipes.
Like her, Scelfo favors a lot of sugar, which adds unexpected sweet notes to a number of dishes, such as the mushrooms and peas with a slow-poached egg and pine-nut crumble ($13), the chili-and-honey-glazed octopus with pickled lamb ($17), and the pickled Verrill Farm corn pancakes with flash-fried shishito peppers ($13). Of course, you’d expect sweet with pancakes, so there’s maple, in honor of the chef’s mother, whom he says loved to make breakfast for dinner ( always a fine idea). But even the pickled corn tasted sweet, and the peppers felt out of place on the plate. Sweet sometimes works well—I couldn’t stop eating the house giveaway of salty, sweet pickled green beans heavily sprinkled with benne seeds—but in savory dish after savory dish it can be jarring.
As it happens, Scelfo’s fondness for sugar isn’t nearly as persuasive in the desserts (all $9). He’s no pastry chef, as he modestly told me, and his confections do seem like afterthoughts, like a mushy smoked- chocolate pudding that tasted less of chocolate than salt, accentuated by sea-salt ice cream. Poached fruit salad with rhubarb, fennel, local strawberries, crème fraîche ice cream, and torn croutons of olive oil cake, however, was fresh, and anchored by produce from local farms.
But the farm just isn’t where Scelfo’s heart is. What he’s really done at Alden & Harlow is build a friendly tavern with some uncommonly polished food. He should let his menu say that, too.
Charred broccoli • $8
Crispy pork belly • $15
Chicken-fried rabbit • $15
Lamb sirloin • $17
Alden & Harlow, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-864-2100, aldenharlow.com.
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at the Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.