Al Di Là - May 14, 2011
Over and beyond - al di la - Manhattan, there is another world, another possibility, another promised land filled with promising restaurants, just beckoning me to take the bridge over into the unknown. After more than a dozen constipated years of countless meaningless meals in the great metropolitan island, it had come to this: Either I move out of New York or I move myself out and over into the outer boroughs, at least, for a few hours. For these particular few hours, however, I was in good hands – the hands of a seasoned Brooklynite who was conversant with Italian food in general – thanks to the Italian grandfather who used to whip up a storm in the kitchen.
The tour de force started with fried chickpeas - straight out of the fryer so that the skin became a transparent crust. Sprinkled with a dust of paprika, they were slightly crunchy, nutty and starchy and diabolically addictive. Freshly cured grassy olives did not hurt, either.
The pickled mackerel was spicily seared; bi-colored pepper flakes freckled the oily skin. The pickled ramp and the salad of shaved radish and sunchokes were refreshing against the fatty fish; and the crispy texture played well against the velvety flesh (although a few of the sunchokes stripes were too fibrous).
Layers, created by the myriad textures of fresh green vegetables – tender leaves of baby spinach, gently boiled spears of asparagus, plump green beans, firm peas and fava beans and crunchy slices of fennel - weaved an ode of spring. Scented by minty herbs, the light vinaigrette highlighted the vigor of the ingredients, while the milky pecorino added just enough salty accents to the salad.
These small fish are notoriously difficult to handle: as soon as they are fished out of water (dead) they begin to spoil and they spoil fast (look for those burgeoning or burst stomachs). Not only that, they are tough little guys to fry. But they are a treat when done right by a pair of swift and capable hands, which they were, almost, at Al di La. Just a tiny bit crispier would have seal the deal, but that may be asking too much? But no.
Soft Shell Crab
A vague suspicion, started in the second fried item – the anchovies – was confirmed in the third: the crabs were alarmingly and disappointingly less than optimally crispy, while the inner flesh of the crab could be, at best, euphemistically described as room temperature. Was it the temperature of the oil? Or was it the duration of frying time? The polenta-crust would have added so much flavor to the bland crustacean – no one eats it when it is not “soft-shell” - had it been allowed to achieve its full potential crisp.
Spaghetti alle Vongole
The bold clam sauce – spiced by feisty flecks of red chili and creamed by the white wine - did not hold back in the face of the mightily thick and chewy spaghetti. The sweet clams admirably perfumed the pasta with its essence of sea, while the garlic breathed earthiness onto the plate. Al di La’s spaghetti alle vongole might have been one of the best renditions I had ever tasted, especially considering that there were all together not that many clams in terms of absolute numbers.
Sturdy and herbal, the escarole was sautéed quickly in an abundant pool of olive oil to a good crunchiness; the all-purpose lemon juice cut through the greasiness – or it tried to - while simultaneously lightening its bitterness.
Squid Ink Risotto
Shiny black and slick with butter, the risotto gleamed, reflecting the soft lightening of the room. The briny creaminess was wantonly rich and mysteriously deep, studded with pearls of al dente rice and strips of tender squid. However, its very own heaviness was its own dark downfall: even my fathomless black hole of a stomach was not able to finish it all.
Sorbetti - Passion fruit, Raspberry, Blackberry with Almond Florentine
Gelati – Burnt orange, Honey, Pistachio
Perfectly serviceable, if slightly too sweet, the bouquet of sorbetti was competently unmemorable. Two of the gelati, on the other hand, proved unexpectedly pleasing: the burnt orange was surprisingly mild contrary to the customary citric acidity, and the honey was mellow without being overly sweet. However, the lightening speed at which they all started to melt was rather disconcerting – half of the gelati succumb to the room temperature in a matter of 30 seconds.
Torta di Pera e Ciocolato
The matronly cake failed to unify the pear and the chocolate, even with the help of the rather watery vanilla whipped cream.
Semisweet Chocolate Tart
It was semisweet but it was also semi-chocolate in terms of the cacao flavor; its superb svelte and smooth texture, notwithstanding.
Al Di La
Address: 248 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215
Phone: (718) 636-8888