The common areas of downtown’s gleaming-new Alexander hotel have a sort of hallowed MoMA feel, the walls hung with museum-quality works like a mural of Madame C. J. Walker fashioned from 3,840 combs, a sculpture featuring undulating strips of stainless steel, and an installation of 3-D birds exploding from a vintage turntable. It follows, then, that the food at the hotel’s resident bar, Plat 99, would inspire some chin-stroking too.
In a second-level space strung with a Moroccan bazaar of sculpted lanterns by the artist Jorge Pardo, crisp white plates are not so much dishware as they are blank canvases for cocktail snacks such as miniature short-rib panini and a winter-menu butternut-squash soup crisscrossed with creme fraiche and bourbon-hickory syrup. The “Lox & Bagel” is actually an adorable flight of meaty, firm slices of mezcal-cured arctic char with slivers of pickled red onion atop cracker-sized profiteroles. They are served side-by-side in a slender four-compartment tray that may or may not be an Andy Warhol reference.
Aesthetics aside, the setup has some built-in limitations. Working without a hood ventilation system or even a proper range top, the culinary team helmed by executive chef Jeremy Martindale—a Connecticut transplant who has cooked at the legendary James Beard House in New York—assembles all of the food at Plat 99 in a primitively stocked finishing kitchen that backs up to the bar. As diners nosh their way through the brief menu of $4 to $14 small plates and enjoy the 180-degree twilight views, chefs in double-breasted gray smocks dart from hot plate to chopping board, cutting Smoking Goose salami into paper-thin wisps on a hand-cranked Swedlinghaus meat slicer, and blow-torching the sugared tops of wee vanilla-bean creme brulees—basically doing the best they can with what they have to work with. Voyeurs can take a seat in one of the white upholstered stools at the bar (a handsome hammered-copper centerpiece discreetly wrapped in a sneeze guard) and enjoy their own little cooking show.
That the sous chefs can pull off anything remotely Instagram-able is a respectable feat. But it is a mark of honor that they can plate soft-bunned pork-belly sliders that rival any other interpretation in town—at once crisp, sticky, and rich with fat, with a dried-cherry chutney that sets off the powerful flavor of bacon steak. And the beef roulade, pinwheels of cool red flank steak on a plate scattered with shards of Turkish black salt, is everything that a high-end bar snack should be: a casual nibble legit enough to pair with a glass of Malbec.
Other standouts range from a fan of elk carpaccio garnished with red-wine gastrique and fried capers to a refreshing yellow-beet salad under a tuft of microgreens, sweetened with pecans and sherry vinaigrette. But not everything works. Who knows what to do with that liquid-centered boiled egg that sits atop a prickly tangle of hash-browned sweet potatoes in a dish called, appropriately, Egg in a Nest? A Riverbend Blue grilled cheese on raisin-sunflower bread is equally disappointing, just unmelted cheese crammed between two slices of painfully crusty toast.
But let’s just say that most of the people lounging on the low, nubby sectionals, be-neath the flattering glow of those 99 lamps floating like jellyfish of diffused light, probably won’t flip the pages of the menu past the cocktail list. The Alexander scored big when it landed mixology manager and GM Michael Gray, one of the original hunks to wield a shaker at The Libertine. Though the core list of spirits is limited, there is a sweet emphasis on boutique boozes and local hard liquors such as Indiana-made Spring Mill Bourbon. One of Gray’s creations, The Wayworn Road, is a short glass of bourbon flavored with black peppercorn–and-thyme syrup. It’s a doozy. The same goes for the Eclipse Cocktail, the only tequila drink on the list and possibly the pinkest, with the rhubarb undertones of Aperol, an Italian aperitif, mingling with the smoky notes of reposado and mezcal. I thought, as I sipped and soaked up the scene, that this would be a good drink for people who like Cosmos but are too embarrassed to order them anymore—especially in a place where everything is on display.
PLAT 99 333 S. Delaware St., 624-8200, thealexander.com
Hours Mon.–Sun. 3 p.m.–1 a.m. (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.)
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the April 2013 issue.