Precious Cargo

Smith'sPhoto: Noah Sheldon

More than ever, in their quest for the increasingly fragmented, ever-elusive consumer dollar, restaurateurs need a specific target demographic in mind. Or so it occurred to me as I wedged myself into one of the stylish, pygmy-size black-top banquettes at Smith’s, Danny Abrams’s stylish, pygmy-size new venture on Macdougal Street. I’d already enjoyed a cocktail at the bar, a diminutive jewel box of a space containing only eight bar stools, a tasteful Oriental throw rug on the floor, and walls covered with crushed sky-blue velvet. Out in the mini dining room, the mini-tables were filled with animated parties of diners, many of them female, happily chatting in the soft, carefully calibrated light. At one of the banquettes sat a magazine food editor, a regular judge on the reality series Top Chef. And across from her sat the living embodiment of possibly the most desired demographic of all. “Do you know who that is?” said one of the hulking gentlemen at my table. “That’s Anna Wintour’s personal assistant.”

Smith’s is Danny Abrams’s first recent venture without his former chef-partner, Jimmy Bradley. Together, at their successful restaurants Red Cat, Harrison, and the Mermaid Inn, they perfected a much-imitated brand of casual, neighborly, high-bistro dining. Abrams was the duo’s front-of-the-room man (he’s partnered here with the eponymous Cindy Smith), which may account for the new restaurant’s more studied, boutique feel. There’s a semi-open café up front and behind it two single rows of tables, with another Oriental rug running between them. This potentially dreary space is colored in a clean black-and-white motif and lit up with mirrors patterned across the top of the narrow, gabled ceiling. With the little bar hidden in the back, it’s a cozy, even graceful setup, especially early in the evening. But as the little rooms fill up, the decibel levels rise, and it can feel like you’re dining in the back end of a crowded twenties-era saloon car.

It’s a saloon car with pretty good food, however. The Bradley-Abrams partnership was defined by Bradley’s sophisticated take on relatively unsophisticated bistro favorites, like calf’s liver, crispy skate wing, and the fabled double-cut pork chop, which is still attracting crowds at Red Cat. The chef at Smith’s is Bouley alumnus Pablo Romero, who favors the kind of careful, painterly, potentially twee compositions made famous by his mentor. You’ll find the usual litany of de rigueur Greenmarket ingredients on the menu (fall beans, baby beets, “line caught” bass), but calf’s liver isn’t one of them. There’s a pork chop, but it’s not double cut and is served off the bone, in a delicate, almost seafood-size fillet. Romero has a fondness for braising and poaching, and many of his recipes feature an impressive variety of decorative reductions and purées. I even detected a few exotic foams in my dinner, the most conspicuous of which appeared early in the meal, wreathed around a bowl of organic, Gorgonzola-infused polenta and a single steamed egg.

Did I enjoy my ornamental helping of eggy, foam-covered polenta? I’m not afraid to say that I did. Romero has a knack for concocting potentially over-precious recipes, then rescuing them with just the right touch of largesse. A favorite dish among my gentlemen friends was the fresh baby squid, charred in little rings, set over a thin layer of mayonnaise, and tossed with black olives, lemon confit, and crunchy nuggets of pancetta. A dainty, ladylike helping of fettucini with artichokes is folded with Parmesan and barely detectable black truffles and decorated with a wafer of crackly dried prosciutto. The foie gras torchon I tasted was overwhelmed with too much thick fig jam, but if you order the sardines you’ll find they’re neither oily nor smelly, but sealed in a Parmesan crust and stacked over a rich tomato confit. Larger seafood entrées are handled in a similarly gourmet fashion, particularly the Chatham cod (poached in olive oil, with a side of peppery tagliolini) and the grilled dourade, which is dressed with a lightly lemony shallot vinaigrette.

My wife, who never saw an elegantly appointed, midget-size restaurant she didn’t like, never made it to Smith’s. But if she had, she would have enjoyed the lobster, soft-poached in the classic Bouley style, set over Brussels sprouts and gently sweetened with a butternut-squash purée. The pork chop, as I’ve already mentioned, goes in for a similarly successful, if slightly cloying, makeover, though with its decorative pedestal of pork cheeks on the side, and its gleaming topping of apple gelée, it’s barely recognizable as a pork chop at all. This didn’t seem to bother the Pork Loon at my table, who supplemented his dinner with side dishes of cauliflower gratin and more organic Anson Mills polenta before merrily cleaning his plate. The roast saddle of lamb (cut in soft, matchbook-size medallions, with tomato-and-eggplant ragout and a richly creamy Parmesan polenta) met a similar fate when it reached our table, as did the delicious rib-eye steak, which is deboned and served with spinach and potato dumplings in a pool of bone-marrow gravy.

The cooking at Smith’s seemed to get better every time I visited, and so did the quality of the occasionally harried service. But this is one of those sensitively calibrated, suddenly popular downtown establishments where your experience can vary widely depending on when you go and where you sit. I sat at the bar during my first visit, on a Saturday night, and watched successive waves of revelers turn the little space into a kind of swingers’ version of the Black Hole of Calcutta. So go early, or very late. Have a drink at the bar (if you can fit), then proceed to the saloon room for dinner. The small desserts won’t add very much to the enjoyment of your meal, but they won’t detract from it, either. There’s a straightforward apple cobbler, a runny lemon tart, and a pleasant pumpkin-flavored crème brûlée with a biscotto on top. But the most popular item is a dense little chocolate-brioche confection. It’s an elevated, demure version of chocolate bread pudding, which has been designed, like most of the food at Smith’s, to be eaten with a tiny silver spoon.

Smith’s (View Menu)
Address: 79 Macdougal St., nr. Bleecker St.; 212-260-0100
Hours: Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $16; entrées, $21 to $26.
Ideal Meal: Grilled squid, rib eye or saddle of lamb, polenta, chocolate bread pudding.
Note: If you find yourself trapped in the bar, there’s a special menu, including lobster deviled eggs and a grilled Taleggio-cheese sandwich.
Scratchpad: Depending on the hour of the day, this polished little neighborhood joint might be worth a special trip. One star for the space, another for the food.

Precious Cargo