Of course we’re feeling a bit of kale exhaustion. It seems like it burns more calories to chew it like big apes than the leaves actually provide. But for every mediocre kale salad on the menu in New York these days, there’s a good one. An austere, raw rendition at Northern Spy Food, rubbed with salt and olive oil to tenderize the ruffles, will taste of absolution to the overindulgent food lover. A memorable version at Battersby involves fresh and fried leaves, tempered with other greens, and a dressing that goes sweet and lowdown with palm sugar and fish sauce.
Chef Shanna Pacifico developed one for Peter Hoffman at his restaurant Back Forty in the East Village, then brought it to Back Forty West, Hoffman’s sister restaurant, which opened in February. The leaves are in big pieces, softened on the grill and mixed with escarole. A light dressing and some Parmigiano lend richness, and there are crisp fried capers and crunchy chickpeas scattered about, along with white anchovies. Like much of the food at Back Forty West, the dish is generous and nourishing, and you could eat it pretty often. Some people do. “Do you have the kale salad?” an elderly woman shouts at the waiter. “I’ll tell you why I’m asking. Because you didn’t have it last night, that’s why.”
Hoffman is famous for opening Savoy in 1990 in a then-grimy Soho. The chef was a pioneer, seeking out American-grown ingredients instead of trendier French ones and following local harvests to produce true, seasonal cooking, long before kale was MVP. Although Hoffman closed Savoy last year and reopened it with a new name and a more casual vibe, he has kept many of his regulars. Locals who came here on dates now visit to celebrate their family’s milestones, heading upstairs to the cozy dining room with paned glass windows, where the walls hang with crooked illustrations and the cracked skull of some small horned mammal.
Because of the casual, walk-in atmosphere, tourists with shopping bags and sore feet also feel welcome popping in for hamburgers on Orwasher’s potato rolls ($12) and glasses of wine at the awkward side-by-side tables next to the bar. New Yorkers who don’t have to drag a deli salad back to their cubes for lunch treat themselves to the fried chicken on a fat, just-sweet-enough waffle ($15)—the meat tender and juicy, the skin dark and crisp.
The menu changes often, but seasonal vegetables are cooked with care, vinegars and fats applied generously and gracefully. A salad of carrot and Asian pear ($12) had an unexpected depth, coated in a dressing made also with carrots and dotted with lumps of savory blue cheese and Marcona almonds. Here is a plate of carrots you’ll find yourself eating with gusto.
The kitchen is thoughtful. A smooth pumpkin hummus ($13) under a pool of good olive oil is paired with soft, warm pita and charred bread, olives, and pickled vegetables. An excellent trout with crisp skin ($25), cooked beautifully, looks whole and intact, but a steady-handed cook has removed the bones for easy sharing. Pork done in the restaurant’s smoker finds its way into the popular pulled-pork sammy ($12). It comes with a squeeze tube of house-made barbecue sauce, but the meat is so rich with smoke, chile, and vinegar that it doesn’t need the help.
Occasionally, a dish at Back Forty West will disappoint. Like the osso buco ($21) on a recent night, which was tight and tough, a trace of meat clinging to the bone, capped with hard, gnarly fat. Or the tagliatelle special dressed in a goat ragu—the sauce so rich and balanced, ruined by gummy pasta.
More likely though, a good dish will remind you why Hoffman’s restaurant is special, like the slice of tall, cold New York–style cheesecake ($9) drizzled in grape sauce, bolstered with bourbon. It’s creamy with a melt-away texture and thin crust. The dark sauce is made with Concord grapes, those small, purple, slip-skin fruits full of candy perfume, grown upstate in massive quantities and harvested right now. Even the cheesecakes here can taste like fall.