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Manhattan Birthday Dinner

Birthday dinner at Hearth (long)

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Birthday dinner at Hearth (long)

Sir Gawain | May 15, 2005 10:09 AM

Some time ago I asked for recommendations for a moderately-priced but foodwise-impressive place for a birthday dinner, and the vote went overwhelmingly to Hearth. I was there last Friday and while I'd say the food was excellent and I will certainly be back for that, the overall experience was a little lacking for something that was meant to be festive and special.

We got there promptly for our 7pm reservation and were told by the hostess that "the 7pm reservations will get seated in a few minutes", although there were several empty tables in sight. There was no space at the bar, and so we had to awkwardly stand around the entrance for a few minutes (not too long) with six or so other would-be diners in anticipation of our "seating time". Then we were led to the back room, which is really a sliver of a room, almost a corridor, with only 3 tables. I didn't mind too much as it was quieter than the front room, but my friend wasn't too happy (unfortunately he didn't say so until we sat down, and then I didn't want to make a fuss and ask to be reseated.)

An amuse of hot fennel soup was promptly delivered; very good and a pleasing vivid green color. My friend noted with satisfaction the interesting beer choices on the menu, and since that's what he decided to have, I opted for a glass of an Alsatian gewurztraminer, which was delicious, aromatic and rich without being cloyingly sweet.

We read the menu while nibbling on the excellent, crusty bread. For appetizers he decided on the snapper crudo and I on the fava and pecorino salad, and for entrées he chose the rabbit pappardelle and I the roasted guinea hen.

I cannot comment on his snapper, which he said was good (came presented in pink little cubes topped with rosemary leaves), but my fava salad was excellent, zesty and refreshing, with minced fresh oregano leaves in a rich olive oil dressing.

Both entrées were wonderful. The guinea hen entrée included a braised, tender, richly flavored dark-meat leg (tasting almost ducky, which is a positive in my book) topped with three translucent, rosy sticks of cooked swiss chard stems (resembling rhubarb), and three breast-meat rolls wrapped in pancetta slices (delicious), plus a swiss chard malfatto (which I suppose is the correct singular of malfatti?), a large quennelle-shaped, light and delicate dumpling.

The rabbit pappardelle was awesome too, the rich, black-olives and rosemary sauce clinging to the pasta, which was the perfect vehicle for its luscious, robust, mouth-filling flavor. I think this dish would be even more satisfying in the fall and winter. It was rustic in the best sense of the word. I want to mention the quality of the herbs - superb, very clean and very fresh tasting, just bursting with flavor.

We were too full for dessert, and were getting somewhat antsy to get out, because a larger party was seated next to us and their conversation began to interfere with ours a bit.

We were presented with two tiny butterscotch (?)sandwich cookies with our bill, which were delicious.

Throughout the evening the service was pleasant, but after our waiter delivered our drinks he proceeded to forget about us (though the bread was replenished solicitously by another server), and we had to flag him down during one of his trips past our table to place our orders. (I should add we are not the kind of people who like to rush a meal, particularly a festive one, but we wanted to get the ordering done so we could have an uninterrupted conversation.)

The decor was interesting; for those of you who haven't been to Hearth, most of the brick walls are covered with horizontal wide strips of cream-colored wool felt, affixed to the wall with large copper staples. A striking if oddball choice, probably chosen for its noise-muffling qualities as well as aesthetic merits. Unfortunately, there was an old splotch of red wine on the wool right by our table (I imagine they are hard to clean). An assortment of copper pans hung on another bare-brick wall, adding to the vaguely rustic vibe.

All in all, the food was wonderful and very much in my favorite style (strong flavors, great ingredients, country-based cuisine in a contemporary presentation), but I wouldn't choose Hearth for a "special occasion" dinner again. I will definitely be back for a laid-back meal with friends though, where the service and the decor won't matter that much.

Thanks all for you suggestions!

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