By Laura Shunk
By Zachary Feldman
By Jon Campbell and Laura Shunk
By Laura Shunk
By Scarlett Lindeman
By Susannah Skiver Barton
By Laura Shunk
By Zachary Feldman
At Forge, in a space that looks like the Little House on the Prairie crossed with Dracula's dining room, we are waiting for our bread. The rolls, lovingly tended by an enormous man who looks and sounds like a Russian wrestler, are being slowly warmed on a skillet inside a cast-iron oven from 1906. "The bread is coming, I promise," bubbles our waitress. Perhaps these hunger pangs are meant to evoke pioneer farm life; I take deep breaths and remind myself that Laura Ingalls Wilder probably had to wait for her bread, too. Finally, Mr. Wrestler delivers two warmed rolls to the table, along with caramelized-onion butter. The bread is better than anything Ma Ingalls ever whipped up: homemade potato rolls with the eggy tenderness of brioche. We gobble them and are reduced to staring pitifully at Mr. Wrestler, who has returned to his post by the antique stove.
The ongoing hunger for American countrified cuisine made with greenmarket ingredients and spun upscale (coined "haute barnyard" by New York magazine's Adam Platt) shows no signs of flagging. Get all the farmhouse chic you can swallow at Forge and Hundred Acres, twin additions to the genre. Hundred Acres is owned by chef Marc Meyer and Vicki Freeman of Five Point and Cookshop, and occupies the space where Provence, the 20-year-old French restaurant, once doled out bouillabaisse. Meyer and Freeman have a knack for naming their upscale restaurants after long-gone, decidedly downscale neighborhoods. Five Points name-checks a notorious Lower East Side slum, and Hundred Acres references "Hell's Hundred Acres," Soho's nickname before it was Soho.
Dandelion greens, fried squash blossoms, and seared tuna have replaced Provence's escargot and onglet. The space has been redone in calming, Pottery Barn–style cream and dark wood; a cotton plant puffs out of one corner. The restaurant is packed with people who do not seem the farm-loving sort. "Is that cobra?" shrieked a girl at a nearby table, clutching at her friend's humongous bag. "No, it's python!" came the reply. File that under conversations I never thought I'd hear while eating liver and onions. (Virginia-pasture-raised liver, but still.)
On balance, Meyer's countrified plates are pleasingly straightforward, unpretentious, and generously portioned (unlike his patrons). The food isn't tricky or clever, but it's expertly done, with an emphasis on simplicity and punchy flavors. Tongue-tea sandwiches are much heartier than the "tea" designation implies, featuring thinly sliced whole-grain bread spread thickly with butter and piled high with garnet rounds of tongue. Ramps, the darlings of the greenmarket, are pickled into a relish that tops the tender slices of meat. Another hearty appetizer, the trio of toasts, involves three large crostini teetering on a wooden serving board. Each toast is mounded with a spread: coarsely chopped chicken livers with cherries, puréed smoked fish, or garlicky, shredded rabbit that's as richly good as duck rillettes (or pulled pork, for that matter).
As for the liver and onions, the sautéed calf liver is topped with a tumble of pickled sweet cherries, and the combination is genius. The meat has a clean mineral savor, but one night, it was slightly overcooked. The caramelized onions underneath are studded with fava beans, a nice touch (although it made me feel a bit like Hannibal Lecter; all I needed was a nice glass of Chianti and a homicidal streak).
We also liked the grilled bluefish, garnished with a slick of rust-orange paprika aioli, and sided with a vinegary, crunchy little carrot-cucumber salad, perked up with delfino cilantro, a feathery variety that tastes like a cross between cilantro and dill.
Meyer serves a sweet-onion mayo with his (sadly, limp) fries that's very similar to the caramelized-onion butter at Forge. Both restaurants offer "market greens," fingerling potatoes, fried chicken, fish with morels, squash blossoms, and pickled ramps. Both serve hard lemonade and a cucumber-gin cooler. Both will change their menus seasonally.
Forge is Hundred Acres' more expensive, amped-up, and posh cousin. While the latter is all neutral cream and wood, Forge is dark and rough, with a cave-like black ceiling, uneven brick walls, twisted wrought iron, and drippy white candles everywhere. At Hundred Acres, the cheapest glass of wine is $8; at Forge, it's $12. At Hundred Acres, main courses average $18; at Forge, they average $30.
Chef Marc Forgione (son of famed New American chef Larry Forgione) is in Forge's kitchen; he's trafficking in New American/haute barnyard, but it's fairly high-concept, with more elaborate plating and pricing to match. Chicken nuggets, a signature appetizer, are crusty rounds the size of ping-pong balls (I would have called them fritters). Crunch into them and molten chicken confit oozes out. Smoked-onion remoulade stands in for ketchup. Grilled octopus is an equally good starter, with big, toothsome chunks of octopus joining artichoke hearts and crunchy hearts of palm, all tossed in almond pesto.
Forge suffers from some maladies that are going around right now. We had to beg for bread, but we found our wine glasses full to the brim at all times. (When we ordered the bottle of white Burgundy—the second-cheapest on the menu at $38—our server grinned and said, "We love bottles!" I'm sure you do.)
Nevertheless, much of Forgione's food is out-and-out delicious. Sea-bass filet is wrapped up in prosciutto and sautéed until the outer layer of pork is browned and the fish inside is buttery. Cockles sit alongside, their brine echoing the salty pork. Lamb loin is cooked medium-rare, and its pink juices are soaked up beautifully by spongy morels. Coco-bean risotto is bright with tiny, translucent dice of preserved lemon. For dessert, there's the grandiosely named "Taste of American Classics," a mini-trio of sweets: Root-beer float with ginger ice cream, a tiny crock of butterscotch pudding, and a two-bite-sized chocolate cake dressed up with cocoa nibs. Meanwhile, at Hundred Acres, the best dessert is just a proper slice of lattice-crust blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream. I suppose it just depends on your taste: Do you want a clever take on American classics, or an American classic?