In its heyday, Casablanca was the quintessential Harvard Square restaurant, with its murals inspired by the classic film, Turkish meze plates side by side with burgers on the menu, academics side by side with artists, writers, and neighborhood eccentrics in the dining room and bar. When it closed in December 2012, an epoch ended.
Alden & Harlow opened in its place in January, subterranean and dimly lit, with brick walls and reclaimed wood, vintage signs and shelves filled with cookbooks and canned goods. There is bustle in the open kitchen, good-natured jostle at the long, long bar. Couples slip into nooks, and groups of friends wind through the crowd to settle at dining room tables. Drinking and eating here are professors and students, chefs and servers, entrepreneurs and — eternally — neighborhood eccentrics. Alden & Harlow is for today what Casablanca was yesterday and the day before that: the quintessential Harvard Square restaurant.
It is the first venture as chef-owner for Michael Scelfo, who has earned a following at places such as the nearby Russell House Tavern, Temple Bar, and North Street Grille. It is as surefooted as can be, the concept coherent, the staff seasoned, the food delicious and creative.
Chefs have often gloated over pig parts with fetishistic relish, larding menus with bellies and chops, feet and ears and tails. They have zoomed in with a small scope on the fatty, chortling, “How delicious! How delicious!” Scelfo instead surveys the landscape of vegetables, pointing out beauty in variety. Alden & Harlow’s plates are filled with green frills of kale and pale orange ribbons of squash, the bright pink pop of radishes and the Fibonacci spirals of romanesco and fiddleheads. On each visit, the menu takes a few steps forward with the season.
The food is rich, but it is balanced with smoke, salt, acid, and spice. This begins with the most ordinary snack of all, the nut, that which often gets thrown down in a grody old bowl alongside a drink at the bar and ignored. Here, cashews are smoked, then tossed with currants and rosemary needles, bright and assertive. (Actually, it begins before that, with pickled green beans instead of bread.)
The ubiquitous kale salad appears with a wink, titled on the menu “Ubiquitous Kale Salad.” But this one is above average, a mixture of fresh and crisped leaves with thin slices of fennel and a creamy pistachio dressing. Butternut squash salad is a surprise, the squash grated into thin ribbons, combined with pecorino, currants, hazelnuts, and brown butter. It is nutty, rich, and delicious, but the squash-ness of the squash is lost, its delicate flavor drowned out by the other ingredients. Whole grilled carrots are stunning, deep purple and orange, served with yogurt, honey, and a crunchy mixture of pistachios and other seeds. The flavors here are just right, but grilling leaves the carrots underdone.
Raw scallops and cauliflower kimchi mingle with uni-flavored aioli and chile oil. Pan-roasted clams are served in a luxurious broth with smoked pig’s tail and charred toasts topped with parsley and chiles.
Golden corn pancakes are drizzled with maple syrup and share the plate with shishito peppers and kernels of popped corn. Mesquite tortellini feature the sheep’s milk cheese Bianco Sardo, grilled broccoli, and the Italian anchovy sauce colatura.
Chicken-fried rabbit is a delicious nugget with celery, apple, blue cheese, and chile oil, like Buffalo chicken fingers for the smart set. (The downside of the fine fry job is that this might as well be chicken; it’s hard to taste the rabbit beneath the batter.) Beef neck, slow-roasted until it is almost jammy, is leavened by parsnip puree, radishes, and vinegar. It is gorgeous. Each dish is a study in contrasts: brightness, richness, spice, and smoke on every plate.
Some dishes celebrate untrammeled richness: crisp potato chips with the best true-to-spirit onion dip; rye pasta with confit chicken thigh and fig-liver butter, topped with crisped skin; a burger with limited availability each night, coarsely ground meat forming a patty so flavorful, juicy, and decadent it is unfair to other burgers around town.
It can sometimes be too much, as with a gratin of Island Creek oysters with uni toast, creamed leeks, and guanciale. It is fatty and dull. And the emphasis on smoke can go too far: see the intense, unpleasant smoked chocolate bread pudding with salt ice cream. Alden & Harlow’s desserts are not a strong suit.
The beverage program is, however. We begin with original cocktails: the wonderful McGregor’s Garden, a bourbon drink made with spiced parsnip puree; the hot tiger’s milk, a toddy that will warm you with rum, coconut, honey, bitters, and cinnamon. The half-dozen draft beers are local, as are many of the bottles. The wine list inclines toward Old World, food-friendly selections, with a not-your-usual by-the-glass list that encompasses the likes of Basque Txakoli and Austrian St. Laurent.
Servers know the wine list well, describing selections and steering diners adroitly in pairing them with dishes. They are friendly, attentive, and genuinely hospitable. A host shrugs off the crush of a Friday night with a smile: “It’s fun!” I think she really means it. It looks as though everyone else here does, too. Clean-cut Harvard types, tattooed ruffians, elegant women with Spanish accents, and a fair assortment of neighborhood eccentrics rub elbows at the bar and in the dining room. Same as it ever was.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.