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Brunch at The Smith, 12/01/07

Just as some species of animals do, many New Yorkers, such as yours truly, go into hibernation-mode during the winter months. For me, this equates to eating too much and spending most of my free time indoors, either sleeping or watching television. The only way you’ll get me out of my apartment willingly (and with a smile on my face) is for a meal. OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but my favorite thing to do on a blistering winter weekend in Gotham is to go to brunch. This gluttonously fabulous midday meal tops my list because: It’s heavier and much less expensive than dinner; and unless we’re celebrating or sympathizing, conversation usually isn’t influenced and/or masked by alcohol. Since my last relationship ended, brunch has been a wonderful outing for me and my busy girlfriends to catch each other up on everything from work, to gossip, and (gasp) the NYC dating scene!!

My friend Linda and I decided to schedule a brunch date at one of the East Village’s newest American bistros, The Smith. This establishment was recently opened by the same owners of Jane and the Neptune Room, both having solid reputations in Manhattan. The Smith’s buzz had been positive thus far, and I was eager to check the place out for myself.

Linda and I had arranged to meet in Union Square then walk to The Smith together. Located on 55 Third Avenue (between 10th and 11th Streets) it was just a short trek away. Unfortunately, the day greeted us with bitterly cold weather and blistering winds, making this quick walk extremely uncomfortable. Finally, we reached Third Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets, but couldn’t find the restaurant. I pulled out the wrinkled paper with The Smith’s address from my pocket to confirm that we were in fact on the right street, while Linda began looking around in every direction. Finally, after squinting long and hard enough to make a Botox-prone Los Angelesite nervous, I was able to make out what I thought read “The Smith” on a store front door (either that or I was hallucinating from my hunger pangs) across the street. We crossed Third Avenue and just like a thirsty man sees an oasis in the middle of a dry desert, two hungry girls had found their restaurant! Alas, we had arrived!
From the outside, The Smith is very non-descript and doesn’t have much of an appealing exterior design. However, as you approach the double-entry doors modestly announcing “The Smith” in small white lettering, the charm begins to set in. To the right of the doors, and what appears similar to a drive-thru window at your favorite fast food restaurant, reads “Window Service.” Interesting concept.
Linda and I arrived at The Smith at 11:25 a.m.; just five minutes shy of our 11:30 a.m. reservation. We were greeted by a delightful hostess who promptly led us to our choice of seating, as there were only a couple of other diners at the restaurant. Remember folks, 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning is considered early by East Village standards.

Each booth had a tall post with hooks, allowing diners to hang their coats, scarves, etc. Nothing like a little extra storage space in New York City! Once seated, I was really able to study and embrace the interior design and theme of the restaurant. The dining room was detailed with old-fashioned subway tiled floors, ice cream parlor tables and chairs, booth seats, black and white photo collages, chalk boards with hand-written specials in perfect cursive writing, and a long and voluptuous bar. Despite the smell of fresh paint and a newly constructed space, I felt transported to a century’s old bistro in Paris. The environment was warm, friendly, charming and polished. There was pleasant and familiar background music that actually remained in the background. This is not the type of restaurant where you feel like you’re eating in the back seat of a newly-licensed, hard rocking sixteen year olds first car.

Within a minute of being seated, Linda and I were greeted by a friendly waitress and handed menus. We were given a choice of complimentary flat or sparkling water, and decided to go with flat. While the waitress was fetching our water, we were served a sliced mini baguette and a small plate of butter which had been liberally sprinkled with large crystal granules of sea salt.

Before we could spread the butter on our bread, the waitress had returned with our water and a plethora of knowledge about the restaurant. The “Window Service” (the drive-thru-looking window near the front doors of the restaurant) is intended for people on-the-go and in need of a quick bite. Until weekday breakfast begins (said to be coming soon and served daily from 8:00 a.m.), the “Window Service” opens at 10:00 a.m. on Monday through Friday, and 11:00 a.m. on weekends.

While The Smith wasn’t boasting one or two famous food items, the menu had many unique and creative spins on traditional dishes. Our waitress gave us a couple of her personal recommendations, then took our drink orders and left us alone for to peruse the menu. Linda and I decided that we must get one appetizer, one sweet breakfast item and one savory breakfast item. Simultaneously, our waitress returned with our drinks and proceeded to take our food order. We decided to split three dishes beginning with the Alsatian Pizza, the French Toast with Maple Butter and Caramelized Bananas and the Potato Waffle (the latter two came recommended by our waitress).

