Friday, June 12, 2009

Home Is Where the Hearth Is

I’m the first to admit that enough pomp and circumstance, pretense, or glitter, mask mediocre menus from Brooklyn to the Bronx. And, I’m also the first to admit that, at times, that’s okay. A Grecian waiter, celebrity sighting, or finger bowl, can have the bitterest of queens singing a second chorus of Cabaret (that being said, so can a bottle of pinot grigio and an Adderall). Because of New York’s propensity for flair, I’m always a bit thrown when a restaurant’s excellence is based on its food, not its flash, hm, what a novel idea.

A few weeks ago, I ventured to the Far East, 1st Avenue, for another meal with my Papa Bears (disclosure: they are neither papas, nor bears).They took me to another of their regular haunts, so once again, my assessment of service may be a bit skewed. This time they even sweetened the pot by bringing some fresh kumquats, limes and calamondin (a cross between a tangerine and a kumquat) for the kitchen.

From the team that brought quality Italian food to midtown with Insieme, Hearth centers on modern American food with an Italian sensibility. The décor is warm and homey with a feel that somehow pulls off sleek contemporary colonial American. I was a bit unnerved to find an empty restaurant at 7 p.m. on a Sunday, but in true New York fashion, 7 is just too early for dinner on any night and the place was packed by the time we hit our second course.

As I perused the menu, I sipped on a Kettle One dirty martini, which made the rest of the meal warm, fuzzy, and hard to remember. I began with roasted frog legs with spring garlic, parsley and garlic confit. The legs were, much like my own, heavenly. They were crispy and tender and covered in an incredible garlic flavor that wasn’t too over powering. Both spring garlic and garlic confit have a mellower flavor than the pure stuff. Before our entrees arrived, we were surprised with the first of our gratis extras – the perks of dining with a “regular.” They served a wild mushroom tagliatelle with red wine, rosemary and parmesan. This was a showstopper of a dish – tender al dente pasta with a deep, rich sauce and sharp salty parmesan (my mouth is watering as I type).

As I lapped up the last dregs of my red wine reduction, another dirty martini appeared and I cleansed my palate for the entrée. With several choices that were equally tantalizing, it was difficult to zero in on a main course, but I finally chose a braised veal breast with sweetbreads, morel mushrooms, and spring onions. This dish was both dynamic and harmonious. Like any great dish, each element held it’s own, but also enhanced the others. The breast was tender and succulent, surrounded by al dente morels and decadent sweetbread nuggets with a lightly fried crispy exterior encrusting a creamy center. Our main courses were supplemented with a complimentary plate of gnocchi. The gnocchi was light, fluffy and delicious, prepared simply with butter, salt, pepper and some parmesan cheese. This second pasta success made me begin to understand the Italian heritage that Hearth promotes.

Before our dessert arrived, Hearth decided to show off and delivered our kumquats in a muddled concoction with soda and bourbon. Not only was the cocktail delicious, but also a testament to Hearth’s creativity and improvisational skill. A few sips in, my dessert arrived – a rhubarb crumb cake with poached rhubarb and brown butter ice cream. The cake was moist and the rhubarb tangy, but the highlight was the brown butter ice cream, evoking memories of shoofly pie.

Even among the best meals throughout my journeys, it’s pretty rare to have a meal without a single misstep. Hearth’s food is not only complex and well-executed, but also warming and welcoming, something that has become increasingly rare on New York’s culinary scene.

403 East 12th Street
New York, NY
(646) 602-1300

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