No initial visit to a restaurant engenders the kind of nervous, soaring expectations an Alinea Group spot inspires. Whether it's the forthcoming reboot of the mothership, the latest incarnation of Next, predinner drinks at the Aviary, or the hope of a rare postprandial descent into the Office, Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas, and company have set such lofty standards for some of the most exclusive and elusive (actual) tickets in town that it's difficult to maintain a steady heartbeat in anticipation of eating or drinking in any one of them.
Now here's the latest one. Inhabiting the space adjacent to Next formerly occupied by the late Homaro Cantu's Ing, Roister is the group's first attempt at an accessible, casual break from the highly stage-managed fine-dining experiences they're most known for. That means a just-short-of-too-loud soundtrack, ranging from the Jam to Springsteen to Sonic Youth to GNR, in a dining room surrounding the chefs and a woodburning hearth—the most naked of open kitchens—and an undifferentiated menu of modern American comfort food with descriptions that might actually give you some inkling of what you're in for. Chances are you'll still be surprised.
But my thumping heart sunk the first time I walked into Roister and saw a line stretch ahead of me from the door to the host stand, filled with ticket holders glumly staring at the packed dining room like it was prime time at the Cheesecake Factory (it was 8:30). Through Kokonas's Tock system, you pay $10 a head for tickets to Roister (the cost is credited toward your bill), but that doesn't mean you won't stand watching everyone eat for 30 minutes. To keep the torches and pitchforks at bay and ease the wait, servers offer cocktails, beer, and cider.
Roister's chef is Andrew Brochu, an Alinea alum who came back into the fold at the Aviary but who's performed astonishing things in the interim in kitchens as varied as Pops for Champagne, Graham Elliot, Kith & Kin, the Monarch, and El Ideas. According to Kokonas, Brochu is the one who suggested the name Roister, meaning "to enjoy oneself or celebrate in a noisy or boisterous way." It's a concept that's often attempted but seldom nailed: open kitchen, party vibe, chefs cooking as much for themselves as they are for guests. Brochu's had experience with that sort of crowd at El Ideas, but there it's an epic prix fixe meal that's expensive and choreographed. At Roister, they hand control back to the diner—unless you opt for the $85 chef's tasting at the kitchen counter. (I didn't.)
Menu sections aren't even given headings, discouraging the idea that any specific strategy needs to be followed. From servers there's no "chef says," no "my name is," no acting the BFF, no menu expositions, anecdotes, or upselling. Just a simple and, in the end, justified 20 percent charge added to your bill in exchange for near perfect service. A utility pouch with knife, spoon, three forks, and chopsticks lands on the table, and what follows should dispel any lingering resentment for any wait.
The very first dish I ate at Roister was something I generally hate every time I talk myself into it. When I see it on a menu I hear a GM at a staff meeting saying, "Push the goddamn crudo. It's got the best margins!" and I'm frequently confronted with tiny slivers of fish with fussily arranged microgreens garnished with precious dribs and drabs of scented oils. But at Roister the crudo is a masterpiece. Huge chunks of sweet scallop in a shallow bath of sharply sweet and tart, effervescent passion-fruit medium, with slabs of strongly pickled and charred daikon radish sprinkled with mustard seed and dried scallop, reduced to the molluscan version of crunchy bacon bits. Fascinating and crystal clear in intent, it's the first of many overstimulating dishes I would eat over my visits. (It was also my first hint that Brochu knew there was a critic in the house, since it came out unbidden, along with a few others throughout that particular evening.)
This crudo, like most dishes on the menu, is of substantial, shareable size, which facilitates the conviviality Roister's MO implies. Same goes for the pasta and clams, which is composed of large macaroni soaking in a buttery sauce brightened with all sorts of complementary green things (chiles, lime, mint, tobiko) and fortified with firm, briny jumbo bivalves. Like many pairings you might stumble across here, this dish seems to have an obvious affinity for another. Its rich, fatty brightness is a natural for thick grilled asparagus with puffed rice and fennel, draped in a macadamia nut dressing—like spring still bundled in its winter sweater. Order the "aged cabbage," fermented napa leaves layered with slices of roasted pineapple and sectioned Fresno chiles—and be sure to get it with the hunk of braised pork butt with a Dark and Stormy glaze (rum and ginger beer), red peas, and peanuts. Both dishes hint at Asian flavors, the cabbage with its fizzy ferment recalling Korean kimchi absent the funk, while the pork is at once southern and Japanese. Together they make perfect sense.
Then take what seems to be Roister's signature dish: a whole chicken, thighs boned and fried, breasts poached and roasted, the rest folded into chicken salad, served with chamomile flowers and a creamy, eye-rollingly delicious sunchoke sauce that mimics a classic country gravy. Eat this family style with an order of the fat, soy-dusted Yukon fries, served with a creamy tofu-based mayo and topped with shimmering bonito flakes, and you realize that the fried chicken wars that have raged through the city in recent years have been decisively won.
Other dishes are more singularly exceptional. "Beef broth" is a misnomer for a ramenlike bowl: fat, hollow bucatini-like noodles along with thin slices of beef tongue and cheek and a gooey soft-cooked egg luxuriate in a shallow pool of thick, meaty concentrate halfway between a sauce and a soup. Asian flavors show up again in a surprising way in a Carolina Gold risotto, loose and creamy enough to please the most discriminating Milanese, stirred with dried mushroom and whole roasted carrots and topped with a bouquet of Vietnamese herbs straight from the garnish tray at your favorite pho joint.
Among high-ticket shareable items, seven ounces of A5-grade Japanese Wagyu beef slathered in sea urchin butter is among the most sensorily overwhelming things I've ever ingested, each bite tender beyond belief, a symphony of fat and salt nullifying all external stimuli. Served on a sizzling-hot stone slab, it gets better as time elapses and the butter browns, developing even more depth of flavor.
Not every dish will change your life. A sourdough pancake with mussels and the spring's first peas might be a stunner if it came off the line a little crispier. Duck confit with a steamed pecan-blueberry pudding would be a delicious dessert, but might not be something you'd want to start a meal with. Still, only one dish at Roister made no sense to me: a leg of lamb served with dill pickles atop a pile of creamed spinach seasoned with so much white pepper that it seems like a hostile act.
There's no way to go wrong at dessert. The foie gras candy bar, a riff on the Aviary's celebrated "Snickers bar," is a cool chocolate- covered torchon with a layer of marshmallow, lent texture by black walnut and pretzel bits. The whipped honey cake is an intellectual exercise served in an earthenware bowl: mellifluous sponge floated atop a thin layer of rhubarb puree alongside three bowls of garnish—granola, whipped sheep's milk yogurt (whipped cream with a backbone), and micro rhubarb greens providing bitter astringency to cut through the sweetness of the cake. Finally "strawberries & milk"—a billowing, creamy structure dusted with powdered shortcake, gummies, and fruity deposits of granita—resembles something like a Korean patbingsoo. Perhaps the most Alinea-like dish on the menu, it's a reminder that the assertively rustic food at Roister has modernist roots.
Overall Roister accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, presenting soulful, indulgent, nostalgic food that's superbly executed without calling attention to itself. It's a pleasure to encounter plates that are precise without being overwrought, in a setting that's noisy but not distracting, celebratory but still firmly on the rails. Roister sincerely wants to get you drunk, feed your face, and get you to second base on the first date. v
Correction: This story was amended to reflect that a Dark and Stormy is made with ginger beer.