“To hell with more. I want better,” said the author Ray Bradbury. That’s how I feel about many restaurants that now promote “seasonal” fare. With an increasing number of these restaurants capitalizing on this trend, we’ve started to witness the demise of what one critic calls “true commitment” to the values that once defined America’s farm-to-table movement.
This is the problem with Aloi in Scott’s Addition. The space is sleek and sexy, with its dark walls and dim lighting that give it the cavelike feeling of a Soho cocktail lounge. And I have no doubt the restaurant works hard to source high-quality seasonal ingredients for its dishes. But rather than follow Alice Waters’ advice — that, by cooking “very simply” with seasonal ingredients, “the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is” — Aloi too often succumbs to the notion that more is better.
With any luck, in the future, Aloi will come to focus more on what each element of a dish contributes and figure out a way to pare down the laundry list of items piled onto every dish. But for now, the kitchen’s approach appears to consist of taking seasonal ingredients and scrambling them up like an expressionist painting. The result, in general, is a cluttered mess of ideas and flavors that don’t make a whole lot of sense.
Bone marrow, roasted and finished with little more than some Maldon salt to draw out its intensely buttery flavor, can be incredibly satisfying. At Aloi, the roasted bone marrow ($14), one of the starters on the fall menu, was not only unsatisfying but also unrecognizable, under a congealing mushroom gravy that resembled something you’d find on a microwaveable Salisbury steak.
Thankfully, this spring, this dish has been replaced with bone marrow beignets ($7). Though the beignets also come with mushroom gravy, the marrow-infused pâte à choux manages to distill the unctuous essence of the bone marrow in a way that’s complemented by the heartiness of the gravy.
The mussels ($15), another starter, also stand out. The dish draws on Thai-style flavors, with a milky green-curry broth redolent of Tom Kha Gai soup and a fragrant larb-like mixture of minced pork, basil, cilantro and chiles. Not surprisingly, these are the flavors that Aloi’s owner, Brandon Pearson, has perfected at his other restaurants, Sabai and Temple, both of which are excellent.
Sadly, though, with many of Aloi’s other efforts to explore its own brand of seasonal American fare, the train goes off the rails. Among the starters, the cauliflower ($12), cut into nicely caramelized florets, is ruined by a cacophony of carrot purée, buffalo sauce, and blue cheese foam, the combination of which leaves a sort of unpleasant taste.
As for the mains, the “edible garden” ($18) resembles what I assume it’d look like if a bomb exploded in the produce aisle at Kroger’s. Brussels sprouts, cannellini beans, mushrooms, and a mélange of root vegetables are in a heap, with no apparent intentionality or purpose.
While slightly bland, the well-cooked duck breast with five-spice jus ($30) works fine with just the pickled beets that accompany it. The dish, however, is overcomplicated by the addition of the sweatiness of braised kale and the concentrated nuttiness of smoked hazelnuts, which overpower and detract from the other flavors.
Similarly, the lamb loin ($27), though dry and overcooked, could work with the accompanying couscous and mint yogurt. But, instead of exercising such restraint, the restaurant packs in three other elements — tomato chutney, raisin gastrique and pistachio dukkah — that are a bit too much for a single dish.
Pearson and his team, as shown by their other restaurants, have a deep and sophisticated understanding of how to harness ingredients to achieve the perfect balance of flavors. If they can bring that understanding to bear upon their menu at Aloi, the restaurant could achieve so much more. Aloi is too promising to settle for being yet another seasonally focused restaurant that does more of the same. Aloi, instead, should aspire to be a seasonally focused restaurant that does it well and does it better.