When my dining companion arrived to meet me at Hearth, Marco Canora's upscale Italian restaurant in the East Village, I was already at work on a cocktail, and the bartender informed us that we could eat there at the bar, or at the pass, where the restaurant has set up bar seats overlooking the open kitchen. Any seat that lets you watch the action in a restaurant's kitchen is the best seat in the house in my book, so the choice was clear.
Just after settling into our seats, our waiter dropped off an amuse bouche, a shot of smoked pea soup, topped with a dab of lemon oil. Savory and warming while still tasting appropriate for the warmer weather we've been experiencing, it was a perfect taste to start our meal.
Hearth's Beet Salad ($13) consists of big chunks of yellow and red beets served in a bowl lined with spiced Greek yogurt and sunflower seeds, and topped with pea shoots. The beets were perfectly cooked, tender with some bite, and a bit tangy, almost pickled in their vinaigrette. The lemony yogurt was delicious, and lining the bowl with it makes for the perfect distribution method—easy to eat and beautiful to look at.
It was at this point that a dish of Potato Gnocchi arrived, compliments of the kitchen. I'm not sure if this is de rigeur for cheapskates dining at Hearth, or if the chef was onto my food blogging ways (I had been snapping pictures right in front of him), but regardless of the reason behind our surprise gnocchi, I must note it here. It was perfect. Impossibly soft, at once light as air and substantial as, well, potato, and swimming in butter, these may not have been the best in the world, but they were the best I've ever had.
Taking advantage of the asparagus that's been showing up at the farmer's market, the Slow Poached Egg ($14) is served atop grilled asparagus and buttery morel mushrooms, and finished with a healthy grating of fiore sardo cheese. Though it was a bit salty, it's hard to go wrong with the veggies-egg-cheese combination, especially when the egg is so perfectly cooked.
Our order of Red Wine Braised Octopus ($16) perfectly charred without being tough or chewy. A small salad of mustard greens and parsley leaves on top was penetrated with octopus flavor, as was the soft, buttery potato slice beneath the octopus. A garlicky aioli was delicious if unnecessary. Like everything else we ordered, this was a simple dish that added up to something much greater than the sum of its modest parts.
While Hearth's price tag adds up more quickly than most Apps Only meals, it was one of the best I've had in over a year of eating for this column. Hearth was a splurge, but it was worth it, for the experience as well as the food; and though we were over our target price, you could go to any number of restaurants and spend more money for a far less memorable meal.