Michael Scelfo Opens Up About His First Solo Restaurant, Alden & Harlow

From the menu to the design, here's what to expect at the forthcoming Harvard Square spot.

photo courtesy of Michael Scelfo

photo courtesy of Michael Scelfo

Way back in December, we told you about Alden & Harlow, the first solo project from former Russell House Tavern chef Michael Scelfo. The restaurant will reside in the former home of Casablanca in Harvard Square, and will be opening sometime in the late summer/early fall range, per Scelfo. The chef bid adieu to Russell House earlier this month to devote himself full-time to planning his dream restaurant,  which will have about 180 seats (thanks to a 1,000-sq-ft. expansion), a totally re-vamped bar, and a full menu offered until 1 or 2 a.m. You’ll find all other pertinent (and exciting) details in our Q&A ahead.

LM: What’s the overall concept?
MS: The overall concept is to just do something obviously very personal.I want to recreate a vibe for people that embodies entertaining at home, which is when someone comes over, they know you, and they are in an environment where they can just be themselves and enjoy. Why does the food or the service need to get in the way of that? It’s the most important thing, of course, but I don’t want it to be this ego statement in terms of what I do. I would rather be the background to that experience.

How will the menu help facilitate this?
When it comes down to the food, it comes down to passing plates around, and everyone sharing. It’s not appetizers, entrees, or small plates, or large plates. It’s common sense-sized portions of a lot of different things. It’s designed for 25-30 items in span, and they are all priced between $7-$18. Instead of giving you an insane amount of protein on a plate or a minuscule bite, they will be portions that straddle the middle. The beauty of that is that if to people want to go out and enjoy a bottle of wine and a steak, some items will have larger portion options with two prices.

How will the food be different from what people have come to expect from you at Russell House Tavern?
I think everyone is expecting me to be meat, meat, meat. Of course, I love that, and of course there’s a place for that, but this will be a much more balanced menu. I really want to emphasize a lighter touch, more heavy on produce and vegetable items. I know that  personally, I am making a point to eat healthier and eat smaller portions. I think that’s the direction our industry is heading. We are scaling back. We want to eat smaller portions of smartly cooked food that isn’t going to kill you at the end of the day. You can walk out feeling like you’re satisfied, but not like you have gout.

Is this a reaction to the bacon-wrapped-everything culture that we’re experiencing right now?
Everyone wants to up the ante, and up the ante, and up the ante. The ante has been upped. I did my part on my own little level. When you see these articles about “the death of the entree” and huge portions, I’m a huge supporter of that concept, but we don’t need to beat the drum and say that. Why not just say, “This is the way we eat.” Alden & Harlow is a concept dedicated to that idea.

Of course, the opening is a ways away, but any dishes already in the works that you can share?
There will be a heavy emphasis on seafood, homemade pastas, some smaller sides meant to be shared, and some fun snacky stuff for the bar. One thing I did keep from Casablanca was the smoker, and I love to smoke things. There will be an overnight wood-smoked short rib. One of the most popular items on my board for Cochon was tea-cured pork belly, and I’ll be doing that, and cold-smoking grits to go with that. There will also be crudo dishes, clams from Pat Woodbury, baked Island Creek oysters, and vegetables like grilled local carrots with spiced local honey, pistachio granola, and in-house yogurt. And a lobster panzanella with grilled peaches, fresh basil, and a sea urchin aioli.

The secret burger is big at Russell House. What will happen on the burger front here?
The “secret burger” will be the only burger [at Alden & Harlow]. We will have a custom grind that we will do in-house. It will change daily, so you won’t know what it is, and we will put it out social media-wise every day or every week. We are committing to the burger. I went back and forth on it. I didn’t want to be “the guy that’s not doing the burger.”  I hate to say no to people, anyway. The grind will be really special. When we nail that down, it will be unique and not be seen before.

Onto the drinks. Full liquor license, right?
Full liquor. Beer, wine, and cocktails, with a heavy emphasis on the wine program. I really care about wine, and I think that wine, in a way, is ahead of the curve. I really want to give people unique, different wines, old world style that they can pair with food. I’m old school in the sense that I think nothing is better than that.

What about the design?
Steven Sousa did the design. Most recently he did Blue Dragon, and I think he did a tremendous job for Ming [Tsai] over there. I had a ton of ideas on how I wanted this restaurant to look. Designing my home kitchen played a lot into it.  The design is unobtrusive, I would say. It’s the way I consider everything to be at the restaurant. There are a lot of clean, simple textures  from wood, to stone, to metal, to tile. The bar is coming out of the back of the restaurant, and coming to the front, close to Brattle Street. When you walk by, you will see life in the restaurant. The kitchen is an open format kitchen. There is also a dining area at the bar. There are a couple cooks that will be on the bar, with stations. We will take reservations for that, so you can dine at the dining bar area that overlooks the dining room.

How do you plan on keeping busy until the opening?
In July, I am doing a preview of menu items at The Urban Grape. I have a lot of cooking projects going on—a lot of pickling and fermenting. Alden & Harlow (and myself) will be going to the Food & Wine festival in Aspen to compete at the Grand Cochon, and then there’s the Lamb Jam national competition in NYC. I’m also doing Create with Louie [DiBiccari] in a few weeks. It’s been a good year. I’m really excited.