Casablanca Restaurant was the epitome of Harvard Square – quirky, informal, colorful, and a haven for anyone who worked, lived, or otherwise hung out in Cambridge’s most famous neighborhood. It opened as a bar in 1955 and evolved into a restaurant known for Mediterranean fare and mural-covered walls that depicted scenes from its namesake film. In December 2012, after more than a half-century of serving students, professors, actors, writers, and a host of eccentric characters, Casablanca finally succumbed to rising rents, increasing competition, and the impending retirement of its longtime owner. The Harvard Square institution closed its doors, leaving its oft-crowded space eerily quiet and empty.
In many ways, the bar and eatery that opened at the same Brattle Street address a year or so later couldn’t be more different from its famous predecessor. With its upscale, contemporary look, inspired food menu, and top-notch cocktail program, the space now occupied by Alden & Harlow might not even be recognizable to a former Casablanca regular. At the same time, something about that dark, subterranean atmosphere and unpretentious attitude seems comfortably familiar.
At the bottom of a flight of stairs leading down from Brattle Street, Alden & Harlow has a tucked-away, almost hidden quality to it; despite its popularity and critical acclaim, being in there kind of feels like you’re in on a really cool secret.
The bar area is dimly lit, with illuminated wooden slats on the walls and hanging caged lighting. There’s a fairly enormous, wraparound bar with upwards of 25 seats. A few tables and booths round out the bar area, which has a small, intimate feel about it.
Low, wooden ceilings with exposed beams and a weathered concrete floor give the space a cozy, almost rustic appearance. Beyond the bar is a roomy dining area, overlooked by an open kitchen.
Since its January 2014 opening, Alden & Harlow has garnered near-universal praise for its innovative cuisine. Led by chef Michael Scelfo, formerly of nearby Russell House Tavern, the menu features locally sourced, farm-to-table goods, with a special emphasis on vegetable dishes.
Charred broccoli is served on a bed of butternut squash hummus, topped with Bianco Sardo cheese and crumbled cashews. The sweet and savory hummus would be delicious even on its own. But combined with the smoky broccoli and the full-flavored cheese, it’s like a small feast for the palate. The cashews add not only flavor but texture to this excellent pre-dinner snack.
The menu also boasts an unusual abundance of pickled products. Scelfo has explained in interviews that his grandmother made her own pickles, and he learned the art from her. That passion for pickling shows up all throughout the menu, like in a complimentary serving of pickled green beans. Drizzled with olive oil and topped with toasted sesame seeds, the crispy green beans have an acidic, vinegary zip and a warm, nutty essence.
Heirloom eggs feature pickled fiddleheads and boquerones, which are Spanish anchovies soaked in vinegar.
Things turn playful with the pickled corn pancakes, which are drizzled with maple syrup, accompanied by shishito peppers, and topped with – of all things – popcorn. It’s an unexpected combination, and at first glance, seems kind of silly. But the flavors work surprisingly well, and the airy, crunchy texture of the popcorn serves as a clever contrast to the soft, fluffy pancakes.
Of course, there’s also plenty for carnivores to love. The chicken fried local rabbit (which I have yet to try) has become something of a signature item. And the “secret burger” is a legend unto itself. It’s a concept chef Scelfo experimented with while at Russell House Tavern, where he created a wildly popular burger recipe that wasn’t listed on the menu and was instead promoted only on social media. At Alden & Harlow, the “secret” burger isn’t so secretive; it appears on the menu, but the description’s a little…vague: “Our 8-oz Creekhouse grind, your faith, house-made roll.”
When it comes to burgers, I am a man of faith. So I didn’t ask what was on it, and the bartender didn’t offer any details. I was just happy they hadn’t run out yet; only a couple dozen or so are made every day, and they go quickly.
It’s easy to see why.
The burger patty is made from a combination of brisket, short rib, and beef plate. It’s topped with salted onions, the chef’s grandmother’s special sauce recipe, bread and butter pickles (no surprise there), and a crispy slice of baked cheddar cheese. Smoky and juicy, with a blend of sweet and savory flavors, the “secret” burger more than lives up to the hype. The kicker is the unexpected crunch of the baked cheese, again making the texture a key part of the experience.
That innovative and ambitious menu has earned Alden & Harlow innumerable accolades. It’s regularly lauded by local publications and outlets, and this past summer, the venerable Bon Appetít named Alden & Harlow one of the 50 best new restaurants in America. And that made me wonder, as I do whenever I visit an eatery renowned for its cuisine, whether the cocktail program will match that level of ingenuity. I mean, if everyone’s coming for the food, why not just offer a few microbrews and a decent wine list and call it a day?
