Food nerds have been trailing chef Michael Scelfo through Greater Boston for years, watching him elevate the cuisine at whatever restaurant was smart enough to hire him (most recently Russell House Tavern). We cheered when he finally struck out on his own, buying the Harvard Square space that had been home to the long-running Casablanca and effecting a handsome redesign: The open kitchen wrapped in brick, tile, wood, leather and vintage signage makes a difficult basement space open and inviting. And while the menu formula may sound familiar—shareable plates of American brasserie-slash-gastropub fare—Scelfo has clearly decided to challenge his customers with brash, insistent flavors at every turn, including more smokiness than is typically seen outside of a barbecue joint.

Even the simplest snacks here make an impression. Chips and three-onion dip ($8) pairs a bowl of mahogany-toned house-made potato chips with God’s version of California dip, given a jolt of umami with anchovy powder. Charred broccoli ($8) becomes a revelation served atop hummus made from pureed butternut squash, sneakily astonishing. The smoke theme first appears in a refined gloss on beer nuts: smoked cashews ($8) with rosemary and currants. The aptly named Ubiquitous Kale Salad ($8), last year’s deathly dull menu cliche, becomes something creamy and sublime with fennel and pistachio dressing.

Pickled Verrill Farm corn pancakes ($12) are like maple-drizzled johnnycakes punched up with the capsicum bite and the fruitiness of fried shishitos: delectable. Mesquite tortellini ($13) looks small—five squat columns of house-made pasta filled with bianco sardo and grilled broccoli—but the fatty sharpness of Sardinian sheep cheese and the salty umami smack of colatura (modern Italy’s answer to garum) adds up to a hefty few bites. Chicken-fried local rabbit ($14) might be the most original treatment of bunny I’ve seen in ages, and the most delicious: a batter-fried oblong of coarse rabbit pâté surrounded by celery, apple and blue cheese. The “secret” burger ($14) varies frequently, and mercifully stands out from today’s surfeit of fancy burgers, its coarse grind balanced on one night by a crisp round of frico and salted onions.

Island Creek oyster gratin ($16) is a creamy leek stew with cubes of terrific, slightly funky guanciale and lovely uni-smeared toasts as croutons, but the subtlety of the oysters drowns in that richness. Pan-roasted clams ($16) with smoked pig’s tail more skillfully balances the bivalve/pork tandem. House-made rye pasta ($15) is a powerhouse, with faintly tangy ribbon-edged pasta shells in a deep-flavored sauce of confit chicken thighs and crisp skin dressed in chicken liver/fig butter. Unapologetic grass-fed lamb flavor is evident in the cocoa-rubbed lamb sirloin ($17), while a brick of slow-roasted beef neck ($14) topped with radishes and nesting in parsnip puree is like braver-sounding short rib—tender, fatty and nap-inducing. A complex and entrancing hickory-smoked blood pudding ($12) might be the over-the-top apex of Scelfo’s concentrated-flavor themes. Powerful smoke wrestles with the metallic whiff of the rice-thickened pork blood and sticky caramelized figs, accented by a bright walnut romesco.

The beverage program sets a usefully high standard for Harvard Square, with brilliant, inventive craft cocktails ($10-$12) like the Bell Tower ($12), a variant of the classic rye/Cognac Vieux Carré punched up with rosemary/ginger essence. Six draft beers ($6-$8) and 22 in bottles (mostly $5-$10) draw heavily from small local producers. Fourteen by-the-glass wines run $9-$13 and are well-suited to the robust food flavors. The bottle list of six sparklers ($40-$125), 16 whites ($33-$98) and 18 reds ($35-$120) favors Europe but sprinkles in some New World wines and prices them all attractively, from a $40 2012 Ulacia Txakoli, the bracing and fizzy Basque white, to a 2009 Daniel Rion “Les Beaux Monts” pinot noir, a steal of a first-growth burgundy at $120.

If Alden & Harlow has a soft spot, it’s the choice to continue the menu’s savory ferocity through dessert; smoked chocolate bread pudding ($9) can feel like too slight a variation on what preceded it. Instead, consider a cocktail like Hot Tiger’s Milk ($10), made with rums, coconut, honey, bitters and cinnamon, like a Tiki toddy. With its hard surfaces and close-set tables, the dining room produces the kind of currently voguish roar that will make you shout at times. The relaxed, polished waitstaff does a fair job of helping patrons navigate a menu in which variability in dish size and richness can make over-ordering easy. My advice is to bring friends, go slow and try a few bites of many things. With a chef whose every carefully prepared, locally sourced dish has some flavor knob turned up to 11, Alden & Harlow favors the bold, but it helps if the bold know how to pace themselves.


MC’s Picks

-Charred broccoli with squash hummus

-Pickled Verrill Farm corn pancakes

-Chicken-fried local rabbit

-Pan-roasted clams

-House-made rye pasta

-Slow-roasted beef neck


Hours: Sun.-Wed., 5 pm-1 am; Thu.-Sat., 5 pm-2 am

Reservations: Yes

Credit cards: Yes

Parking: Street

Liquor: Full


Alden & Harlow | 40 Brattle St., Cambridge | 617-864-2100 |

Alden & Harlow

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