Cuisine: Italian , Venetian , Tapas/Small Plates
Menu: View the Menu
Dining comes in many forms. There's the formal feed-you know, a lavish several course meal meticulously prepared, delicately served, paired with exquisite wines, and always slowly and luxuriously savored. Then there's the more common weekly dinner, a more casual (if no less thrilling these days) affair consisting of some sort of appetizer, entrée and side dish combo, where plates are passed and shared, and beer, wine and cocktail glasses often find themselves sharing table space. And then there's eating at the bar, a favorite form of dining for many New Yorkers (myself included).Review By: Andrea Strong
The bar is a space officially reserved for drinking, which invites a bit more excitement to the whole matter of eating, and the promise of some interaction, whether with an amusing bartender or with random-also often quite entertaining-strangers. It's also a place that let's you get closer to the person you're with. My first date with Craig was at the bar of the Flatiron Lounge. Instead of sitting across the table from each other, we were side-by-side, squished into each other, with elbows, knees, and hands inevitably touching at some point or another. Hey, it worked for me.
And in any case, whether with Craig or a friend, when it's just two, I love the bar and the dichotomy of the intimacy of sitting so close to someone-close enough to speak and only be heard by them-and yet be a part of this very public communal dining and drinking experience. Somehow, at the bar, you are separate but together at the same time. How very New York.
This week I had two meals and two bars-one at Bacaro and another at Smith & Mills-and loved both of them, not so much because the food was so brilliant (it was fine in both cases, but not great), but because the entire experience of dining and drinking was exceptional, from the service, to the cocktails, to the spectacular settings. If you're searching for a bar for drinks and a bite, for talking amongst yourselves or for exploring the world of engaging strangers, these two should be on your list.
My friend Robin and I caught up Friday night at Bacaro, the latest hot spot from Peasant's Frank DeCarlo and his wife Dulcinea Benson. Located on a quiet road called Division Street, Bacaro is an ode to the wine bar of culture of Venice where cichetti are served in small, cozy tavernas called-you guessed it-bacaros. The two-story space is really rather breathtaking. The street level boasts a long ivory marble slab of bar backed by a towering antique breakfront with glass cabinets stocked with vintage wine decanters and carafes, tea glasses and tumblers. The bar is lit by two twinkling crystal chandeliers, and framed by wide picture windows. Down a wrought-iron staircase, you'll find the sexiest dungeon bar in town, crafted with raw brick walls, filled with antique accents, and flea market salvaged tables and chairs that give the place a snuggle-up-and-get close vibe. There's also a salami room (that's bigger than the average studio apartment), and two vaults for larger groups to get together and feast. On the wine list you'll find 75 bottles from Valpolicella to Amarone, curated by Benson to reflect the wines of Venice and the surrounding regions.
We started with a bottle of Lambrusco-Robin's a huge fan and she's slowly converting me to the stuff-and the unwelcome advances of a very inebriated man who struck up a conversation by informing us that he had been burned by many women, first and foremost his mother. Oh dear, these are the dangers of the bar. After offering him the number of my therapist and politely suggesting that he talk to her and not us, we got back to catching up and ordering a starter snack-the crostini tasting plate of the night-which included chicken liver, mushroom, black olive tapenade with anchovy, and salt cod ($9). While promising, the crostini were a disappointing beginning. The toast points are thin and too crisp-they disintegrate on contact with teeth. The toppings, to boot, were not very generous, and barely covered the dry brittle toasts, leaving them naked, uncovered and mostly tasteless. This is a shame because what I got of the toppings was quite good, but they were so skimpy with them and the overall presentation was so thoughtless and careless. This kitchen can do better than this. And they do.
The spicy polpetti ($9)-tiny deep-fried meatballs the size of fat spring peas were aggressively seasoned, very juicy, and just terrific. As we finished up the little meatballs, we had drained our bottle of Lambrusco, and as we ordered some more (it's really hard to stop drinking the stuff, so be warned, you may need to find a support group), we looked around and discovered that the place had grown quite crowded. The bar, which had been relatively quiet at 7pm when we arrived, was now three-deep with couples, singles and gaggles of friends waiting on tables. If half the experience of dining in New York is the wait, here it may be your entire experience. This place is a zoo. A fun, sexy, stunning zoo, but still. I'd get there early.
We weren't going anywhere though, since our pastas had just arrived. As we dug in, Robin started telling me about her new running clothes. She decided that running down the West Side Highway in seven layers of sweatshirts, turtlenecks, and sweatpants made her look like "Fat Albert" (she's tiny), and so she invested in some sleek high-tech warm clothes for her morning runs. I told her I sympathized, that I've run outside in the cold too, and that I tended to resemble Big Mama in my layers. "What do you do now?" she asked. "Nothing. I still look like Big Mama. I don't underestimate the joy of being warm and round," I said, stabbing a creamy gnocchi with my fork.
Yes, about those pastas. The gnocchi with wild mushrooms was just I hoped it would be-light and airy potato dumplings in an earthy mushroom sauce plied with meaty mushrooms ($14). The bigoli in salsa ($16) didn't meet my expectations, though. An al dente tangle of whole wheat spaghetti gets dressed in an assertive anchovy sauce that was too oily (a puddle of it glistened at the bottom of the bowl, actually), but still wonderfully steeped in the meaty essence of those unctuous little fish. The menu offers several large plates that we didn't get to-lasagna with smoked mozzarella and raddichio ($15), pork shanks over polenta ($18), and braised duck legs with white beans ($14) and platters of cheese and meat ($14). They're on my list for my next visit.
