November 19, 2007 | BITE: My Journal
What Did You Say, Cindy?
 Cindy Smith has the stylish place of her fantasy at Smith's. Photo:Steven Richter
 Cindy Smith has the stylish place of her fantasy at Smith's. Photo:Steven Richter

    Let me count the ways I love Smith’s.  I love its smart black and white design – black painted  tables, white lacquered walls, black leather banquettes, wrought iron dividers, crystal sconces with many dangles – the unexpected boudoir touch - and the mullioned mirrored ceiling. I love the worn oriental runner stretching through what does rather resemble a Pullman dining car – with booths for four on one side and on the other, a rat-a-tat-tat of tiny mirrored two tops. Mates and dates communing over bibb lettuce with grapes and buttermilk herb dressing or arugula with gala apples and parmesan.

        I love the greeting at the maître d’s stand, professional and warm, and Cindy SmIth herself, in New York black, greeting old friends.  I love seeing her partner and paramour Danny Abrams come down from his post at the brand new Mermaid Inn on upper Broadway for supper.  And I’m grateful for this rather tailored menu, with prices to soothe the neighborhood: appetizers from $6, appealing vegetable starters; entrees ranging from $21 to $26, with a $32 grilled lobster the sole exception. 

        And Bouley-ex Pablo Romero’s food is very good, definitely worth a detour. His steamed egg with creamy polenta and gorgonzola foam in a soup bowl is so rich and lavish, a few forkfuls are enough, but I’m finishing it feeling full already. I like the smart citric accent of lemon confit in his toss of baby squid with bits of olive and pancetta. And artichoke noodles with black truffle, parmesan and crisp curls of prosciutto is exactly enough flavorful pasta (at just $11), though admittedly not exactly al dente.  The chef seems to subscribe to my faith that a little bacon makes anything better. Chefs everywhere are doing Brussels sprouts right now, but Romero’s crisp individual leaves with toasted almond bits are especially good. A smallish rectangle of wild striped bass is carefully cooked, topped with leek “fondue” and a few micro greens, a strew of flageolet beans and guanciale alongside. It sounds like too much but it’s not.  Rose-red slices of lamb saddle come with tomato and red pepper ragout with just a little creamy parmesan purée on a swath of pesto.

Savory squid salad with lemon confit and Olives. Photo:Steven Richter

        Sorbet, preferably citrus, is my preferred ending to a rich meal like this, but tonight’s small Meyer lemon tart piled with segments of citrus is perhaps even better.  And for those who cannot go home without a chocolate fix: a very decorous espresso sundae with two small triangles of brownie will do. 

        I got to know Cindy Smith at Stephen Kalt’s Spartina when it became our favorite neighborhood fall-in, even though Tribeca was miles from our nest.  When Spartina was sold she moved on to Raoul’s as a partner, also overseeing their inn and spa in New Mexico. But the restaurant itch lingers. She began to muse about what she would want if she had her own place. It would be affordable and accessible, with a rent she could handle.  This snug little spot across from some lovely old brownstones on MacDougal struck her and Abrams as perfect, especially when designer Mark Zeff described what could be done, the unusual configuration, an invisible bar.

        “I wanted it to be timeless, stylish and feminine, but not too feminine,” she says. So it’s not adorable, rather it’s smart and very handsome with its curved mullioned mirrored ceiling. I am drawn to that ceiling.  “I rather like my image from above,” I tell Cindy.

        “What did you say?” she asks.

        Well, there’s the rub.  Although the bar is magically civilized, sound absorbed by green velvet padded walls, the din in the dining room is torture.  My guy and I look around…where would the sound proofing go?  I doubt if I would sacrifice that mirrored ceiling.

        Happily for Smith’s, which is everything Cindy Smith wanted it to be, on a stretch of MacDougal that she loves, most New Yorkers won’t mind at all. And if they’re under 35,  only briefly severed from a cell phone and an I-pod, they won’t even notice.

79 MacDougal Street between Bleeker and Houston, 212 260 0100


Belcourt Feels French

 French flea market finds add to Belcourt's charm. Photo:Steven Richter

        If it seems that Belcourt has certain highly positive Balthazarian aspirations, it’s not conscious imitation. It’s just that Mehenni Zebentout, a lawyer from Algeria who also owns Nomad, had a fling with Paris in his past, not unlike Keith McNally, not unlike me. There’s no passion like that first love. And he also happens to have a friend with a warehouse full of French flea market finds.

        That’s why there are cracked and peeling mirrors on the walls, art deco sconces, a waitress that looks like a French waif even though she’s Brazilian, and bathroom doors that will transport you back to Montparnasse.  Even if you were never there, you’ll recognize the genre from your favorite film noir.

        And like Balthazar, or any respectable neighborhood café, Belcourt opens at 10 and serves non-stop all day till dinner is over.  Breakfast might be soft scrambled eggs with toasted fingers of anchovy brioche or salt cod with poached eggs and harissa or just hot chocolate and a pastry.  This morning I heard Duke Ellington’s “Hey, Baby Blue Rose.”  What a great way to wake up. 

 Cod with Brandade dumplings and crusty toast at Belcourt. Photo:Steven Richter

        Though our fussy sixsome loved dinner, except for the rather dry rabbit confit nested in delicious polenta and the watery chestnut-celery-sunchoke soup, I’m not suggesting you’ll want to hop in a cab one night soon and drop $40 round trip (as we did).  But this strip of Second Avenue is fast becoming a new “theater row,” so if you’re looking for supper before or after the  curtain, you can count on chef Matt Hamilton (late of Prune) for appealing Mediterranean grub to go with the French balcony windows and the Gallic post office doors.   Sensational bitter greens tossed with house cured anchovies in a lemon anchovy dressing with a crisp cheese frico and the boudin blanc “dogs” with house made mustard, kraut and wild pepper potato chips are the favorite starters.  The octopus with cardamom pickled carrots might have been up there too if it hadn’t been such a miserly three bites of critter.  A humongous and reasonably juicy pork chop and the salt cod bourride with brandade dumplings more than made up for the flaws. We had to order a second lamb burger with goat cheese to satisfy the demand at our table.

     Surely there could be more red wines under $40 to go with the gently-tagged entrees, $16 to $23. Yes, it was uneven, as I have recorded in my little notebook, but at the time, normally sharp critical faculties were seduced by the feel of the space, the loving effort, the sassy server, the juicy lamb burger and the haunting vintage music.

84 Fourth Street at 2nd Avenue. 212 979 2034.