When the beloved Savoy closed, there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the original chef and owner Peter Hoffman would be opening another restaurant in the same space. Before the phrase “farm-to-table” became ubiquitous, it was just this guy riding his bike to the Union Square Greenmarket every morning in the ’90s, picking out fresh local produce to serve that night at the restaurant.
Hoffman’s other restaurant, Back Forty in the East Village, is known for its burgers. This more upscale spinoff takes the burger to Soho and adds a number of Southern-inflected seasonal appetizers and entrees. But you’ll still find Back Forty’s urban-rustic atmosphere. The tables are unvarnished pine, the liquor bottles at the bar are stocked on metal shelving. The walls have been stripped down to the studs, creating a concrete bunker effect that’s somewhat disconcerting.
But the stark casualness seems to put diners at ease in this otherwise schmancy neighborhood. The bar was filled on a recent night with people drinking up Back Forty’s signature cocktails, many of which hit the palate with classic American flavors. The tequila, strawberries and black pepper sour mix in a Black & Red ($12) has the pucker of a Sweet Tart, and the gin, sweet vermouth, lemon and orange bitters in a Bonnie O’Hara ($12) tastes like Southern sweet tea.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the smoky, masculine Padre Friar ($14) made with mezcal and even a touch of mole.
One thing Hoffman has been doing in this new restaurant is putting the upstairs fireplace to good use. The house smoked butter that accompanies the fluffy, yeasty and sweet Parker House rolls ($5) is the first indicator of smoky flavor that touches down at several points on the menu.
A grilled kale and escarole salad ($14) is big enough to stand in as an entree and topped with generous slices of white anchovies. The escarole is slightly bitter, but grilled kale was unexpectedly great.
We loved the mash-up of seasonal flavors in asparagus ($14) with bacon and rhubarb and the creamy Salvatore ricotta beneath.
The New England style clam chowder ($11) made with local clams, bacon and new potatoes and garnished with fresh baby chives is some of the best I’ve ever tasted anywhere – including New England.
As soon as you get settled in American food, a couple of the creative entrees can throw you for a pleasant loop, like the Middle Eastern flavor in pan-seared mackerel with spicy zhoug ($23), a Yemeni sauce made with jalapenos and cumin, topped with a baby leek slowly cooked until nearly falling apart.
I liked the smokiness of the smoked chicken leg and thigh ($20) and the abundant use of seasonal green garlic in the sauce, but got worried about the pinkness inside the leg and didn’t finish it all. This was probably unnecessarily paranoid since I’m sure the chicken is responsibly sourced and local, etc., etc., but it’s hard to deprogram oneself to eat pink chicken.
The burger was reliably good, but we had to ask whether or not it came with fries – it didn’t – and then buy a $6 basket of rosemary fries for the table. These went down easily, but the additional price stuck in my craw. And we had already paid $5 for bread at the start of the meal.
It was these little annoyances that eventually added up to a death-by-paper-cuts bad experience at Back Forty West. The service and item-by-item pricing is more in line with the super casual atmosphere than the high quality food. But most disastrous was the chilliness of the room. I’m not talking about the bare bones design, which already made the bottom floor a deafening cacophony, but the actual temperature. Back Forty West, like many restaurants, likes to keep their windows thrown open to the street, presumably to draw in more customers. But by now it was after 9pm on a 60-65 degree night and a chilly wind was blowing in. When we asked to shut the window, our server told us the manager didn’t like to close the windows because it made the kitchen too hot. (If you can’t stand the heat…) Nor could we close it partway, because apparently “that wouldn’t help anyway.” Indeed, the manager came by and confirmed our server’s suspicion that the windows would not be shut, no matter how cold we were.
It was hard to enjoy the meal when shivering, and the forecast for summer doesn’t look good. Will the windows still be open on a 90-degree day? Perhaps the upstairs dining room is better, but get there early if you want to get a table there at all in this no-reservations restaurant. This kind of my-way-or-the-highway attitude at restaurants has grown in correlation with farm-to-table, and it’s unfortunate that the two can’t be extricated here. Want ketchup with those fries? Sorry, they don’t have it, because it’s not in season.
“Why do they have to put it that way?” the Southern Belle asked. “Why not just say they don’t have ketchup?”
“Because then they wouldn’t be able to explain their philosophy,” I said.
“Their philosophy is very clear,” she said. “Be uncomfortable and eat our food.”
Back Forty West
70 Prince Street at Crosby Street