When the Spotted Pig grunted into town four years ago, it was hailed as our first gastropub. It wasn’t, really, though. Piggy was indeed superb, but, in actuality, it was an upscale Italian restaurant masquerading as a gastropub. But the label had been applied with Krazy Glue, and it stuck. Concurrently, real gastropubs like Ulysses and St. Andrews appeared and remained largely unheralded—places where you went first and foremost to drink, but stayed because the vittles were so damn good.
Opening in the East Village 18 months ago, secreted amid NYU dorms (though students constitute only a fraction of its customers), the Smith might be our most perfect gastropub yet. Lumbering in one evening to grab a bite before seeing Camera Obscura at Webster Hall, I didn’t expect much. But the pork sandwich ($13) proved so compelling that I stayed and missed the opening act. Piled high on a demi-baguette, the tender and abundant meat had been carved to order; a modest amount of kimchi tucked into the sandwich gave it extra moisture and zing. This is just the sort of small but brilliant innovation that distinguishes a gastropub, I thought, as I happily munched. The sandwich came generously accompanied by a heap of spicy cauliflower, along with tangled masses of well-browned and well-salted fries. “Would you like ketchup?” the waiter inquired. “These fries are too good for ketchup,” I blurted out, spuds dangling every which way from my mouth.
The Smith occupies a vast space that once belonged to Pizzeria Uno, and the décor—applied to a long barroom and three ample dining rooms—is all charcoal grays and ivory whites. You’ll feel like Hercules in the Minotaur’s maze as you try to navigate the place, especially at peak times, when the noise level threatens to split your skull. But what’s with the nondescript name? In common with the usual pub décor, there’s a wall of Victorian black-and-white photos, some featuring ladies in various stages of undress. But sprinkled among them is commercial signage featuring the name “Smith,” comically accounting for a dull name that offers not the slightest clue to the pub’s culinary glories.
Those glories include a salad of blanched green beans drenched in vinaigrette and snowed with shaved ricotta ($9), and a pizza like an elongated Alsatian pissaladière, swarming with caramelized onions and squiggled with crème fraîche. Mac-and-cheese floods the elbows with more cheddar than usual, while a “fork and knife Caesar salad” lives up to its name by being configured as a neat stack of romaine leaves, which must be sliced with the serrated blade provided. Each leaf displays such a uniform distribution of dressing that it might have been applied with a paintbrush. A hefty crouton the size of a baseball bat sits on the side, which can be used to threaten nearby diners eyeing your salad.
Like any good gastropub, the Smith knows the limits to kinkiness. The chicken pot pie comes in a shallow, paddle-shaped ceramic vessel, with lots of vegetables and chunks of white chicken breast (I want dark meat!) in a hearty gravy. The crust is already flavorful and flaky, but has been improved by a coating of browned cheese instead of the usual egg wash, adding welcome richness. The schnitzel ($19) has been fabricated from lamb, rather than the usual veal or chicken. Still tasting of the animal’s grassy pasturage, two hefty cutlets rest upon boiled red potatoes inundated with a tart sauce that—it gradually dawns on you—is a textbook French gribiche. When was the last time you saw real French cooking in a pub? Vegetarians will delight in the bi bim bop, which comes in the traditional gray stone crock called dol sot, though the rice doesn’t arrive sizzling, as it does in Korean restaurants.
The food seems cheap, almost artificially so. The homemade potato chips ($6) represent about three bags’ worth and come in a humongous basket that could double as a gondola on a passenger balloon. The top has been spritzed with a “blue cheese fondue,” which is much better than it sounds. Why, you wonder, is the Smith being so generous with the chips? The key to the riddle is: salt. Eat just a handful of these chips, and you’ll be calling for another glass of grüner veltliner ($9) or a schooner of Kelso ale ($6). As with any pub, the place makes its bucks on booze, which is not a particularly good deal here. They probably barely break even on the food. So, the name of the game for the frugal diner at the Smith is: “Eat abundantly and cheaply, but nurse your drink.”