Alice is on the top floor of the Eataly complex, which opened in March 2014 in what used to be the Smeraldo theatre in Milan. Eataly is a chain of food megastores that were started in Turin in 2007 by entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti. There are further branches in Rome and Florence and they have already expanded as far afield as New York and Tokyo.
The chef/owner of Alice, Viviana Varese, is originally from Campania but trained in places such as l'Albereta (owned by Gualtiero Marchesi) and at El Celler De Can Roca. In 1999 she opened her first venture Il Girasole in a commune called Orio Litta, near the city of Lodi in Lombardy, and later Il Girasole just outside Milan. In 2007 she opened Alice in southern Milan with fish supplier turned sommelier partner Sandra Ciciriello. In 2014 the pair starred in a TV show called "The Chef and the Boss", just as they moved the restaurant to its current location. After relocating, it retained the Michelin star that it had already gained in its earlier incarnation in 2012.
The dining room has a quite casual atmosphere, with no tablecloths but plenty of natural light from picture windows looking out over a nearby square. There is an open kitchen visible from some tables. The menu offered tasting menus at €110 (£86) and €130 (£102) as well as a full carte choice.
The wine list was quite substantial, going well beyond the expected regions of Italy as far as offering bottles from Slovenia and Israel, not just the prestigious vinous areas of France. Sample bottles included Lis Nerls 2012 "Lis Bianco" at €45 for a bottle that you can find in the supermarket for about €30, Weinbach Riesling Schlossberg 2014 at €85 compared to a retail price of €35, and Gaja Barbaresco 2012 at a modestly marked up €200 for a wine that will set you back €174 in the shops.
An array of nibbles began the meal. A salted cheese cracker tasted absurdly stale, as if it had been left in the back of a cupboard for a few weeks - this should never have left the kitchen (8/20). Better was a salad of cod and pistachio wrapped in lettuce, the pistachio flavour coming through well, though to be honest I struggled to detect the cod (13/20). A salted cod cracker was decent, and a Parmesan mousse cracker was similarly fine if hardly thrilling (13/20). Salmon and fennel bonbon was pleasant and the best of the nibbles (14/20). Bread was apparently made from scratch in the kitchen and was fine, with a seed loaf served warm, along with reasonable grissini and flat bread (14/20).
A fried pizza starter was topped with buffalo mozzarella, a tomato bavarois, basil and lemon. Combining hot and cold in one dish is always problematic, and here was just odd. The pizza base was reasonably light, but the mix of a warm, crisp base with fridge cold toppings just tasted odd (12/20). It is fine to innovate, but if you are going to mess around with something as well established as a pizza then surely it is incumbent on you to do better than this.
Red mullet was slow cooked and quite pretty to look at with its rings of carefully painted sauce, though the fish was only lukewarm, possibly as a result of all that presentation effort. It came with a tomato crisp bread, tomato and herb sauce and soggy spinach. The mullet had decent flavour but would have been better if it was hot, and the spinach was just sad (at best 13/20). Oddly this dish came with just a spoon to eat it, as if it was some sort of reality show test.
Another ill-advised adventure into mixing hot and cold elements on the same plate came with Parmesan tortello with barbecued asparagus, creamed asparagus, raw blended asparagus and "egg bottarga" (crumbled egg yolk rather than the real grey mullet roe). The pasta itself was too hard, and the mix of hot and cold was jarring, though the barbecued asparagus in itself was fine (12/20).
My tagliolini dish was better, cooked in pecorino essence topped with a sprinkling of a pepper mix apparently made from seven different peppers. The texture of the pasta was fine and the pepper topping pleasant (15/20). Quite why the twirled pasta was tucked away at the bottom of a vast bowl rather eluded me, as it made the portion seem even smaller than it actually was.
A pre-dessert of gin and tonic with chocolate and popping candy was gimmicky and mildly unpleasant. The flavours did not go together as far as I am concerned, and popping candy is one of those culinary innovations best put quietly way in a corner of the kitchen. The first time you encounter popping candy it is unexpected and seems vaguely playful, but like some eccentric cousin trying too hard to get attention at a family party, its charm quickly wears off (10/20).
For dessert, several different Valrhona chocolates were used. Manjari (from Madagascar), guanaja (a bitter chocolate from the Caribbean) and orizaba (milk chocolate), came with white chocolate ice cream and caramelised hot chocolate. The dish was attractively presented in a wheel shape but the dish suffered from a terrible cocoa sponge distributed around the wheel. This tasted pretty much exactly like a bathroom sponge. The white chocolate ice cream was fine and overall the dish was, if I am being kind, 12/20, but I scarcely have a mark low enough for the sponge. Much better was "dolce vita", a lemon curd tartlet with yuzu sauce, mango, papaya, passion fruit foam and mango sorbet. This was refreshing and properly made, the texture good, and was the dish of the meal (15/20).
A selection of petit fours was presented in an original manner, on a little cardboard cut out merry-go -round. This was another nice presentational idea in a meal full of pretty dishes. If only the same care and attention had gone into the cooking. There was a notional sweet involving beetroot, vanilla and lemon (not an obvious match made in heaven), a chewy orange candy, a liquorice marshmallow, a chocolate with gin and tonic, a white chocolate with raspberry and vinegar. The best by a wide margin was a tart of passion fruit and grapefruit. However overall this was a mostly unappealing collection of varying quality (13/20 if I am kind). Coffee was cheap Lavazza, sold downstairs in the store, distinctly bland and a hefty €8 on the bill for a double espresso.
The bill came to €109 (£85) a head, with a bottle of Fritz Haas wine. This is not far off what you might expect to spend on average. Service was quite good, the waitresses friendly and enthusiastic, and although there was no real attempt to top up drinks, the wine was left within reach and so this didn't bother me. Portions were consistently small, though in some cases this was an unintentional blessing. Overall I found Alice quite disappointing given its price point and its Michelin star. The kitchen seems to me to be trying too hard for innovation and pretty presentation at the expense of flavour and, above all, pleasure. I'm afraid I found my meal not so much a wonderland as a slightly mad tea party.