As the urban barnyard craze continues to roll inexorably across the restaurant landscape, owners of aging pasta joints and formerly fashionable French bistros face some tricky decisions. Where do you obtain a steady supply of fresh summer peas, not to mention enough rusting farm implements to decorate your city dining space? And where do you find a properly rustic name that doesn’t sound faintly ridiculous in this metropolis of 8 million nonfarmers? Vicki Freeman and Marc Meyer have settled on Hundred Acres as the name for their new Macdougal Street venture, which once upon a time was a bistro called Provence. Frisée salad has been replaced on the menu by dandelion greens, and instead of plush banquettes diners now perch on rickety chairs and hardwood benches. Devotees of the venerable French restaurant may also be saddened to hear that the lovely garden room in the back is now lined, like a greenhouse, with a row of hastily assembled potted plants.
But the proprietors of Hundred Acres are canny restaurateurs (they run the popular downtown brunch spot Five Points, as well as Cookshop, in Chelsea), and they know a dead dining trend when they see it. They purchased the lease from the original French owners of Provence, but when their attempt to revive the old franchise foundered, they pulled the plug in a hurry. Which may explain why this new venture feels slapdash and slightly cobbled together. The sky-blue façade of the old restaurant has been covered with a coat of piney-green paint, and the ceiling is the color of an old military tent. Inside, various props have been placed here and there in an attempt to give the rooms that folksy, barnyard feel. There’s a farm table displaying pots of fresh radishes, wedges of cheese, and a pie or two, and as you peruse your hand-scrawled “market-driven” menu, you can admire bleak, artsy photographs of what appear to be derelict farmhouses on the wall.
Most of the food at Hundred Acres is reasonably priced, solidly prepared, and sometimes even pleasing in an unobtrusive, neighborly sort of way. My deviled “farmstead” eggs seemed to have been refrigerated a few hours too long, but the oysters (from Island Creek, near Cape Cod) were fresh, and so was the three-bean salad, dressed with ramp relish and crumblings of blue cheese. Ersatz country favorites like thick-cut, semi-mealy fried green tomatoes are also featured on the menu, along with oversalted fried chicken, and properly scrawny hunks of rabbit, which come either grilled or fried in a crunchy buttermilk batter. Country lamb is another Hundred Acres favorite (if they’re serving the braised-lamb-shoulder special, order it), although I liked the seafood items best, particularly the rose-pink, crispy-skinned chunk of arctic char, which is set in a spicy Mediterranean-style stew.
If you wish to enjoy your meal at Hundred Acres in placid, semi-countrified solitude, go at lunchtime, because at the dinner hour things can get a little insane. I dined at the bar one evening amid a horde of yammering banker couples, and if you procure a table in the back rooms, be prepared to shout over the steadily rising din. Maybe it’s the eclectic, Eurocentric wine list (the one conspicuous holdover from the bistro days) that draws the crowds, or the house cocktails (like the vodka-spiked “Hard Lemonade”), which tend to be served in glasses the size of pickle jars. Or maybe it’s the modest desserts, one or two of which actually taste like they may have been baked on a real farm. I enjoyed a taste of authentic peach cobbler one evening, and a generous wedge of fresh-baked blueberry pie smothered in house-made vanilla ice cream. Best of all, though, is the rhubarb “crostata,” a strudel-like creation topped, in the familiar barnyard style, with a little cloud of freshly whipped cream.
Forge, which opened earlier this summer on a leafy stretch of Reade Street in Tribeca, is yet another new big-city restaurant painstakingly designed to look like the inside of a barn. The walls are made of rough-hewn, knotted cedar, and the room is partially lit by small glass box chandeliers, each one containing a guttering wax candle. The bar serves gin drinks muddled with garden cucumbers, and the shelves of the dining space are lined with flea-bitten knickknacks like spice boxes, tattered cookbooks, and old country-store weighing scales. These decorating choices are not all that surprising, considering that the proprietor is Marc Forgione, son of Manhattan’s original locavore, Larry Forgione. At his seminal restaurant An American Place, the great chef employed mushroom foragers and invented the concept of free-range chicken, a New Age version of which shows up on the menu at Forge. “Free Range Chicken Nuggets” is the name of this misguided dish, which the chicken-nugget freaks at my table rated somewhere below the greasy McDonald’s original but above the desiccated TV-dinner version peddled by Swanson. None of the pastas on the ever-changing, yes, “market-driven” menu (soupy agnolotti, oversalted carbonara) quite achieve liftoff, and in the considered opinion of my friend the Pork Loon, the pricey suckling pig for two ($68) tasted “like baked turkey.” But the fish dishes are capably made (try the kampachi tartare, and the mahimahi with cockles and sorrel), and so are the country chicken and the rib eye, which is spooned with fresh-made chimichurri sauce. The least successful desserts (soggy Nutella crêpes, a panna cotta spiked, oddly, with goat cheese) appear to be some strange attempt at country fusion. So stick to the basics, like “rustic summer” berry pie, and an elegant serving of upside-down peach cake molded, nostalgically, in the shape of a French tart.