It was huge news when Casablanca, a 50+ year old Harvard Square establishment filled with history and nostalgia for old time Cantabrigians, closed its doors in December of 2012. As the city wondered with anticipation what would take over that space, news came out that Michael Scelfo, chef of the beloved Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, was planning on opening up his own restaurant in that space.
The Casablanca space means a lot to Chef Scelfo. He says he used to hang out there a lot. It was one of the few places that was open late (important for people in the restaurant industry!).
" I used to dream at Casablanca about what I would do if I opened up my own restaurant. I would look around at the space, using it as a model."
"Never in a million years did I think Harvard Square would be the place for it."
How funny things turn out sometimes.
We are now (hopefully) months away from the opening of Alden & Harlow, Scelfo's first ever "solo" restaurant venture. He named it after the original architects who designed the building, sort of as a homage to the history of the space.
"I wanted to find a way to do my own thing in the space without destroying what was there before."
I had a chance to sample some of the dishes from the new restaurant at a media event last week. We met at the Urban Grape, a fun new wine shop that opened in the South End in 2012.
The owners of the Urban Grape, TJ and Hadley Douglas, paired wines from their store with the dishes that Chef Scelfo made. It was an enlightening and fun evening where we learned about food and wine as well as sampled lots of things!
This is TJ. He is one of the owners of the husband-wife duo that own the Urban Grape. He worked in the restaurant and wine industry for years before branching out to open his own wine shop. He's extremely passionate about wine - you can totally tell when you hear him speak. He was the who created the pairings for the evening, and it was fun to hear him describe his thought process behind some of the pairings.
We began with a trio of snacks which were already on the table when we arrived. One of my favorite bites came from this trio: Hickory Smoked Cashews with Maldon Salt, Rosemary, and Currants. These were extremely addictive (I may have taken three helpings!), and could easily pair with many types of drinks. The first three "snacks" were paired with a lovely, crisp NV Montsarra Cava Brut from Spain. The cava was delightfully refreshing and not too sweet - just the way I like it.
The second part of the "Trio of Snacks" was crostini topped with Grilled Cauliflower and Sesame Caponata, which consisted of a mixture of roasted cauliflower, golden raisins, pine nuts, and capers. The mixture of sweet, salty, and sour created an interesting and balanced mixture of flavors. Raisins aren't my favorite food, so they detracted a bit from my overall enjoyment of the dish, unfortunately.
On the other hand, I absolutely loved the third snack, Grilled Romano Beans with Prune Plums, Basil, and Cojita Cheese. I loved the simplicity of the hyper-seasonal ingredients. The beans were tender, crispy, and really flavorful - as if they had just been picked from the farm earlier that day. I loved how the dish was light, healthy, yet refreshingly flavorful with that light sprinkle of the salty cheese and the sweetness from the plums.
For our first course, we began with a beautiful dish of Grilled Local Carrots, which were grilled in honey, salt and olive oil. These were served with a house buttermilk yogurt (which takes four days to make) and a pistachio "granola" consisting of grilled and dried farro, pistachios, and a house-made dukka spice mixture. A touch of spicy honey tied everything together.
I really enjoyed this dish. Personally, I wished for just a tad more caramelization on the carrots (perhaps I'm spoiled by the roasted carrots I've had!). Other than that, though, the combination of flavors and textures was really unique and worked very well. I enjoyed the Middle Eastern influence, and I appreciate how his dishes reflect influences from a variety of cuisines, which makes for a much more diverse and interesting menu (I hate getting bored).
We enjoyed this with a 2012 Domaine Mourchon "La Source" CDR Blanc 6W, a viognier from the Rhone region of France.
The next course was a seafood dish: Smoked Moosabec Farm Mussels with grilled squash, croutons, and parsley. This was paired with a 2012 Domaine du Paternel VDP Rosé. This rosé is a blend of grenache, syrah, and cinsault and comes from Provence, France. The rosé cut the richness of the deep, smoky mussels really well, while the earthiness of the mussels actually brought out the sweetness of the wine.
The flavors of the smoked mussels were fantastic, and several people cited this as their favorite pairing.
Finally, our last course was an Overnight Wood Roasted Beef Bacon served with late harvest creamed corn and vinegar glazed radishes. Chef Schelfo told us he smoked the beef belly over hickory for seven hours in 4 bottles of red wine. The results were insanely tender. I think I actually was able to cut it with a plastic spoon.
We paired this with a 2011 Pierre Gaillard Syrah 6R from Collines Rhodaniennes, France. This syrah actually had a decent amount of tannins and acidity, which cut the fat of the beef while standing up to the acidity of the vinegar radishes.
Chef Scelfo, who's pretty active on social media, took a photo of his final dish.
We met other members of the team, including Jen Fields (right), who was general manager at Toro for five years before agreeing to join Michael Scelfo in this new venture.
Chef Scelfo also introduced to us his sous chefs,Dave Tollerud and Becca Arnold (behind Chef Scelfo), who were helping out with the food that night.
I'm excited about Alden & Harlow for a number of reasons.
First, I love eating a wide variety of food (I get bored of eating the same thing bite after bite). Alden & Harlow will feature small plates ($8-12 range) that are meant to be shared. Scelfo really wants to encourage a communal style of dining where people sit around a table and share numerous dishes together - family style. I grew up eating this way at home, so I always prefer it.
Second, Chef Scelfo has been getting into a lighter style of cooking lately. He's experimenting with all sorts of fresh, local, and seasonal vegetables.This is the type of food that I like the most, and it's definitely more rare to find a chef who's really good at cooking vegetables.
Finally, the space, location, and hours of operation are great. It's a pretty large space right in the middle of Harvard Square where there's lots of stuff going on all around. For me, it's even better because it's less than a 10 minute walk from my home. Since the space is pretty large, I'm hoping it will become of one those places that isn't always completely booked so that it's impossible to get in.
They also plan on staying open until 2AM - something not many restaurants do. Chef Scelfo had mentioned how he used go to Casablanca because it was open late. Perhaps he wants to offer that same sort of thing to the local community?
They are *hoping* to open by the end of this year, with a tentative goal of sometime in November. Of course, certain aspects of the timing are out of their hands (sometimes you just don't know how long it will take the city to approve something). However, they are actively prepping, planning, and making significant progress.
I think this will be a very welcomed addition to the neighborhood. Can't wait!
I did not pay for any of the food or wine at this media event. All opinions are my own.
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