Let’s be clear. New, artsy-Italian restaurant Al Coro, one of the year’s most-hyped openings, has great food. Make that a lot of great food.
But everything else about the supposed phoenix rising from the ashes of the former, scandal-seared Del Posto space on 10th Avenue, from the look to the vibe to the prices?
Rotten to the Coro.
The pandemic gave owners and chefs lots of time to dream up new concepts to thrill the dining millions, once the worst was over. But Al Coro is too much concept and not enough common sense.
The pleasures of Chef Melissa Rodriguez’s spirited, creative cooking are buried and left for dead beneath weird, unfunny shticks that will drive you to drink more $21 cocktails than your inflation-shrunken 401k can afford. The bill for two easily tops $600, even when ordering the “abridged” $195, five-course prix-fixe option. (The other is seven courses for $245.)
Al Coro opened in June with lofty expectations and Rodriguez, Del Posto’s last executive chef, at the helm. Under entirely new ownership, Al Coro “aims to be NYC’s marquee Italian restaurant,” Eater.com trumpeted. “It makes Italian fine dining feel like a party,” according to the Robb Report.
Sorry to poop the party, but Al Coro’s dining room got smacked with the ugly stick, featuring off-white plaster ceiling arches that aren’t festive at all, but fascistic-looking, as if designed to please Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The color scheme at too-dark tables is muddy brown-on-brown, right down to the hideous linens.
A section of the mezzanine now serves as a bandstand. The group that performed the last time I was there, elaborately named Chad Selph & All the Above Featuring Ajada Reigns, performed a competent enough mix of jazz, American songbook and rock. But what is this — a supper club? Dinner theater in Pennsylvania?
Al Coro’s at war with itself. What it calls a “built for celebrating” approach clashes with a pretentious, wow-look-at-us attitude. There’s no menu to peruse — on paper or on tablets. Instead, the waiters talk you through the lengthy lineup at the outset. They then introduce each item, including each of seven aperitivi to start your meal, with a pride and level of detail normally reserved for presentations of lifetime achievement awards. We learn the ingredients, preparation and the effects they’re supposed to achieve — even of a stuffed olive.
“By removing the printed menu we encourage our guests to give each dish/preparation equal footing,” explained Al Coro managing partner Jeff Katz. “We also like the element of surprise . . . When you go to a friend’s home for dinner, you usually have no idea what’s on the menu, and those meals are often the most satisfying.”
Maybe, but going to a friend’s for a meal doesn’t usually cost $350 a head.
We’ll say this for Al Coro: Our most recent experience was much better than it was a month earlier, when the waiter tried to push a second round of drinks on us after we had yet to see a morsel of food after 50 minutes.
Things are running smoother now. But the seven-item aperitivi were too many at once and taxed our patience while we hungered for more substantial dishes. The small plates ranged from wonderful (friselle and tomato, the latter the best I tasted all summer) to mediocre (rubbery calamari fritti).
The larger dishes display Rodriguez’s wizardry with textures, presentations and flavor combinations — and a gift for making familiar-sounding Italian classics taste new.
Spot-prawn crudo made with tomato, basil buds and finger lime resembled a gleaming terrine and tasted of heaven. Spaghetti alla chitarra broke the mold with a thrilling medley of razor clams, saffron and clam jus, squash and zucchini, mint and marjoram.
Montauk fluke never married so happily with zucchini, which appears in marinated, pickled and grilled permutations. Lamb scottadito stood out in a city of great lamb dishes. Grill-charred chops and a small skewer of slow-cooked neck made a powerful rustic statement with ragu of lamb bacon, dandelion greens, ceci beans and lamb jus.
These dishes were modern-Italian virtuosity at its best. But there’s a lot of wonderful Italian cooking in town that isn’t bogged down with “party” baggage and bank-busting prices — exactly the kind of nonsense our post-pandemic nights out don’t need.