The Strong Buzz

“The Smith”

December 17, 2007

Most times when I review a restaurant, I visit it twice. Once is usually a early on when they’ve first opened, and the second time is usually a few weeks to a couple of months in, to see how they are doing, whether kinks have been worked out, whether the food is consistent, how the scene is evolving, that sort of thing. Ideally, I’d visit a place four or five times before reviewing it, but I’d also have an unlimited budget and boundless amounts of time to do so. Here in the real world, it’s usually two visits, and that’s that.

But that wasn’t the case with The Smith. I have visited The Smith almost a half-dozen times since it opened its doors, and it’s possible I’ll be there again this week for lunch or dinner (and soon for breakfast too). You see, I’ve waited a long time for The Smith— Jeff Lefcourt and Glenn Harris’ new East Village American Brasserie. I’ve lived in my neighborhood (the Gramercy area) for over ten years now and this is the first time I can say I have a really great every-night-of-the-week neighborhood restaurant. My neighborhood is filled with impressive high-end restaurants. There’s Gramercy Tavern, Veritas, Craft and the newly opened Irving Mill (more on this next week). On my block alone, I am lucky enough to have Casa Mono and Bar Jamon. Do I love these restaurants? You bet your heirloom brussel sprouts I do. But are they local neighborhood every night of the week places? No. They’re a few steps higher up the food chain—destination places that are definitely too pricey and too serious for a casual dinner without a need for much thought. (Read: you couldn’t head over after a spin class without a reservation.) I was craving a regular place like this, and finally, my prayers have been answered. Thank you Glenn and Jeff.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has been praying for The Smith. The restaurant, which feels like a cross between Schiller’s Liquor Bar and BLT Prime with its subway tiled walls and black and white photos, is already packed with couples cozied into café tables for two, NYU kids huddled into high-backed booths, and teams of well-groomed guys and animated skinny-jean-legged women leaning into the long lean zinc bar drinking beers and cocktails like the Hungry Teacher ($9)—a bourbon cocktail similar to the Back Forty, but made with fresh lime and lemon juices and mint ($9). The restaurant is a scene in some ways, but then again it’s not. It doesn’t feel like a flash in the pan. It feels like it’s been there forever.

The menu at The Smith, which is one of the first restaurants in recent memory to open without the words “Gastro-pub,” “locavore,” “seasonal,” “ingredient-driven,” or “Greenmarket” in the press release, is meant to please with easy, honest, stick to your ribs fare. The menu offers steaks (hanger, bar, strip), sandwiches (roast pork, roasted chicken salad), salads (Mediterranean, Nicoise), pastas (penne with meatballs), entrees (salmon with brussel sprouts and bacon, short ribs in red wine with shallots and baby potatoes), and sides including the must-have Coney Island Disco Fries topped with gravy and cheese ($5). There’s nothing here that’s an intellectual exercise. This is a place that’s really about the basics—good food served in portions larger than you’ll be able to conquer, but that you’ll happily finish off for lunch the next day.

Indeed, I’ve made lunch of three leftover dinner entrees at The Smith recently. The first was the cast-iron rice pot, a vegetable “Bibimbap” made with silky-but-sticky Japanese sushi rice, loaded up with shiitake mushrooms, spinach, edamame and topped with kimchi, a smudge of hot chili sauce, and a perfect sunny-side up egg ($15). I’d eat that rice dish every day. The hanger steak salad ($15) is also a winner—a tender grilled-to-order steak sliced on the bias over a heap of arugula tossed with cherry tomatoes, endive, and crumbled lumps of fresh goat cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette. It may sound very ‘80s—whenever I hear balsamic vinaigrette I think of shoulder pads—but it’s very good, too. I enjoyed half with Craig when we had a late night dinner after the theater, and the other half the next day for lunch after Simon’s killer Boot Camp class. The third leftover lunch was a sandwich made from Glenn’s house-made chicken and fennel sausage that’s served coiled up like a snake in waiting, resting on a street-vendor styled hash of potatoes, peppers and onions ($14). Getting two meals for one is quite nice.

I would’ve loved to have had the roasted tomato soup ($7) for lunch the next day too, but I finished it off in one sitting. It may seem ordinary, but it’s not. It combines the classic tomato soup and grilled cheese combo with a fun riff on French Onion Soup. It’s sort of a cross between a tomato sauce and a tomato soup that’s thick, rich and velvety smooth, capped with a crusty slice of bread and a bubbly blanket of cheddar cheese. Sink a spoon into that cheese and you pull out a taffy-like stretch of hot gooey cheese with your tomato soup, so it’s almost like a soup-as-pizza pie.

While the tuna tartare ($10) was rather ordinary, the string bean salad ($8) was quite the opposite. In fact, it shocked me with its flavors and textures. It combines slim, snappy beans with sugar-sweet cherry tomatoes, crunchy toasted almonds and a soft mound of tangy grated ricotta salata. Craig, who I have never known to get excited about string beans unless they are somehow secreted inside Buffalo Wings, was up for seconds. He even commented about the salad’s composition. “These almonds really make the salad. They add a crunch that’s really wonderful,” he said, seriously. Craig was also down with the lamb schnitzel ($17), a fun twist on the classic veal, pounded thin and crusted in a wafer-like crunch of Parmesan and bread crumbs over smashed skin on potatoes with a few wedges of lemon. He picked one up and squeezed the juice over the top, adding just the right bright burst of acidity to the plate.

