If ever the Underground Gourmet should find himself in the market for a VeloSolex moped, a badger-hair shaving brush, or a kit to knit Ms. U.G. a Wool and the Gang “Zion Lion” cap, he knows where to go. You can purchase all those things and more, you see, at the Smile, a hybrid general store and café a few steps below street level on one of Noho’s newly glitzy blocks. No one goes to the Smile, though, to shop. They go to sip espresso and nibble croissants. They go to eat and hobnob. And they do so in an artfully rustic atmosphere that must have been painstakingly cultivated but, to its credit, doesn’t come off that way.
The place started off last spring serving breakfast, lunch, and Rockland County–roasted Plowshares coffee to a young, stylish, arty crowd—the sort of self-selecting clientele drawn to similarly conceived places like the Earnest Sewn shop, where Smile co-owner Carlos Quirarte used to work, or Freemans (which it resembles, minus the taxidermy), or Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn. There is an abundance, in other words, of vaguely hippieish people milling about in lumberjack shirts, hand-stitched moccasins, skinny jeans, lush whiskers, and tattoos (though the tattoo parlor originally located in the basement has given way to office and prep space).
Like a growing number of New York coffee shops, the Smile recently added evening hours after receiving a wine-and-beer license, and dinner service still feels like a well-kept secret. The music is low, the tone conversational, and the waifish service overtly friendly. The chef is Melia Marden, and if you’d like to learn more about her, you can consult the winter ’09 edition of Me magazine, tucked away among the various art books on display. It’s guest-edited by Marden, and filled with interviews of not only her friends and family (her parents are artists Brice and Helen Marden, her sister gallerist Mirabelle) but of the young cook herself. You’ll learn that she started cooking in college, opened a catering company shortly thereafter, and has a style that’s most influenced by her mother’s eclectic, informal dinner parties and the various exotic locales where the family lived and traveled. And it’s true—Marden cooks like an especially talented dinner-party hostess, re-creating taste memories of places she’s been and dishes she’s loved, and that’s meant as a compliment. The style isn’t so apparent at breakfast, perhaps, which stars a first-rate egg-ham-Gruyère-and-caramelized-onion sandwich, a morning dish surpassed only by the baked eggs with tomato, Manchego, and avocado at brunch. Lunch revolves around salads and sandwiches, and Marden has a flair for both: The Thai beef salad, though not what you’d find in Elmhurst, perhaps, is nonetheless delicious. A simple but graceful arrangement of Bibb-lettuce leaves and mandolined radish gets its elusive flavor from the celery-seed dressing. Sandwiches have personality, too, and are plated, mom style, with chips and pickles: There’s roast beef with horseradish cream, an exotic number with manouri and figs, and a honey-and-harissa roasted-chicken-breast sandwich that gives chicken-breast sandwiches a good name.
Things get more ambitious at dinner, when the dimly lit, wood-ceilinged space feels even more charming and tavernesque. There are little snacks to begin—goat cheese in olive oil and herbs, a terrific pickle plate featuring kumquats and cippolini onions, a trio of Greek-inspired dips. Entrées number only five, without a burger or mac-and-cheese among them. Tender lamb meatballs float in a ras-el-hanout-scented tomato sauce; roast chicken is coated in balsamic vinegar; cod stays moist in its parchment wrapper. The token vegetarian dish, not counting the daily pasta special, is a hodgepodge of cranberry beans, diced squash, ricotta, and a fried egg—more Laurel’s Kitchen than Silver Palate. The wine list is small, mostly French, and accessibly priced. And for dessert, we’re partial to the chocolate brownie served warm with a pitcher of vanilla cream to pour on top. For something a little different, you can try the dessert sandwich: chocolate and Brie on a baguette. It’s an unexpected, inventive combo that works, not unlike the Smile itself.