“Are you still working on those?”
The waiter surveyed our table, which was littered with small dishes of Greenmarket vegetables.
Yep. Still workin’.
Down on the farm, the term “back forty” describes the small undeveloped lot on a 160-acre homestead where you go not to work but to relax after a hard day tilling the fields. It’s a concept lost on some of the servers at this convivial East Village restaurant, where over several visits, I was frequently asked whether I was still “working” on my food.
Since Back Forty doesn’t take reservations, I began one evening at the bar, working on a house cocktail: a sparkling lemon fizz made with rum, Meyer lemon and soda. It was a bracing grown-ups’ drink, not sickly sweet as so many house cocktails nowadays are, seemingly created for those below drinking age. The superlong recycled blond-wood bar was crowded, and a man next to me—at work on his dinner—moved down so a friend and I could squeeze in.
The restaurant feels like a chic, minimalist farmhouse. It has three dining rooms with wooden floors and plain wooden tables, several of them communal. Plain white walls are decorated with the requisite old farm instruments (perfect for inflicting medieval forms of torture), and the lighting is low. Behind the bar, a misty mural of wetlands is lined with translucent shelves of artfully placed glasses and bottles. You’d expect the picture window in the front room to give onto rolling farmlands; instead you get a view of Avenue B and its shuttered stores, one night under a light dusting of snow. The rear dining room has a view onto a small park.
Back Forty is the creation of Peter Hoffman, chef and owner of Savoy, the small two-story restaurant that has been serving stellar food on the corner of Prince and Crosby Streets in SoHo for 17 years. A pillar of the Greenmarket, Hoffman is the consummate locavore (the word of the year in the new Oxford English Dictionary), and only local products are used in the kitchen here, where Shanna Pacifico is chef de cuisine.
Even the house wines by the glass are local, from the North Fork of Long Island. A bit too local, alas. The short wine list (“sustainable, biodynamic or organic”) is international, with 10 each of red and white bottles, and the wine is served in tumblers. There are also 11 beers; the Reissdorf Kolsch from Germany was phenomenal.
The menu is strange. Of just six main courses, three are sandwiches. You can begin with a choice of four “snacks,” bar food such as rings of squash in tempura batter, served with a mini squeeze bottle of smoked paprika mayonnaise. The batter was light but greasy, and the squash was tasteless. I’d have preferred onion rings. Shrimp and bacon beignets with sweet chili sauce were doughy. They weren’t bad, but didn’t have enough character to inspire another round.
If you shop at the Union Square Greenmarket, you will recognize the farmstead cheese, two delicious nutty pieces served with a fruit compote and mixed nuts. A lovely, delicate chicken liver mousse, accompanied by slices of a densely seeded pumpernickel bread, would have been better without chopped scallions.
There are 10 little dishes “from the garden” on the menu, among them cauliflower with gruyère, sprouts with dried cherries, roasted oyster mushrooms and fingerlings with lardo. I could pretty much identify the Greenmarket stalls they came from, like the slivers of ruby red watermelon radish that added a jolt to the terrific inky-black beluga lentils (they do indeed look like caviar) tossed with tarragon-mustard dressing. (The radish stand is on the west side of the market, near the one selling those astronomically priced boxes of hand-crafted greens.)
Green wheat, also known as frik, was served like tabbouleh, in a lemony sauce with yogurt and mint—very healthy and wonderful. So was a salad of shaved fennel with slices of soft pumpkin, in a light dressing flavored with lemon and turmeric. And although I normally find raw radicchio too bitter, it worked very well in a salad with cranberry beans and chunks of spiced feta.
The “Grass Fed Burger” conjured up an image of little hamburgers with legs, opening their mouths and devouring clumps of grass (locavores, like carnivores, eat herbivores). The burger ($10) was rare and meaty, and came with spicy homemade ketchup, a pickle, and for another $2 each, a slice of farmhouse cheddar and heritage bacon. Toss in a side order of the scrumptious skinny french fries with rosemary sea salt and your burger can add up to $19, a hefty price on Avenue B.