The door at Alpen Rose is locked.
There’s a bell. You ring it, and one of the panels opens, a friendly face on the other side asking who you are and what you want. Not a speakeasy gimmick, exactly, but a threshold to be passed through, off of 13th Street and into the rarefied atmosphere of the restaurant. It’s supposed to feel like a departure, like you’re passing through something (a wardrobe, a tornado, whatever) into someplace other. And thresholds are one of those things that Michael Schulson, his wife and partner Nina Tinari, and their design teams have always been very good at.
Inside, Alpen Rose is another world. Leather seats, arching wood ceiling, dim lights, a small bar. The steakhouse is tiny — 40 seats, give or take. A floor staff of just a half-dozen. It’s close, quiet, intimate, and that’s a new trick for Schulson. Something he hasn’t tried lately. And Alpen Rose pulls it off stunningly well.
Problem is, I don’t like steakhouses. As a critic, I find them dull. As a diner, I find them uncomfortable. From the power bro-downs of Capital Grille to the schlock of the Palm and the snobby clubbishness of Barclay Prime, they just make me itch. I like a good steak now and then, but the trappings keep me away.
Alpen Rose, though, isn’t really a steakhouse. Or it doesn’t carry itself like one. There’s a comfortable casualness on the floor even after Schulson appears behind me to help me take my jacket off. (He’s not a person I can avoid in this scene, no matter how I try.) Even if the ease and snug warmth are belied by the prices on the menu, they’re still present.
Almost every steak here is dry-aged in-house — coddled, looked after, fretted over. And the payoff is in that first taste, that first bite. No other bite of steak will ever be so good as the first bite, and here, the first bite is excellent — all meat and blood and char, a little smoke, a little age, a sense of atavistic satisfaction.
What’s more, some of the best things on the menu aren’t even beef. The whole branzino is tender, deeply flavored, with just a touch of smoke. The Parker rolls with everything spice have a crackling crust and buttery insides. And the dry-aged duck, sliced into pinkish mid-rare slabs and dressed in an orange gastrique, could go head-to-head with the best ducks coming out of Chinatown (which is really saying something).
Most steakhouses are boring. Most are intimidating or uncomfortable, old or pointless. What separates Alpen Rose is that it’s a restaurant first, a steakhouse second, rather than the other way around.
And in that little difference — that tiny change in focus — is all the difference in the world.
3 Stars — Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country
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Source URL: https://www.phillymag.com/foobooz/2019/07/11/alpen-rose-steakhouse-restaurant-review-philadelphia/
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