While we finished our pastas and a bit more Lambrusco, I was stopped mid-bite of spaghetti by a song on the iPod playing overhead. Spaghetti hanging out of my mouth, I smiled and practically started crying and laughing at the same time. It was a song from my childhood (and possibly yours), a song I played over and over on our record player, a song I ran around singing at the top of my lungs all over my house. Perhaps the last time I heard it I was seven or eight, but there it was, playing overhead at Bacaro-Marlo Thomas and Friends' "Free to Be...You and Me." No, I am not joking. I had my own private flashback in my mind as the words played overhead-"In a land where the river runs free, In a land through the green country, In a land to a shining sea, And you and me are free to be you and me." If that's not a reason to return to Bacaro, I don't know what is. (The décor, the vibe, and the wine, perhaps?)
The night after Bacaro, I was researching a story on the best new cocktail spots in the city, and asked Jamie to join me on my quest. I had already included PDT and Death & Company and next on my list was Smith & Mills, a snug little hideaway on North Moore Street in Tribeca that's owned by Matt Abramcyk (Beatrice Inn and Employees Only). We got there early and entered through a pair of arched wooden doors etched in wrought iron that gave me the distinct feeling that I was going to either discover a barn or horse stall on the other side. Instead, I did neither. Instead, my walk through the looking glass brought me into another time and place, to an early 20th century bunker of civility with barrel ceilings, wrap-around tufted leather banquettes, weathered walls, a dozen or so hammered metal tables studded with cooper nails, a long bar backed by craftsmen tools, wide-mouthed mason jars, and cooper pots and pans hanging above the tiny behind-the-bar kitchen.
Set in a former carriage house, Smith & Mills is a hole-in-the-wall of the most precious variety. It's sophisticated and swanky and feels like it dropped out of a time warp with its vintage apothecary bottles lining windowsills, plywood floors, and vested formal barmen mixing a short list of classic only cocktails (Martini, Manhattan, Dark & Stormy, Champagne Cocktail, and Americano).
Jamie and I took two open seats, and started with the Nathaniel Moore, the house special of the evening, which on Saturday was the Whiskey Sour. I don't remember the last time I had a Whiskey Sour, probably sometime in college at Lehigh, but I can tell you that it tasted nothing like this one, which was perfectly balanced between cherry sweet and cheek-puckering tart, with the soft warmth of whiskey leaving its mark gently.
Rather than a standoffish haute drinking establishment, Smith & Mills is a friendly saloon which opens at 9am for coffee and pastry with your morning paper, and stays open for lunch (brunch on weekends), and through dinner and drinks until 4 am, seven days a week. This all-day brasserie formula is one Keith McNally perfected on a larger high-volume scale at spots like Balthazar, Schillers, and Pastis, and that Abramcyk deconstructs on a smaller, more intimate, and wildly appealing scale at Smith & Mills.
If you're hungry, the menu offers salads, oysters (on the half shall and in a pan roast, $12) to start, a section called relishes that are more like small plates-leeks vinaigrette ($6), crunchy hominy ($4), and olives with ricotta salata ($6), and entrees like cassoulet ($19) for dinner, that are all prepped downstairs and prepared to order in the small open kitchen behind the bar.
After our drinks (they go down quick and easy), we had a couple of glasses of wine (a Gruner Veltliner and a Chinon) served in wide tumblers, and the house-cured salmon with fennel salad, capers, horseradish with thick slices of soft black bread from Tom Cat ($13), along with a salad of Bibb lettuces tossed with chunks of roasted butternut squash, toasted pine nuts and Parmesan in a pumpkin seed vinaigrette ($10). The salmon was a nice way to start, though it was cut in slices that could have been thinner and was slapped with horseradish instead of perhaps a lighter stroke. We also enjoyed the Bibb salad but agreed that the vinaigrette was all about the vinegar and was eye-wateringly sharp.
We also shared a crock of cassoulet, stocked up with duck confit pulled from the bone, coins of sausage, and hunks of pancetta, scattered over the top with crunchy layer of spicy bread crumbs. The cassoulet was the right remedy for the frigid weather, though truth be told it reminded me more of my grandmother's cholent than a cassoulet. Anybody here ever have cholent? If you had, you'd remember. It can stay with you (and god save anyone seated next to you a few hours later.) It's a slow-cooked stew of assorted beans, beef shanks, marrow, neck bones and more beans, set in a crock pot on the stove over low heat for the hours and hours on the Sabbath. By the end of the day it all sort of comes together into quite a sturdy stew that's similar to cassoulet, but a bit more heavy and beany. So I guess I feel like while the cassoulet at Smith & Mills tasted great, it should've been called cholent. Hey, chopped liver, er, chicken liver paté, jumped over to hipster-ville, why not cholent? Indeed.
When we scraped the last bits of our "cassoulet" from its white ceramic bowl, we had to be on our way. We had one more place to check out for the story and so our time at Smith & Mills was coming to a close. What a bummer. I would've stayed all night. I have to say I was completely charmed by the place. The service is friendly and very attentive despite the crowds, and there's a great relaxed and convivial feeling to the place. It's a perfect spot to catch up with a friend for some quiet conversation or with a date where you crave something low key and romantic without the fuss. But what's most appealing, aside from the carefully made cocktails, is the space, which is truly transporting. The décor creates an environment, almost to a movie-set degree, of a sweet little outpost for hand-worked craftsmanship. There are so many little details that bring this space to life, and it's clear a lot of thought went into every artifact, down to the mix ‘n match china.
Like Bacaro, there is eating to be done at Smith & Mills, but it is definitely beside the point. I wasn't wowed by my meals at either place, but I was pleased, and that was good enough. There are different kinds of dining, and when you're at the bar, the what's on your plate is really not as important as what's going on in the room, what's in your glass, and who's sitting right next to you.
Chef: Frank DeCarlo
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