I want you to close your eyes for a minute. Really, go ahead. No one’s looking. And even if they are, they’ll just walk past your cubicle and report you to your boss for napping early Monday morning. No biggy, right? Okay, so close your eyes and imagine this scene: America’s heartland in the late 1800s, a weathered old farmhouse on a 160-acre plot of land. Oh, and that would be your plot of land. You see, you’re a farmer in this scenario. Every morning you wake with the sun. The days are hot and the air is dusty and dry. You mouth is always parched. The day starts as you tend to your chickens and milk your cows. As you till the soil and nurse neat rows of vegetables bedded down in the warm earth, you meet the afternoon. And as the afternoon becomes evening, you head to the riverbank where you spend a few quiet hours fishing, pulling wiggling trout from the white water. And then, after your long day is done, when the air has turned cool, you return home and head out to your back forty—the rear forty acres of your 160 acre plot—for a little down time. Perhaps you sip a cocktail of rye over ice. Or maybe you just kick back and look up at a wide-open night sky blanketed in a hush of stars. The rye starts to ease the stiffness in your back and you feel your muscles begin to loosen. You walk home and sit down to a supper cooked in a pot belly stove and fashioned from the fruits of your labor—chicken and potatoes, perhaps a stew of vegetables. You eat heartily and retire to bed early. After all, sunrise is coming.
Whadayathink? I kinda like the sound of this imaginary life. It’s a simple, nurturing life that changes only with the seasons, when the days grow shorter, the temperatures drop lower, and the vegetables pulled from the ground are more gnarled. I don’t know, maybe I’m completely idealizing it (I tend to do that), but for all its backbreaking work, there’s something that sounds so appealing to me about this life—it’s very basic and uncomplicated. And with all the “advancement” we’ve seen since then (crackberries, pods, cells, and various other miracle machines that process just about everything from thoughts to grains), the idea of a return to that pared-down formula is sweet and seductive in some Little House fairy tale way. In any case, this simple farmer’s life is the vision for Back Forty, chef Peter Hoffman’s new American tavern in the East Village.
Hoffman is best known for Savoy, his 17-year old seasonal American restaurant in Soho where he ushered in a strict locavore philosophy at a time when there was no such word in the dictionary, let alone in the inside advanced foodie vocabulary. For his second restaurant, rather than take it one step up the notch, perhaps on the level of Blue Hill or Gramercy Tavern, Hoffman deconstructed his formula even more, offering a bracingly simple recipe for a restaurant: a core menu of six entrees (whole or half-rotisserie chicken, $16/$24; grass-fed burger, $10; house made pork sausage, $15) bolstered by a neat collection of four snacks (chicken liver mousse, $6; Red Maine shrimp and bacon beignets, $7), and a more lengthy series of Greenmarket dishes (roasted parsnips with white anchovy and Aleppo pepper vinaigrette, $7) under a left-hand column called “From the Garden.” As for cocktails, he offers six choices, including a house drink known as the Back Forty, which has already become a favorite—a perfectly balanced mix of George Dickel (a Tennessee whiskey), maple and lemon ($10). The wine list is also succinct, and includes uncomplicated house wines made for Hoffman by Russell Hern of Lieb and Pelligrini Vineyards on Long Island. The white is a picnic-ready blend of Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer and Reisling, while the red is spicy and juicy and 100% syrah ($9 a glass).
Back Forty’s décor echoes its no-frills menu. Its three wide rooms present themselves in bare dress. Each is washed in wood, with sturdy tables and chairs, pale walls hung with antique farm equipment—a cider press, an ice cutting saw, a hoe. An extra long bar backed in old bottles of bourbon and whiskey is the most visually stimulating section of the restaurant. Indeed, there’s something almost Amish about the place. In a way, you feel like you should not be wearing clothes with buttons or zippers, like your home should be lit with candles, and your sheets should be stiffly ironed white cotton. It’s spare, and it fits the concept like a glove.
My first visit to Back Forty was with my brother who was in town visiting from San Francisco. David is a yogi and a vegetarian and he was concerned that a hip new East Village restaurant would leave him with little to order other than mixed greens. But he took one look at the “From the Garden” section of the menu, and smiled. “This is great,” he said, taking a sip of his Back Forty cocktail. “I’m having the left hand side of the menu, what are you having?” “Dave, that’s like ten items,” I offered, trying to gently suggest that maybe he might be over-ordering. “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll leave off the mixed greens ($8), and I guess I have to leave out the fingerling potatoes ‘cause I see they’re cooked in lard ($7).”
“Okay,” I said, slightly afraid of what the waitress might say when he ordered seven items for dinner. “But will you share with me?” I asked, knowing that while he doesn’t eat animals, he does have an impressive appetite for plants. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said. And so we proceeded to shock the waitress and our neighbors at nearby tables, and eat practically the entire left-hand side of the menu along with one entrée for me—the grilled whole Catskills trout ($16).
