These days a New York restaurant needs more than decent food, modest prices and an attractive setting to stand out from the herd. Which explains why venues offering a little something special—a hot scene, a great bargain, true auteur cuisine—are thriving in spite of the recession, while middle-of-the-road spots like Smith's seem to be just getting by.
The once-bustling joint venture of restaurateurs Danny Abrams (Mermaid Inn) and Cindy Smith (Raoul's) was the flavor of the month when it first opened in the fall of 2007. Despite hiring a new chef with an impressive rsum earlier this year, the West Village restaurant now seems to be getting increasingly lost in the shuffle.
Young chef Doug Psaltis (of Country and Mix) has unveiled a new menu heavy on comfort-food crowd-pleasers—pork belly, ribs, mac and cheese, apple pie—that's not quite distinctive enough to build back the buzz this restaurant needs. While his most groundbreaking addition, a $35 (all-in) family-style chicken dinner for two, is one of the great deals in a city awash in recession meal steals, it's available only the first two nights of the week. Which must be the reason the restaurant was mobbed one recent Tuesday but only half full the following Friday. The chicken, a whole succulent bird fragrant with herbs, comes with a very generous bright garden salad, sides of cheesy polenta and roasted spring veggies, and a copious bowl of light and airy chocolate mousse topped with candied peanuts. While that bountiful spread is clearly the best reason to visit the restaurant, I can't imagine it does much for its bottom line.
The la carte menu is a mixed bag of the pretty good and the almost great, the kitchen too often falling just short of the mark. While smoked lamb ribs in one generous starter were delicious and meaty—with a sweet, sticky glaze and streaks of cool yogurt and fiery harissa—the chef's grown-up mac and cheese—a bubbling cauldron of mini penne baked with Taleggio, coarse mustard and chewy bacon—was too mushy and, surprisingly given those assertive ingredients, bland. A light baby-artichoke salad, featuring the delicate thistles served two ways—shaved and fried, and quartered and braised—in a punchy bagna cauda anchovy dressing, was among the more solidly executed and smartly conceived Psaltis additions.
There's a fine line between homey cooking and home cooking. The entres I tried, while tasty enough, seemed more appropriate to a dinner party in a Manhattan apartment than a restaurant helmed by a chef who's worked under Alain Ducasse. Braised pork belly, properly tender and fatty, came with a generic heap of Chinese-takeout-style vegetable fried rice. A thick bloody cube of "Rumanian" steak—tough and stringy, like brisket cooked rare—was paired, on the one hand, with delicious sweet onion marmalade and, on the other, with a dry and mealy onion-encrusted potato roulade. A nod to the chef's Greek heritage—not surprisingly, one of the more polished entres—featured firm-flaky John Dory fillets with potatoes and clams in a bowl brimming with silky, dill-flecked egg-lemon sauce.
Though desserts—a McDonald's-channeling fried apple pie (a turnover, really) with a flaky crust, a coffee cup filled with an unctuous peanut-butter brownie topped with frosted crisped rice—follow in the same middling homespun vein, at the end of the day dinner at Smith's is still plenty pleasant. The dining room—like a deluxe railroad car with crystal sconces and overhead mirrors—is warm and cozy, and the service easy and affable. Given these tenuous times, however, with New Yorkers being increasingly cautious with their dining-out dollars, I'm just not sure that pleasant is quite good enough.
Drink this: A food-friendly Cotes du Rhone from Les Chevrefeuilles ($32) is a bright, juicy choice—and the cheapest red on the short, rapidly ascending wine list.
Eat this: Artichoke salad, lamb ribs, John Dory, peanut-butter cup, $35 chicken dinner for two.
Sit here: The cozy wraparound bar, hidden behind the dining room at the back of the restaurant, is a great spot for a bar-snack rendezvous or a solo meal. The last booth just before the bar offers the best views down the length of the long railroad-car dining room.
Conversation piece: Doug Psaltis's 2005 memoir, The Seasoning of a Chef: My Journey from Diner to Ducasse and Beyond, chronicles the young cook's meteoric rise from his grandfather's Greek diner to some of the top kitchens in the U.S. and Europe (including a stint at the French Laundry).
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