Fortunately, Alden & Harlow’s cocktail program echoes many of the same principles that have won the restaurant such acclaim. The inventive libations resist categorization and emphasize local products and house-made ingredients. Some of the cocktails even incorporate items you might expect to find on the food menu instead of the drink list.
[BBH Note: My initial visit to Alden & Harlow was in late summer, and much of drink list has changed since then. Rest assured, their current offerings are just as creative and satisfying.]
Pureed local corn makes the Amazing Grace foamy, creamy, and highly original. Combined with a maple liqueur from Vermont, lemon juice, and poblano pepper, it’s a balance of sweet and sour notes with a rich, peppery aroma.
A charred apricot garnish lends a smoky essence to the Stone’s Throw. Made with rye whiskey, Punt e Mes, house peach vermouth, apricot, and mole bitters, it opens with a muted sweetness and ends with an herbal bitterness from the Punt e Mes. Mole bitters bring a hint of spice to the mix.
Apricot also shows up in the Ancient Stone, made with Reyka vodka, mint, and “bubbles.” Bright and sweet, the fresh mint gives this drink a soft, herbal aroma, and the sparkling wine adds a pleasant touch of effervescence.
But the first “wow” of my initial visit came courtesy of Duane’s World, a blend of Indian rum, Oloroso sherry, cold-brew coffee, Amaro, and urfa tincture – an extract from a Turkish chili pepper. Coffee is the most prominent flavor, but the warmth of the rum, along with the nutty notes from the sherry and the bitterness from the Amaro, make for a rich, wonderfully complex cocktail. The urfa tincture contributes subtle, peppery notes of sweetness and spice. Masterful.
There are also a couple of nods to the classics, albeit with some novel twists. The Kon Tiki Mai Tai is a tribute to a variation of the tiki classic popularized by the famous Kon Tiki restaurant. Dating back to the 1960s, this recipe calls for two rums, ginger, orange, lime, absinthe, and Angostura bitters. The anise flavor from the absinthe might be jarring if you’re accustomed to a traditional Mai Tai, but the drink is well balanced, vibrant, and not too sweet.
The Eastern Slopes combines elements of a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned, with rye whiskey, pisco, Santa Maria al Monte, orgeat syrup, and orange bitters.
As I mentioned, most of the above drinks have since gone the way of summer. But now there are plenty of fall-themed cocktails, like the Sandhill Crane. Made with St. George Terroir gin, cranberry sage shrub, lime, and maple, it’s a crisp blend of sweet, tart, and vibrant flavors; a sage leaf rim adds a wonderful herbal fragrance.
It’s a cocktail worthy of autumn in New England, and if Alden & Harlow is this good at capturing the essence of a season in a glass, it’s almost enough to make me look forward to winter.
Casablanca devotees (and I know they’re out there) might be a little sad to see anything in the hallowed space downstairs from Brattle Street. But you know, some dull national chain restaurant could’ve set up shop in there. Instead, Casablanca was succeeded by something truly original in Alden & Harlow, and while their respective food and drink offerings are light years apart, it’s hard not to feel a certain sense of continuity between the two.
Maybe it’s because they each, in their own way, reflect the culture and character of Harvard Square. The neighborhood may be home to one of the most elite universities in the world, but its streets teem with a wildly diverse, eclectic, mostly laid-back crowd. In the past, some of that crowd may have staggered into Casablanca for a late-night bite and a beer; nowadays, it’s wise to get a reservation for Alden & Harlow. But that doesn’t translate into exclusivity. As ambitious as Alden & Harlow’s menu is, it’s also approachable, affordable, and likely to have broad appeal.
Even better – success hasn’t gone to Alden & Harlow’s collective head. The atmosphere remains casual and unpretentious, and on every occasion I’ve been there, bartenders have knowledgeably described every cocktail and happily offered suggestions on drinks or dishes.
Case in point – I was intrigued by the “AH House Bitter,” one of two spirits on draft (!!). The bartender explained that it was a house-made Amaro and was called “Alpine Style” because of its foresty blend of herbs and bittering agents. It sounded a little too bitter for me, so I opted for something else. But later, when I was paying the bill, the same bartender brought over a sample of the house-made bitter anyway, apparently deciding I needed to try it despite my misgivings. I was glad he did – with its crisp, pine-like essence, this digestif was complex and surprisingly smooth, with hints of rhubarb among the herbal flavors.
Thoughtful gestures like that are often what make a visit to a bar or restaurant truly memorable. Couple that with good food and drink, and Alden & Harlow may even outlast its famed predecessor.
Address: 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge
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