We wanted dinner somewhere new; I picked up a two-week-old copy of the Star and found a gushing review of a restaurant called Smith that opened last fall on Church Street… Kismet. I reached for the phone.
If Fate governed our choice, perhaps it also determined the tenor of the experience. Everything about our evening seemed a tiny bit out of sync. It may have been our fault, booking at an hour that was so unfashionably early for that hard-partying part of town. Smith is in an old three-storey building but there was no one to be seen when we pushed open the door except the manager, sitting at a table looking at the evening’s reservations. The room looked pleasant – a fireplace, old mirrors, a Persian rug. But we only caught a glimpse before we were whisked upstairs to an equally empty but distinctly more dowdy room. We must have been judged and found wanting – too early, too old, too square or too straight… Who can say?
But this was to be our home for the next two hours so we might as well make the most of it. We looked around. Have we not, by now, seen more than enough Edison bulbs to light us (ever so dimly) to the grave? Commute Home’s shabby-chic design for Smith uses them liberally, along with a chandelier or two, lots of interesting, edgy artifacts on the black walls and plenty of exposed, distressed industrial moments. Of course the crockery and cutlery was mismatched vintage stuff. Left to ourselves, we crept up a narrow staircase to check out the third floor and found a bar and also a barre, cutely mounted against a wall of mirrors with dozens of pink ballet shoes hanging from the ceiling. On Saturday nights, apparently, the top two storeys become a wild and crazy happening.
Tonight was anything but. Smith’s short menu is printed on a huge, folded sheet of newsprint so even I could read it without my specs. The wine list is reasonable and well balanced; there are house cocktails, too, of course.
We started with the “olive plate.” Someone in the kitchen must have heard that Oliver Bonacini restaurants serve their olives warm: these ones were piping – not a plate but a bowl of sun-dried Moroccan olives, nuked (presumably) until they were too hot to put into one’s mouth.
The daily flatbread sounded yummy and indeed the toppings were excellent – tender duck confit, tangy salsa verde, arugula, pea shoots, dabs of creamy goat cheese, slices of pickled beet that threatened to take over the whole dish but then surrendered the field to a strewing of hazelnuts. It would have been lovely except the flatbread let down the side. It was stodgy and cold like yesterday’s paratha. Chef Taylor Quinn is a Jamie Kennedy alumnus and ought to know that flatbread needs to be grilled or toasted as it was on every Kennedy menu for 20 years.
We ordered the risotto which turned out not to be rice but pearl barley tossed with diced carrots, lots of cremini mushrooms, fennel and slices of chioggia beet, all surrounded by a halo of golden beet purée around the bowl. On top lay a feta croquette, lightly breaded and fried. As dishes go it was fine – tasty, wholesome, just short on finesse.
My main course was miso-glazed sable fish, a dish created in the 1990s and so often copied it became a cliché, here presented without a trace of retro irony. The fish itself was lovely, lightly crusted with red miso, parting into buttery petals at the touch of a fork, but I wasn’t so dotty about the accompaniments. Bok choy was as bland as crunchy water; shemiji mushrooms contributed nothing but slipperiness; a superfluity of mushroom-ginger broth was the weakest liquid imaginable. I thought my taste buds had malfunctioned but no, I could taste the bitter phenolics of a still-hot Moroccan olive.
Braised Moroccan chicken was much more successful – a huge portion of tender chicken thighs and breast, nicely spiced and set over a rowdy jumble of couscous (again misidentified as rice – the menu calls it “pilaf”), more mushrooms, olives, tomato, preserved lemon, onion and what I think must have been dates. Hearty and lots of fun.
We finished with a Riesling-poached pear that was becomingly fresh and aromatic, sharing the light poaching syrup with a couple of apricots, a star anise pod, a scutum of cinnamon and a sprig of fresh mint. On top was a scoop of gorgeous lavender mascarpone ice cream.
It was not yet nine as we left the establishment. By now the main floor was packed with merry men tucking in to chef’s fare, a most convivial scene.
Smith is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and serves brunch on Saturday and Sunday. 553 Church Street (at Gloucester Street), 416 926 2501. Check it out at smithrestaurant.com.