Dining with Moira Hodgson

Hearth: A Pocket Version of Craft

In Easygoing East Village

At first glance, Hearth looks like the sort of East Village place you’d drop into for a cheap, casual meal-where the chef is not well-known, you don’t need a reservation and, with any luck, you could cut your bill in half by bringing your own bottle of wine. But as I waited at the bar one evening, I noticed that many of the customers in the packed restaurant-men in striped shirts and loafers without socks; women in linen suits, decked out with expensive jewelry-were not the sort of people you’d expect to encounter just a couple of blocks from Tompkins Square Park. They’d look more at home at a place like Gramercy Tavern, which is where Hearth’s owners, Marco Canora and Paul Grieco, used to work.

Hearth is noisy and spartan, with brick walls, plain wood tables and a bare cork floor, but it serves serious food. Mr. Canora’s last post was chef de cuisine at Craft, Tom Colicchio’s restaurant in the Flatiron district. Hearth is like a pocket version of Craft, with the same focus on fresh seasonal ingredients, impeccably cooked-only here, instead of customers mixing and matching ingredients from different columns on the menu, the chef does the job for you. You can watch him at work, if you like, from a seat at the counter in front of the cramped open kitchen in the narrow dining room at the back. It’s a marvel that this small, sweaty band of cooks working here can remain on speaking terms in such a tiny space, let alone get the food out for an 80-seat restaurant turning tables.

You may also eat at the bar in the main dining room. Next to me, a man in a business suit was working his way through a plate of monkfish, cut in thick chunks wrapped in prosciutto. I was tempted to lean over and grab one when he wasn’t looking. But, at last, we were shown to one of a line of tables along a wall covered with white fabric (and secured with copper bands) in an attempt to absorb some of the sound. The lighting above the tables next to the wall was awful, throwing dark shadows over people’s faces-a blow that even the small candles, in perforated metal holders, failed to soften. It’s more pleasant by the windows on the other side.

A busboy set down narrow glasses filled with an unctuous yellow liquid. I could only make out one word from his description: “Jello.” No sooner had we taken a sip (it turned out to be a delicate purée of yellow peppers) than there was that loud shriek from a table behind us. That woman again-the one with the herd-of-cavalry-on-a-tin-roof laugh. She follows me everywhere. Time for a bottle of wine.

The list, put together by Mr. Grieco, is excellent-quite short but well chosen and fairly priced. We ordered a bottle of Hirsch Grüner Veltliner, which was one of the least expensive bottles at $31 (also available by the glass), and looked at the menu. There are around a dozen first courses and main courses to choose from, plus a five-course tasting menu for $58.

“I will sacrifice myself on the altar of foie gras,” announced one of my friends, without further ado. Wise choice. The foie gras torchon is a thick slab served with an apricot marmalade that cut the richness and brioche toast. Mr. Grieco brought over glass of Jurançon, a flowery sweet wine, to go with it. The red snapper crudo, at the low end of the calorie scale, consisted of gleaming squares topped with lemon, red pepper, rosemary and a sprinkling of sea salt. You could taste the sea.

Mr. Canora has brought several dishes from Craft with him: side orders of those heavenly hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, the creamy polenta and the puffy balls of gnocchi; first courses of rabbit ballotine, which is garnished with a sharp green-olive tapenade, and plump, marinated sardines, filleted and topped with sofrito crudo and parsley. The sardines are almost as good as those you get harborside, straight out of the sea and grilled.

Raw, peeled fava beans are tossed in olive oil and sprinkled with oregano and slivers of pecorino cheese. It’s a traditional Roman dish, eaten in spring with a bottle of chilled young frascati. The first time I tasted this, it was a revelation. When I was growing up in England, favas were called broad beans, and were boiled to a pulp. We’d never peel the skins: What a waste of all that roughage!

I was disappointed with the vitello tonnato, which was surprisingly tough, although cut in paper-thin slices. But it was topped with a generous layer of good, thick tuna sauce sprinkled with capers. Pappardelle with mushrooms-morels, bluefoot and hen-of-the-woods-is a one-note samba. It was dull on its own, and would be better matched with something else. A lamb chop, perhaps.

But the “lamb trio” is another story. It consists of tiny, rare chops, deliciously fatty ribs and a truly great lamb sausage, served with zucchini and chanterelles. This idea of variations on a theme comes into play again with a plate of Chatham cod served with baccalà mantecato, a Venetian dish of a garlicky creamed salt cod. The fish is topped with a bright red pile of diced peppers and surrounded by a ring of salsa verde.

The best dessert we tasted was a special of the day, the coconut soufflé with chocolate sauce. It should go on the regular menu at once. The friend who ordered it (and had started the meal with the foie gras, no less) pronounced it “a Bounty bar gone to heaven.” The other desserts we tried weren’t nearly as good. The warm plum tart with lemon thyme ice cream was ordinary, and the cherry apricot crisp cloyingly sweet with a tough crumble. The milk chocolate tart was pleasant but forgettable-redeemed, however by a rich peanut-brittle ice cream.

Hearth may lack the coziness its name implies. But it has a friendly staff and some great food. Reserve in advance-but if you don’t, you can always show up at the last minute and hope for a seat at the kitchen counter or the bar. It’s worth the wait.

Dining with Moira Hodgson