I had to laugh. This is strange behavior coming from a guy who dined on Happy Palace Chinese every night before we met. Lemme tell ya, we had a lot of tutoring before he knew who Danny Meyer was, and what restaurants Marc Meyer and Vicki Freeman owned, what the Momofuku was, and what the letters BLT stood for. It took a few months before he realized that pork belly was pretty much the same thing as bacon, gnudi were like naked ravioli, and that John Dory was a fish, not a guy. (The first time pan-seared John Dory was offered to him he looked horrified.) So, he’s come a long way folks. But then again so have I.

My vocabulary has grown to include phrases and terms I’ve never before used. Take the phrase Gator Bait. Unbeknownst to me, this is not a food that is used to catch alligators. This is a term used to describe anyone who is not a part of Gator Nation (fans of University of Florida’s teams.) Fascinating. Here’s another one. Ocho Cinco. No it’s not the number 85. It’s the knick name for wide receiver Chad Johnson of the Bengals. The phrase, “Manny Being Manny,” yeah, that’s another thing I learned. It refers to Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez’s tendency to be both literally and figuratively out in left field. He’s quirky, that Manny. He’s been known to leave the field during play and relieve himself behind the Green Monster. Oh, and there we go with another turn of phrase I learned from Craig. The Green Monster. That’s the outfield wall at Fenway, and it is pronounced Mawn-stah! Oh yes, friends. All this, and so much more, I have learned from my main man Craig. My life as a quasi-sports fan (and in general) has really evolved. In fact, I’m happy to announce that The Fantasy Football Team that Craig and I co-manage is in the playoffs. (We have Tom Brady, Andre Johnson and Jamal Lewis.) I find this all quite hilarious. But don’t worry. I have not completely lost touch with reality. The other night when we were at a party for Craig’s friend’s Ruma’s birthday party, I complemented her on her shoes (fabulous patent leather peep-toe stilettos), and then correctly identified them as Christian Louboutain without skipping a beat. I may wear a Patriots Jersey, but I’m still a girl on the inside. Phew.

A few nights after my dinner with Craig, I headed back to The Smith with Kiri and Alison and found the place hopping. We started at the bar for some wine and beer, and when a table opened up, took a seat at a banquette and dug into the char-broiled chicken. This chicken is supah-fine. It’s brined and marinated so it’s all-out juicy and seriously jolted with flavor, and then cooked under the broiler so the skin gets nice and crispy crackly ($15). Along with the chicken, we shared the Smith burger, which is happily reminiscent of the one from Jane in both size and presentation. It’s a two-handed pup, tricked out with white cheddar, bacon, special sauce (ketchup, mayo and cornichons), lettuce, green tomatoes, pickles, and onions and a hill of crisp skinny fries. It’s a meaty marvel that I hope to get next to again real soon. To get our veggies, we had an order of the Sicilian cauliflower—roasted florets tossed with plump raisins, nicely dressed with lemon and olive oil—and a somewhat scorched serving of roasted brussel sprouts.

Glenn has a ton of fun with desserts ($5), which are all cakes or pies turned into sundaes of some sort, from the Happy Birthday—a cube of yellow cake with chocolate frosting scribbled with Happy Birthday on top and a candle (it can be your birthday every day), and a Pink Pussy Cat, a slice of red velvet cake with two scoops of strawberry ice cream. My favorites were the Caramel and Nuts, a sundae made form scoops of peanut butter ice cream studded with homemade peanut butter brittle, drenched in chocolate sauce and smothered in hot caramel, and the bread pudding sundae, made from hunks of warm brioche with drunken raisins, caramel ice cream and bourbon sauce. These are silly, messy desserts perfect for a few bites and then you’ll probably need to unbutton your pants. (Not that I did.)

What’s also quite nice about The Smith is that this is a restaurant built on hospitality. You’ve probably noticed this if you’ve been to their other restaurants Jane and Neptune Room, but in case you haven’t let me say that Jeff is the consummate front of house host who knows how to run a room and train a wait staff to understand that service and hospitality rest ultimately on their shoulders as much as his. And they seem to have inherited his infectious warmth. The service at The Smith is quite enthusiastic, attentive and in some cases almost overly bubbly. I think they must hand out Prozac at staff meal or something or perhaps they let every one have a turn downstairs at the wall. Do you know about what’s behind the wall? Maybe you do and you’re smiling now. Or maybe you don’t and you’re wondering what it’s about. Well. I’m sworn to secrecy but there’s a wall downstairs, somewhere near the restrooms, that’s got something very interesting (and racy) behind it. You’ll have to check it out to find out more for yourselves. It can be quite interesting. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

The only problem about The Smith is that it seems probably that Craig and I are probably moving to Brooklyn in a few months. And funny enough, our new apartment is near Smith Street. Craig has already found a Red Sox bar called Cody’s Ale House to call his own. But I’m thinking that we might need something called The Smith on Smith? Come on guys. At least think about it.

The Smith is located at 55 Third Avenue, between 10th and 11th Streets, 212-420-9800,

Andrea Strong