My skim milk latte was the perfect temperature to enjoy immediately. The espresso was a stronger blend than I’m used to, and I should always remember that skim milk can’t do as much for a latte as whole milk can. Perhaps its mediocrity in taste could be blamed on my own poor milk judgment. Linda ordered a simple bag of Earl Grey and made it truly English with a splash of milk and sugar. We tore into the crusty baguette and knife-fought over who would get the bigger pieces of sea salt crystals on their portion of the butter. The bread was fresh and perfectly crisp on the outside divulging a soft and chewy center. Each bite of baguette was truly amplified by the contrast of sweet butter and crunchy sea salt.

Not fifteen minutes later, our Alsatian Pizza arrived with two sharing plates. We honestly had no idea what to expect and the only clues that the menu gave us were a couple of the pizza’s ingredients, such as bacon and crème fraiche. The pie arrived on a large oval shaped plate and was pre cut in to eight pieces. The crust was about as thick as a Saltine cracker and was generously lathered with golden caramelized onions, crispy chopped bacon and slivers of julienned Italian parsley. Similar to the icing that you get to drizzle over your Toaster Strudel breakfast pastry, the pizza was lightly finished with crème fraiche. I wasn’t sure if this dish would end up being too rich, but after my first bite, I realized just how perfectly these ingredients had synchronized. The crust was buttery and crispy; the caramelized onions were sweet while still holding true to that flavor that makes an onion an onion; the chopped bacon crumbles were crunchy, salty and smoky and the crème fraiche made for a subtly moist and delicate finish.

Our two entrees arrived about fifteen to twenty-minutes later. The French Toast with Maple Butter and Caramelized Bananas was placed in front of me, and the Potato Waffle was placed in front of Linda. We decided to eat some of what was in front of us, and then we’d switch plates as often as need be.

The French Toast was made with thick wedges of Challah bread that had been griddled to a deep golden brown, topped with a couple of spoonsful of caramelized bananas, and finished with a light dusting of powdered sugar. Before dousing the plate with syrup, I decided to try the caramelized bananas first. Imagine pieces of chopped banana that are almost drowning in semi-hard caramelized sugar, looking strangely similar to what a quarter-sized free form crème brulee would look like. Now, imagine tasting a cooked and perfectly ripe banana slice that has been enveloped with gooey and crunchy caramelized sugar. Wow. My second bite would be of French toast, still without syrup. Upon cutting into the toast, I was elated to see that the center of the bread appeared custard-like. The first taste was buttery, slightly salty and crispy from the griddled exterior. As my teeth sank in further, the exterior gave way to the creamiest interior that reminded me of a vanilla soufflé. Finally, I was ready to drizzle the plate with syrup. The trinity of the griddled Challah bread, caramelized bananas and syrup was delicious. I tasted butter, banana, custard, maple and burnt sugar at the same time that I experienced soft, crispy and crunchy textures. If this dish had only been a little bit warmer, I would have deemed it French toast perfection.

Had Linda not reminded me that we needed to switch dishes, I would have kept eating the French toast. Luckily, she awoke me from my gluttonous trance and we switched plates. Imagine pouring potato pancake batter into a waffle iron, and voila! You have a large potato pancake shaped like a waffle. Now, add some sautéed spinach and caramelized onions on top of the waffle, and then place poached eggs and thick Hollandaise sauce atop the greens. You’ve got yourself a Potato Waffle! This was one of the most ingenious, clever and creative dishes I’ve ever eaten in my life. The waffle, with its many crevices, is the perfect outlet for the poached egg’s yolk and Hollandaise sauce. Potatoes typically accompany Eggs Benedict, so a potato waffle makes beyond amazing sense! Plus, it’s much easier to cut in to a potato cake than it is to cut in to a toasted English muffin. And because of this clean cutting fact, the Potato Waffle is officially “date friendly.” My first bite was as comforting, amazing and unforgettable as a first love. The potato waffle alone tasted just like my grandmother’s homemade latkes during Hanukah; crispy, buttery, moist and beautifully laced with shredded potatoes. Paired with the silky sautéed spinach, traces of caramelized onions, soft and creamy eggs, and the thick and salty Hollandaise sauce, the Potato Waffle is enough to make The Smith famous on its own.

Linda and I were very impressed with our brunch at The Smith. Despite being a new restaurant, we didn’t notice any glitches or kinks in the service that we received. Everything from the baguette and butter, to our drinks, water refills, and our meal arrived in a timely fashion that was neither too rushed nor too slow. From the moment we entered the restaurant to the moment we exited, an hour and one-half had passed. The dining room became lively at approximately 12:30 p.m. with a mix of young and older sophisticated professionals in small groups or on dates. Despite the increase in occupancy, this had no effect on the overall acoustics of the dining room, making conversation audible and enjoyable. And best of all, the menu prices are completely legit.

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