The tempura battered delicata squash ($6), listed under snacks, was terrific. Served with a mini-squeeze bottle of smoked paprika mayo, the rings of squash arrive in a wax paper lined basket looking like crispy onion rings, but instead of slippery onion secreted under an airy batter you’ll find hefty ringlets of sweet pumpkiny squash. The shaved fennel and pumpkin salad ($9) was also a winner—hunks of roasted pumpkin tossed with ribbons of fennel glossed in a bright, punchy lemony vinaigrette seasoned with turmeric. Hello! Yum. The roasted brussel sprouts were treated to a surprise. Instead of the usual maple and bacon combo (always a good one), Hoffman substitutes dried cherries and shallot butter ($6) to wonderful effect. Roasted mushrooms got a dose of thyme and shallots, and they too were excellent, though a bit more ho-hum ($8) than the other more dramatic garden players.
My personal favorite was the green wheat with yogurt and mint ($6). Better known as Frick in Middle Eastern circles, it is the germ of the wheat just before it bursts into a grain. It’s extremely nutty and chewy and is cooked like tabouleh with fragrant mint, and a dollop of cool tangy yogurt. I treated this as my own personal side fish for my grilled Catskills Trout—a glossy, meaty, slightly smoky and super sweet fish perfumed with lemon and herbs that was so large I had half for dinner and half the next day for lunch, fashioned into a trout salad on black bread with some sour cream and radishes. David’s favorite was the cauliflower gratin—a bubbly cheese-capped casserole made from roasted purple and plain florets of cauliflower, slippery-soft caramelized leeks, a fondue of aged gruyere and topping of bread crumbs. Think mac-n-cheese without the mac. And as is the case with mac, we finished every last bite.
My brother and I had such a great time at Back Forty that Craig and I decided to take my mom for her birthday the following week. We sat in the far back dining room this time, a bit less intimate than the bar room where David and I had dinner, and had a round of Back Fortys and a platter of the shrimp and bacon beignets ($7) to start us off. These fritters are fat, puffy and swollen with shrimp (more bacon please), and dressed in a chili sauce made from julienned sweet chile peppers that was terrific; I’d like it as a breadbasket alternative to butter or tapenade.
As for what to have for dinner, while there are only six choices to the main courses, I was still having a tough time deciding between the blue crab roll ($18) and the Pork Sammy–braised pork belly with mustard pickled shallots on a roll ($14). But since Craig was going back and forth between the grass-fed burger and the crab roll, we decided to share the two. (We’ll be back for the Sammy no doubt.)
We were very pleased with our choices. The blue crab roll is so loaded up with fresh crab it’s practically obscene, spilling out from over the top of a hot, toasty buttery challah roll shaped like a sub. The crab was a refreshing departure form the lobster standard—folded with a dab of mayo and mustard, a spritz of lemon and some crunch from finely diced celery. We loved it, but let it be known that the irony of crab being served on a challah roll was not lost.
The burger, served with spicy home made ketchup and pickles and your choice of Heritage bacon or Farmhouse cheddar (add $2) on a sesame bun, is a solid new contender in our city’s burger wars. It’s rather average in terms of patty size, but it’s really well seasoned, has the slight char of the grill, and is juicy and meaty. Fries ($5), interestingly (and come to think of it appropriately) listed under The Core, are dusted in sea salt and rosemary and piled into a cone lined with wax paper. The three of us shared them, and we could’ve easily gone through another cone without issue. Instead, we saved room for a slice of apple pie ($7), which was served with a candle in it for my mom. As soon as my mom made a wish, and the three of us moved in on that poor little slice of pie. It had no idea what was coming.
We demolished that slice of pie, and I warn you that you will too. I recommend that you order your own slice. Do not share. This pie is the recipe of Peter’s wife Susan Rosenfeld, and it is a recipe I have been trying to persuade Peter to share with me for several weeks now. He’s not giving it up. And I guess I don’t blame him. It’s fantastic—filled up with luscious sweet and tart apples—and it looks as though it was just pulled off of a sill with its perfectly flaky sugared crust, hand pinched at the edges. Let the vanilla ice cream melt a bit, and you’ll have a perfect sauce for your pie. If I lived in the late 1800s, I imagine that I’d have picked the apples for that pie, lugged them home in heaving baskets, then spent days peeling and slicing and baking, before the pies emerged bubbly and sweet from a pot belly stove. Yes, there’s something rewarding about the old fashioned simplicity of farm-to-table lifestyle, but I guess it’s also nice to have it served up to you without lifting a finger. Oh, and you can open your eyes now.