I went into Hearth with a game plan: I'd sit at "The Pass," the three seats with a front row view into the kitchen, I'd order the lamb entree with sides of gnocchi and hen of the woods mushrooms (as both a big gnocchi and mushroom aficionado, I was most excited about these two much-buzzed about items) and for dessert, either have the apple cider doughnuts or the pecan tart, depending on what appealed to me at the moment. I'd also ask for suggestions to pair wines for both courses. (Oddly, none of the appetizers particularly appealed to me.)
When I walked into Hearth, I was happy to have a seat at the Pass offered to me. They were about to replace the settings, so I had a few minutes to sit and take in the scene. It was a little strange to see. One table's diners were wearing jeans and T-shirts while right next to them, the man seated next to them was wearing a suit and his date was wearing an expensive dress. Further confusing matters, the waitstaff were dressed in ugly striped dress shirts and jeans. They looked like they were working at a fancy barbecue joint. They were also playing rock tunes while the lighting was dim, another strange juxtaposition. I have no problem with more casual places, but my very initial impression was that Hearth wasn't sure if it was downscale or upscale. In my mind, they were much closer to upscale but they were trying hard to evoke that casual ambiance that is supposedly associated with the notion of a "hearth." Maybe it's just my bias, but I would have rather have the waiters wear black and have a business casual dress code. (Sure, that'd be like so many other places, but there's a reason so many other places do it.)
But anyway, onto the food. As I stated, I came in with lamb intentions, but done in by the excitement of sitting in front of chefs, I wanted to see a greater scope of their abilities. So I opted for the tasting menu ($62) with the wine pairings suggested by my knowledgeable waiter. I also got a side of Hen of the Woods mushrooms, just because I really wanted to try them.
First up was an amuse of hot parsnip root puree in a tall shot glass. It was nice and warm, especially on this very cold winter's day, and tasted good, though it paled in comparison to other amuses I've received for tasting menus.
Next was the First Course, Celery Root Soup with Maine Diver Scallops, Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Chervil, which was paired with 3 oz. of Gaston Chiquet Brut Tradition, Napa Valley, Dizy. The soup was delicious and very creamy, and the scallops were soft and tender. I'd never had trumpet mushrooms, but they were interesting and added a nice, firmer texture and color to the yellow liquid. All in all, a nice start. The champagne, the most expensive glass on the wine-by-the-glass menu at $16.50 for 6 oz. and $8.50 for a tasting of 3 oz., was a nice choice. I'm not ordinarily crazy about champagne, but this one was quite good and did go well with the soup.
Next, I got a small serving of Scallops with Prosciutto and Fingerling Potatoes. By small, I mean, there were about two tiny scallops, two pieces of prosciutto and three thin slivers. All of it tasted pretty good, but considering it was only a five-course tasting menu, at first I thought the portion way too small. Then I realized my mistake! This wasn't one of my courses, but rather complimentary from the kitchen. Seen from that vantage point, it was nice, almost like a second amuse. My waiter made the same mistake, bringing out my second wine, 6 oz. of Semillon, Kalin Cellars, 1994, Livermore Valley, to pair with this complimentary course. I didn't like this wine that much, but didn't dislike it enough to send back.
Next up was the Second Course, Roasted Striped Bass with Winter Vegetables, Parsley Root Puree and Black Truffle Vinaigrette, which was again paired with 6 oz. of Semillon, Kalin Cellars, 1994, Livermore Valley. The waiter was conciliatory and comped my second glass of the Semillon, and since he made a big point of apologizing, I accepted it and to my surprise, found myself starting to enjoy it more. One of the chefs also brought by my Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, explaining (correctly) that they would best be paired with this dish. The bass and their accompanying sauce were very good and I liked the reappearance of the parsnip puree as a kind of culinary connector of courses. The winter vegetables I liked less so, and surprisingly, I was disappointed with the mushrooms. Or rather I should say I very much enjoyed the mushrooms themselves, but I found their preparation to be overseasoned and overwhelmed by the flavor of herbs rather than the mushrooms themselves.
Maybe I should have gone with the gnocchi instead. The Italian couple occupying the other two seats at the Pass got complimentary servings of gnocchi. Midway through, the woman flagged down a waiter. "Where is Marco from?" she asked him. "He's American," he told her. "American? No. He's not from Italy?" Again, he told her Marco Canora, head chef at Hearth, was American. "Because these gnocchi," she said happily, "taste just like they do in Rome!"
The Third Course was my favorite, Stone Church Farm Duck with Confit Leg, Quince and Brussel Sprouts, and it was paired with my favorite wine of the night, 6 oz. of Pinotage, Southern Cape, 2002, Western Cape. The duck was expertly prepared, flavorful, both soft and firm, and most importantly, delicious. The quinze and brussel sprouts were both successful, contrasting each other and prominent in their tastes, but both secondary and in service to the duck. The red wine was well suited to this course and just a very good wine overall. I was also comped a side of polenta, which was wonderful and very warming for the winter. The polenta was quite creamy, more so than most varieties I've had, and came with a swirl of olive oil. If I hadn't gone with the gnocchi choice, I should have gone for the polenta.
The Fourth Course was a dessert amuse, a Pistachio Semifreddo with Plum Preserves. There was no pairing here. The semifreddo was a nice palate cleanser and it was fairly creative, but as I found with the initial amuse, I've had better and more inventive amuse offerings. Still, very good.
The Fifth Course was the last, Pear-Hazelnut Crisp with Cranberry Ice Cream, paired with a dessert wine, 6 oz. of Malvasia delle Lipari, Passito, Hauner, 2000, Salina. The dessert was pretty tasty and filling, and hazelnuts are a favorite of mine so that was a nice treat. All in all, the dessert wasn't a standout, but it was good and a nice finale. The dessert wine, which had a golden raisin flavor, was excellent.
All in all, it was a very good meal ($140 after tax and tip), the menu well designed for a frigid winter evening. It wasn't superlative, but once I got past the hype that often dominates Hearth discussion on the board and stopped comparing it to my last tasting menu (Hearth isn't Bouley by any means, but also isn't trying to Bouley. However, Bouley's tasting menu is only $13 more, which does invite the comparison.) I realized how much I enjoyed my dinner. I'd like to explore some more of the regular menu and I'd certainly recommend to anyone dining solo and interested in watching a kitchen operate to sit at the Pass.