Smith & Fressen

Nosh Pit: Making the scene at Smith.Photo: Kenneth Chen

There are numerous ways of generating heat in the New York restaurant world, and during the course of his long and varied career, Brian McNally has tried them all. He has been at the forefront of the great brasserie craze (opening the Odeon with his younger brother Keith), the great ethnic-chic craze (Indochine), and the great hotel-lobby craze (44 at the Royalton). Now, after long delay, comes Smith, a neutrally named establishment with a purposefully modest, almost threadbare look. It’s located far away from McNally’s glamorous old haunts, in a former glassware shop on 1st Street, in the lower reaches of the East Village. There’s no name over the door and blinds are drawn over the windows in a kind of faux-speakeasy style. From the outside, Smith could be a taxi garage or an abandoned Laundromat, which seems to suit McNally just fine. Like his previous endeavors, it’s a restaurant designed to capture the mood of the times.

But even in post-9/11, post-bull market Manhattan, the McNally name still draws a crowd. Smith comprises a front bar area and a nondescript, dimly lit dining room, and on any given evening, both are packed with grizzled magazine editors, aging models, and other elderly hipsters from McNally’s many former lives. On an early visit, one of my dignified uptown guests became a little unhinged when she thought she spotted Frédéric Fekkai himself in the next banquette, looking natty in a pair of neatly pressed designer jeans. On another evening, my friend the fashion hound pointed out Ross Bleckner holding court with a gaggle of youthful admirers. These slightly weathered celebrities dined on a series of recipes composed by chef Ken Addington, a veteran of the glory days of 44 under Geoffrey Zakarian. His menu includes trendy items like oyster pie and braised lamb shank, although the fashion hound barely glanced at it before continuing her breathless scan around the room. “This is very ‘Page Six,’ ” she whispered. “You don’t come here to eat.”

Sadly, she’s right. Unlike Zakarian’s cooking at 44 or the Odeon during its prime, the food at Smith is a generally pallid mishmash of standard bistro cuisine, with a few goofy downtown wrinkles thrown in. You can order a satisfying spoonful of chopped chicken livers at the bar (sent in from Russ & Daughters across the street) or a nice cheese plate selected from Murray’s Cheese Shop, up on Bleecker Street. But my in-house appetizer of lime-colored watercress risotto had a viscid, swampy texture, which wasn’t helped by the three fatty pieces of short rib on top. The oyster pie was properly creamy and buttery but seemed to lack oysters, and the salmon tartare “G.Z.” (Geoffrey Zakarian) looked like it had come from a can both times I ordered it. The best pre-entrée dish, everyone at our table agreed, was the calamari (served with a nice lemon rémoulade), or the very presentable frisée salad, which was shot through with slivers of green apple, Stilton cheese, and bacon – though I could have done without its sprinkling of stale rye-bread croutons.

The fashion hound looked down at her plate long enough to declare her entrée portion of crisply sautéed skate delicious (it was), and I enjoyed my nicely charred rib eye, even at the uptown price of $29. Something called “Pekin Duck” was okay as duck goes, although my bowl of rabbit ravioli turned out to be gummy around the edges and dunked in a gruesomely rich brown-butter sauce. Among standard bistro items, the braised lamb shank was overly braised and the roasted chicken for two (infused with truffle butter) was quite tasty but, at $48 per bird, greatly overpriced by the standards of the neighborhood. The desserts at Smith all tend to have a similar cloying sweetness (avoid the fearful pineapple surprise, a hedgehog-like conglomeration of gingerbread, pineapple, and meringue). The best dessert by far is the “fallen chocolate soufflé,” but don’t bother traveling all the way downtown to sample it. The name is a euphemism for “molten chocolate cake,” a dish available, these days, from Newark to Timbuktu.

Suba is another happening new restaurant down on the Lower East Side, and comparing it to Smith is a little like comparing edgy, beyond-the-fringe theater to the tepid revival of an old Broadway show. The restaurant is already infamous for its “dining grotto,” a small subterranean space suspended over a sizable pool of illuminated, thoroughly chlorinated New York City tap water. The grotto occupies the basements of two former bodegas on a dimly lit stretch of Ludlow Street, just above Delancey Street. The two owners, Philip Morgan and Yann de Rochefort, had the basements combined, excavated, and reinforced, then built a steel grid dining floor above the shallow pool. There’s also a long, cavelike room below the grotto, and a small bar space on the street above. The three levels are connected by clattery steel staircases, which makes the casual act of finding your table feel vaguely exotic, like descending into a recently restored Roman catacomb.

The cuisine, by a young French chef named Stephanè Buchholzer, feels vaguely exotic, too. One of my waiters described it as “Spanish-French fusion,” which is an understatement. The constantly fluctuating menu is chocked with an unusual roster of tapas combinations (roasted chorizo sausage with goat-cheese guacamole) and a variety of strange seviches (arctic char, citrus-marinated lobster mingled with pomegranate seeds). Relegated on my visits to the cave room below the grotto, I sampled a delicious dish of sardines (grilled, with an accompanying pastry of beets and goat cheese) and an artful little tower of Serrano ham, arranged between thin pastry tuiles, with a delicate base of goat cheese and sweet quince paste at the bottom. The entrées, like rack of lamb (seasoned with fennel pollen) and a fairly ordinary lobster (decked, unaccountably, with duck empanadas), tended to be racier but less remarkable. Not that this mattered to the youthful patrons who line up each evening, trying to get a seat in the grotto. The experience looked curiously pleasant, like dining in the Paris sewers – minus the rats, of course – in the midst of a shimmering, strangely ambient light show.

64 East 1st Street; 212-260-3189. Seven days a week, 6 to 11:30 p.m. Abbreviated menu till 1:30 a.m. Appetizers, $7 to $12; entrées, $18 to $29. All major credit cards.
109 Ludlow Street; 212-982-5714. Sunday to Wednesday, 6 to 10:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, 6 to 11:30 p.m. Appetizers, $7 to $12; entrées, $17 to $25. All major credit cards.

Smith & Fressen