Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Small Shoes to Fill: The Smith and Belcourt

I suppose what led me to clump these two restaurants in to a single review was not the fact that they both opened recently in a neighborhood that frankly needed a decent bistro, nor the fact that they occupy spaces that formally housed very mediocre restaurants but because they share more than a coincidental resemblance to the vision of any number of Keith Mcnally restaurants, but perhaps most similarly Schiller's Liquor Bar. In the case of one restaurant they have chosen to play it safe and offer what is a fairly generic bistro menu at this point in time. The other restaurant while certainly drawing inspiration from classic bistro fare have chosen to offer far more exotic food. The risk is certainly greater for the latter, but as we shall see so is the reward. And while this is Beef Aficionado I have to concede that the restaurant with but a single beef dish on the menu is far easier to recommend than the one that has an abundance of them.

The Smith
The Smith is the latest venture from Corner Table Restaurant Group, best known for Jane in the West Village. Located in the space that housed a Pizzeria Uno for more than a decade The Smith has raised its sights, while the former establishments catered to the droves of local New York University students that populate the area the latter restaurant is aimed squarely at a more affluent young professional crowd. Prices, although not exorbitant are definitely beyond the reach of an average student. And the food is certainly better than what an average student enjoys. But that is not really saying very much.

Having said that while being generally competent, with a few standouts, the food here is not spectacular. It is not that the food does anything to offend it is just that in this day and age one would hope for something a bit more creative than a mere parroting of the generic "bistro" menu. And it is too bad because there are so many of beef dishes on the menu that the Aficionado had high hopes for the establishment.

The salads were actually quite good. The Arugula salad with fennel, lemon and Parmesan, pictured above, may not be that original but it was well executed. An avocado salad with a chipotle dressing was a bit more innovative, the heat from the dressing complimenting the creamy richness of the avocado nicely.

If I had to recommend a main at The Smith it would be the short ribs. They were really quite good, perfectly braised in red wine with a hearty flavor it was a comforting dish indeed.

In fact the short ribs were the first thing I sampled on the menu, unfortunately they were also the best thing I tried. Beyond this dish the other beef offerings becomes harder to recommend.

A NY Strip steak, reasonably priced at $23 served with fries and a credible Bearnaise sauce was fairly lackluster. Although the internal temperature was close to correct, it lacked the char that steak lovers expect.

Not surprisingly, for the price, the steak is not dry aged and it is apparent in terms of flavor and tenderness. I admit that my steady diet of dry aged Prime and Wagyu beef gives me a rarefied vision of how good beef can be but Beef Aficionado is about absolutes, and the steak here is just not that good.

The burger too underwhelmed. Served with a variant of Thousand Island with an over abundance of cheese and some less than fresh lettuce the beef itself was rather dry and lacked flavor. A spaghetti with meatballs was even worse, a stogy, lifeless red sauce accompanied some very mealy meatballs that was barely better than what was likely served when this place was inhabited by Pizzeria Uno . I must also note that when it comes to the French fries that are served with the burgers and steaks, quantity over quality seems to be The Smith paradigm. I wonder how good the quality of the potatoes and oil really are when we are given portion sizes that dwarf those of super sized fast food menus.

The fish and seafood I sampled on the menu are handled better than the beef. A roasted cod was nicely cooked and served on a bed of garlic infused garbanzo beans. Similarly the pot of mussels in a Chardonnay broth was equally satisfying. Yet even here, as we shall see, The Smith is bested by the competition.

Strawberry shortcake sundae

I must say that I quite like the room itself at The Smith. It is comfortably modern although I can't decide if the large white tiles on the walls remind me more of Schiller's Liquor Bar or the Pizzeria Uno that used to live here. As for the service it is generally competent but there seems to be far too many employees, I witnessed gaggles of staff standing around chit chatting, never the less they do get the job done.

If I seem overly critical of The Smith it is because they offer an unoriginal menu that is not executed perfectly. Certainly if it had opened a decade ago it would seem seem far more innovative and the missteps would be easier to over look. In this day and age however if you are producing something that is as common as a bistro menu you really need to do it perfectly. The Smith, all things considered, only achieves competence. There are far better ways to spend your dining dollars.

The Smith
55 Third Ave, NY NY
212 420 9800


In almost complete contrast to the Smith we have Belcourt, which occupies the space that formally housed Fruiti de Mare, the lackluster budget Italian that somehow stayed open for more years its flavorless cuisine warranted. Amazingly its sister restaurant, Cucina de Pesce, remains open across the street although I would not be surprised to see it on the Eater death watch list in the near future.While The Smith uses the generic bistro menu as an end point, Belcourt uses it as an entree to an inventive and unique interpretation of Continental cuisine with an emphasis on the Mediterranean.

Indeed, all of the furniture is supposedly imported from Europe, the worn wood and iron work, the eclectic menagerie of fixtures certainly evoke the Old Countries. Atmospheric but unfortunately the seating is very cramped and the tables barely hold the plates. For a restaurant that I have yet to see more than half full I think they could be a little more generous with table size.

A roasted butternut squash and apple raviolo with wild mushroom, brown butter and sage is an outstanding appetizer.

Spinach salad

While I found the cod dish at The Smith to be quite good a similarly constructed dish at Belcourt highlighted the differences between the two restaurants. The latter had far better layering of flavors and the basic ingredients were fresher.

The fish stew that features a bevy of seafood and a different fish nightly is a delicious concoction. A bit thicker than bouillabaisse it is very satisfying, the seafood is of a high quality here.

Belcourt has specials almost every night and they usually are quite special. The Chorizo oyster soup pictured above was hearty and delicious. A grilled scallops with Brussel sprouts, was also very good.
This might be Beef Aficionado but I must admit that the pork belly with sausage served with sauerkraut, beets and lavender infused spaetzle might just be the best item on the menu. It is a wonderful combination of flavors and textures and the perfect dish for a winters evening.

Never the less the Hanger steak served with a bone marrow sauce, pictured above was also very good. While the steak is also available with a Marjoram butter that I have yet to try it and I doubt that it will be as good as the marrow sauce. It really makes the dish and reminds me somewhat of the Shells a La Nat from Pietro's. I should also note that I find hanger steak an excellent choice when it comes to budget, non dry aged beef. And by budget I mean steak that are under $30.

The steak was cooked nicely, perfectly rare on the inside with a nice exterior char. The battered and fried scallions were less successful, being somewhat soggy. I appreciate the effort to offer something beyond the generic frites but the execution was lacking.

Scallops and Brussel sprouts

There have been some changes on the Belcourt menu, a wonderful duck prosciutto starter was absent from the menu the last few ties I ate there. And the pork belly and sausage used to come with the welcome addition of a braised pork cheek, the latter has become a starter item.
If There is one glaring problem with the food at Belcourt it is the English breakfast found on the brunch menu. I grew up in England and I have never seen a breakfast that looked, or tasted like the one on offer here. The baked beans were a mushy mess and far spicier than anything that would grace and English breakfast plate. I appreciate interpretive cuisine but the breakfast here is so far removed from the archetype that it falls short.

I noted earlier in this review that I have yet to see the restaurant truly packed, in fact there are often only a couple of tables occupied., quite unlike The Smith which is almost always mobbed. I am reminded of a restaurant I used to frequent back at the beginning of the decade called Bario on Stanton Street, that was just a bit ahead of its time. I fear that Belcourt might suffer from this malady. In five years the cuisine here may seem as generic as The Smith' but for now it is innovative and creative and is absolutely moving the bistro menu forward. Highly recommended

84 E. Fourth St.
Manhattan, NY

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