Invited by another CH for a celebratory dinner, I finally made it to Hearth, which was, for a long time, on the top of my list of restaurants to try. It may have been one of the best restaurant experiences I've had in NYC. At the urging of my experienced dining companion, our party of 3 sat at the counter which faces directly into the newly renovated kitchen (aka the Kitchen Pass). While this is probably not the best seating for someone wanting a more intimate dining experience, I think Chowhounds would appreciate the experience of observing the theater of the kitchen from the front row. The key to nabbing these seats is to make it there early, as they don't take reservations for these seats.
The chef, Marco Canora, greeted us personally, and brought out an amuse of a thick white soup in a shot glass. Amidst the conversation, watching the kitchen activity, and trying to peruse the menu, I didn't find out what the white soup was, though my suspicion is that it was made with parsnips. It was a nice starter. My dining companion, having sat at the counter a few times, was friendly with the chef, and perhaps because of this, he kept a close eye on us. He explained much of the menu to us, and you could tell when he got excited about an ingredient, like when he was describing the scallops still quivering when he was shucking them a little earlier. He also helped us negotiate an ordering strategy, since we wanted to try the pasta dishes, but didn't want to sacrifice the meat or fish dishes. So he offered a single serving of each of the pastas as a mid-course offering before the mains. Here's what we settled on.
Diver Scallop Carpaccio
Roasted and Braised Lamb
Braised Veal Breast
Monkfish Osso Bucco
Side of Gnocchi
Pecan tart with Sweet Potato ice cream
There was a certain balance to the appetizers we ordered. The stuffed cabbage and the marinated sardines both had quite an intensity in their own ways. The sardines had a very familiar quality to it if you've eaten a lot of Japanese shime-saba or Spanish boquerones. The broth accompanying the stuffed cabbage was pretty spectacular. When we asked how he prepares the broth, Marco told us, 1 turkey, 14 chickens, some veal, and ... well, you get the picture. There's a lot going on in that broth. The mixture of sweetbreads in the stuffed cabbage added a richness that was unexpected. The scallops provided a good balance to the other two in that it was mellow and subtle. And they were as fresh as I've ever tasted.
I think it was at this point when we saw a man come to the counter with a styrofoam box. He then took out a small digital scale, and we all wondered if there was a drug deal going down. He turned out to be the truffle man, with a supply of white truffles straight from Piemonte. How cool was that. I briefly had a vision of nabbing that styrofoam box and making a run for it, but I quickly came to my senses.
Soon after, the mid-course pasta arrived. First the pumpkin tortelli, just a single tortello, provided a nice burst of pumpkin essence, and a lot of Autumn flavors. The duck ragu with the pappardelle was pretty fantastic. It's hard to go wrong with a long-braised duck.
I ordered the lamb, and felt lucky to have the majority of it. There was lamb three-ways on the plate: a roasted piece of loin, cooked medium rare; a braised piece from the rib (I think) which was nice and fatty; and ground lamb in the form of a sausage. The roasted loin piece was very tender and didn't have the gamy taste that one expects from lamb. The braised piece did have that gamy flavor, but it was so tender. I was reminded of the buta kakuni from Sakagura. And the lamb sausage was wonderfully spiced and was wrapped in a big sage leaf, and I believe it was deep fried. The veal dish was also quite good, but it didn't have the same draw as the lamb for me. I really liked the cauliflower flan. Because we pretty much shared everything, I can't remember which little sides were on which plates, but there was also a puree of pumpkin or squash that I also remember liking a lot. The monkfish was pretty massive. I believe it was pan roasted since it seemed to have a lot of caramelized edges. I didn't get enough of it to make a good assessment, but I did like that accompanying saffron risotto.
We also had a side of gnocchi along with our mains. It was simply dressed with some butter, pepper and grated cheese, but these were really pillowy and soft. We asked Marco how he gets his gnocchi to this texture, and he commented that there's no egg in it. I'll have to try this at home, but I suspect it takes a deft hand to get the right ratio of potato and flour to form these gnocchi without a binder. This might be a good winter project.
Through the dinner at the kitchen pass, it was fascinating to watch the kitchen staff and the choreography that's involved in getting everything out in a timely fashion. Marco was the last person to touch or inspect about 98% of every dish that went out. He would occasionally take a spoon and taste a bit of this or that to inspect the quality of the dishes. Since I haven't been in, let alone observed, a professional kitchen in quite a while, it was interesting to see that Marco has such a tight control over what's the kitchen produces. Also, the wait staff couldn't have been more helpful throughout the meal. They helped choose a very interesting wine, a syrah/viognier blend from Australia. The cheese expert among the waitstaff described all the cheeses to us, and although we chose a variety of 5, they comped us a small portion of the other 5 cheeses for us to try.
Besides some omakase experiences at small sushi bars, I've never felt such intimacy with a restaurant as I did at Hearth. I'm excited to return, and especially to sit at the kitchen pass once again.
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