In the eighties, after watching artisans and adventurous urban dwellers slowly and organically transform Soho into a fascinating neighborhood (yes, it was, once), quite a few younger and oh-so-much-smugger entrepreneurs moved in, then mused, “Look what these ex-hippies did down here with no money. Imagine how quickly you could pull off something like this with cash. To the East Village, men!” Suddenly, luxuriant galleries and hip clubs opened around Alphabet City, their clienteles often converging on a rad new restaurant on Avenue A called Hawaii 5-0 that sported a witty menu, rakishly tousled staff, and a retro GM World of Tomorrow interior. Beckoning as this was, the galleries, clubs, and cool eateries displayed a common trait—few who actually lived in the East Village frequented any of them. The neighborhood resisted conversion as fiercely as Eliza Doolittle fought Mrs. Pearce to stay out of Professor Higgins’s bathtub, and by the nineties, the interlopers and outposts had vanished, leaving behind a horizon abundant with mohawks, azuki beans, and sidewalk-scraping jeans.
However, since pop culture goes in cycles, the East Village couldn’t remain true only to Angelica Kitchen and Il Bagatto forever. Funky newcomers like Prune and Jewel Bako arrived, and fit right in. But now along comes Hearth, all purposefully precise and polished, like the president of the chess club arriving at a rave. And once again, you’re likely to find more Republicans sleeping in Tompkins Square Park than locals eating here.
This time around, this isn’t a criticism, just an observation. Rents being what they are, one can’t chide chef-owner Marco Canora and partner Paul Grieco, both alumni of Gramercy Tavern and Craft, for not choosing a tonier address for their expertise. But landing in the East Village presents an unsettling dilemma. Because Canora and Grieco, taught by Tom Colicchio and Danny Meyer, are go-to-the-head-of-the-class students, it follows that Hearth hums along as if it would have been tougher for the duo to have opened a self-service Laundromat. You never search for a server, or get a hesitant answer. You want for nothing. But you may be expecting something else. Adding up Hearth’s earthy name, errant location, spare-to-bare décor, and fairly straightforward menu, I geared up for hearty, big-flavored cooking, and inadvertently got duped. The American fare Canora put before me consisted of subtly balanced dishes, softly seasoned and highly defined in their simplicity. Initially, my tongue short-circuited.
I had to close my eyes, shutting off my other senses, in order to discover the lilt of red pepper sparking an appetizer of lemon-splashed red-snapper crudo, or to enjoy the subtle pricks of brine and acid from capers, anchovy, and lemon on raw tuna. An instantly appealing, smoky aroma announces a handsomely roasted quail. Black cabbage handily anchors a vegetable-and-white-bean soup, but duck consommé is too refined for the meaty, duck-filled tortellini it features. Sardines, however, are glorious enough to imagine enjoying their marinated iridescence dockside with soffrito crudo, and neither rabbit ballotine nor game-bird terrine betray any gaminess. If you were hoping for something more basic, oops.
Entrées have a more direct approach: a feisty, coarse-cut pappardelle with stewed duck and olives; a delicious, sweetly braised veal breast with a bonus of sweetbreads; an equally satisfying combination of braised lamb shoulder and succulent ribs; and a rousing tuna roasted with fennel and black olives that reminded me of how many chefs handle this fish listlessly and without originality. Sirloin with shallots and short ribs could be better if there were more of it. Unfortunately, monkfish osso buco sounds way more intriguing than it tastes. A tasty little pot of polenta elicits more pleasurable sighs.
But delight should really be dessert’s domain, and it’s as obvious as a Versace in a resale shop that pastry chef Lauren Dawson is a talent. Still, she’s thinking too hard. Steamed persimmon pudding and a quince upside-down cake are notable, but they’re no match for an easy trio of velvety fruit sorbets, a rustic pecan tart, and a superb pear-and-huckleberry crisp.
Young restaurateurs often fight reality, but it really is more fun pleasing a crowd than impressing them. And diners coming down here are often more eager to be pleased. The gifted people Canora has gathered together needn’t soft-pedal their spirit or skill. Just accept where they are. Then they, and their Hearth, will feel more at home.