Grub/Spirits Restaurant Reviews — 24 August 2011
CLOSED: Alfama: A Restaurant Review

CLOSED: Alfama
214 East 52nd Street, near 3rd Avenue, Midtown East, (212) 759-5552
Getting There: 6 to 51st Street; E,V to Lexington Avenue- 53rd Street

(This restaurant has since CLOSED)

As often as the New York City restaurant scene is touted as an unparalleled collection of ethnic cuisines of all kinds, for years there has been a noticeable dearth of Portuguese restaurant options in our area. After the original Alfama’s 10 year run in the space currently home to Spasso on Hudson Street, its 2009 shuttering even further diminished an already scarce number of notable Portuguese restaurants. Perhaps the proximity to Newark, home to some of the most outstanding and affordable Portuguese spots found anywhere, is a dissuasion to restaurant owners seeking to setup shop nearby. Nevertheless, after an almost two year absence, Alfama has reopened in midtown east, albeit with some underwhelming results.

Opting for a less traditional setting, the new Alfama boasts two floors, a small but modern looking bar area, and a continuous smooth orange leather booth surrounding the back walls in the main dining room. Admittedly, part of the charm of Portuguese dining is the overreliance on the authentic and old-fashioned, most of which seems lost upon the new, almost sterile atmosphere inside. Perhaps our experience was somewhat impaired since we were seated in a small alcove fitting only a handful of tables positioned behind the bar mirror. Perhaps we were unable to enjoy a complete dining experience here, in isolation from other patrons.

Regardless of positioning, our group was well taken care of service-wise. However, the waitstaff doling out one piece of tasty bread at a time might be better suited to leave a basket per table to avoid being hassled more than three to four times per meal. The cocktail list was thoroughly pleasing (the $12 negroni was somewhat reasonable and especially tasty), but the drinks were rather diminutive and as the standard, expensive.

Having been to the restaurant’s prior locale, we returned for the same dish that we had so thoroughly admired on our first visit- the “organic filet mignon” ($32). What stands out about Alfama’s steak is the fact that the red meat is brought tableside completely raw, atop a scolding hot marble tile (called stone-grilling) and topped with a mound of fresh cut garlic for searing into the meat. With utensils, cooking the steak to the appropriate temperature is completely up to the eater, but the combination of the freshly cooked meat and garlic cooking into a seared cut, was absolutely as outstanding as we remembered it. Unfortunately the same cannot necessarily be said about the remainder of the dinner. A Portuguese favorite of ours- (mariscada, here called a stew) “stew of lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels, and monkfish” ($32) served in a lobster wine broth was far too soupy, almost blandly clinging to the seafood. The broth lacked much of the flavor we anticipated, leaving the fishy taste to overwhelm the dish, and ultimately disappoint. The “prosciutto with honeydew melon” ($9) culled from the Restaurant Week menu, was serviceable but played no role in salvaging the rest of the dinner.

In full disclosure, Alfama’s re-opening had us energized to make a reservation. We had visited the former west village location some three years ago and had been so infatuated with the restaurant’s ambiance and had thoroughly enjoyed the steak to the effect that we were anxious for a return visit. Unfortunately for us, this inclination may have been premature as the new Alfama seems to have lost much of the charm held by the previous and simply blends in, instead of standing out, in an already crowded Manhattan landscape. The small, pricey drinks, the deterioration of authenticity (or its shift toward the modern), and the competent but virtually unmemorable dishes (filet aside) left our bellies full, but our expectations unfulfilled.

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