Hearth Lightens Up, But Canora Is Still Blasting Heavy Metal Thunder

Hearth Lightens Up, But Canora Is Still Blasting Heavy Metal Thunder

Really, twelve dollars for broth?” my companion asked as we looked over the menu at Hearth, Marco Canora’s twelve-year-old restaurant in the East Village. In 2016, the determination of value when it comes to a restaurant dish is indeed a complicated affair. But can a person really put a price on a miracle elixir?

In his ossiferous opus Brodo: A Bone Broth Cookbook, Canora writes about broth the way some epidemiologists write about the polio vaccine. He reverently describes how his savory potions of bones and spices brings joint relief to arthritis sufferers. He explains that the hot, marrow-laced liquid helped him become a calmer, more peaceful man, thanks in part to the “gut-brain connection.” Take or leave these psychological, biological, and religious claims, but lord in heaven, that brodo is Hearth’s best dish, and I’ll pay whatever Canora asks for it.

It starts with turkey, chicken, and beef bones, which have the shinola boiled out of them until they’ve fully disintegrated. Canora then adds turmeric, black pepper, and marrow, and ladles your serving into a aqua ceramic bowl, which you’re instructed to pick up with your hands and drink from directly. The bronze-brown liquid smells of dry-aged beef. The collagen makes your lips stick together. The peppers warm your throat. It doesn’t exactly whet the palate; rather, it snaps the senses back into focus after the dulling effect of the short walk in 10-degree windchill that brought you to the restaurant’s door. This is, ideally, how you begin every meal at this brick-lined, dimly-lit neighborhood gem. It is transportive.

But not too transportive. Coming back to life, aided by this rich broth, you see Momofuku overlord David Chang sitting in a corner booth; he’s eating butter-drenched gnocchi perfumed with sage leaves. You hear the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard crooning on the sound system: “Ooh baby, I like it raw.” And you realize you’re here, in the East Village. You are at Hearth, a restaurant that is as awesome as it’s ever been, even though it is, as of two months ago, an entirely different restaurant.

Cured pork belly with marinated fennel (left); Hearth’s updated interior

Hearth opened in 2003 as a partnership between Marco Canora, the opening chef de cuisine at Craft, and Paul Greico, the goateed former wine director of Gramercy Tavern. (Greico left in 2014.) The cuisine was seasonal, Tuscan-inspired American fare, with intricate charcuterie boards, hearty ribollitas, earthy mushrooms, filling bollito mistos, and lush ribeyes for two.

Things were great. Until they weren’t. Over the years, Canora saw his rent rise by 65 percent. He was overweight. He was diagnosed with gout. And as guests who’ve sat at his chef’s counter can attest, when things didn’t go right in the kitchen, he occasionally did his best impression of Gordon Ramsay, shouting and cursing at underperforming cooks.

Canora has long cham­pi­oned a narrative of en­light­ened gas­tron­o­my. At Hearth reborn, he doubles down on that ethos.

But according to Canora (who has recognized me on every single visit I’ve made to his restaurant), he managed to turn his health around, curb his temper, and keep his business afloat, thanks to — well, thanks to soup. He started hawking the stuff (he calls it “brodo,” a nod to Hearth’s Italian influences, though it’s more commonly identifiable as bone broth) out of one of the restaurant’s window in 2014. The Today Show aired a segment. Epicurious called it the new coffee. The New York Times compared it to the other haute addictions du jour, coconut water and green juice. People came in droves.

Then in early 2016, Canora closed Hearth for a week, nixed traditional appetizers and entrees on the menu in favor of au-courant share plates, expanded the offerings to better reflect the healthful, nutrient-dense ethos of his beloved brodo and, in the end, debuted a slightly more comfortable room to match the resulting slightly higher cost of dining.

This isn’t a “they replaced Shea Stadium with Citi Field” renovation. Changes are subtle. Only regular guests of the old Hearth will notice the changes. The bar up front, formerly slate, is now jade marble, and the chef’s counter is now butcher’s block (I’d happily sleep on both). There’s a long, soft leather banquette along the north wall, and the old rust-red ceiling is now painted an airy white. The pendant lamps might be new, but the lighting is still gentle enough to flatter your paper-thin radishes served over buttermilk, the gentle fats of the dairy softening the spice of the kaleidoscopic roots.

Canora has long championed a narrative of enlightened gastronomy. Bar coasters at the original Hearth were emblazoned with Depression-era government mantras: “Save what will keep, eat what will spoil.” At Hearth reborn, Canora doubles down on that ethos. The back of the menu is printed with a 13-section mission statement that touts a ban on “lions of the sea” (swordfish, for example, is off the bill of fare); pledges support for the local greenmarket over the allure of “certified organic”; champions fresh fats (“we change our fryer oil every day”); and encourages everyone to eat offal, by way of a cute little story about a cheetah slaughtering a gazelle for its bloody organs.

So often, the burger is the most middle-of-the-road item on a menu. Here, it’s among the most challenging offerings.

“In the simplest terms, we only use meat from happy, healthy animals,” reads the menu, a statement that would come across as a bromide if not for a more compelling truth that Canora doesn’t publicize: The chef doesn’t like how many young calves are weaned on powdered milk, and so Hearth has, for the time being, eliminated veal from what might be its most famous dish, the ethereal ricotta meatballs, which are now made with beef.

Another rule: “We mill our own flour and polenta from intact, non-GMO, heirloom varieties.” Canora, true to form, puts his money where his mouth is. He cracks his own rye berries for for a red-cabbage-topped porridge (he calls it “risotto”) that boasts the the texture of coarse polenta and that explodes with the flavor of caraway seeds. He grinds whole grain for toothsome homemade rigatoni, dressed with a pork ragu whose deep flavors linger like mole. And he breaks down buckwheat for pizzoccheri – short, earthy tagliatelle that stand up to stinky, stretchy fontina and heady mushrooms better than standard-issue semolina pasta ever could.

Hearth still sells its famous gnocchi, which dissolve in the mouth with all the ease of pommes purée. Just one tweak: Canora switched to a local, small-production outlet for his all-purpose flour. And the butter coating those gnocchi, like all of the restaurant’s cooking butter, comes from grass-fed cows, a pricey product that’s elsewhere may only be reserved for formal bread and butter. These under-the-hood changes contribute to the moral integrity of the revamped restaurant, and they also have a noticeable impact on a salient part of the Hearth experience: dining here now, you’ll likely spend more than you would have last year.

Spanish mackerel with cipollini onions, potatoes, and shellfish cream (left); the Variety Burger

No, the old iteration of Hearth wasn’t cheap, but the new version is downright expensive. Small plates add up, and it’s likely that a proper dinner for two will exceed $100 per person after tax and tip. But it’s worth it; the price is in line with the high quality of the food that Canora and his chef de cuisine, Luigi Petrocelli, are sending out. (The better deal, for those willing to give up a bit of control, is the six-course, $78 tasting, drawn from the a la carte menu.)

Still, some of Hearth’s portions are tiny even by small plates standards. A crispy-skinned cod square served with kale is, improbably, as indulgent as collards with ham hocks, but you’re paying $26 for a fillet that’s not much bigger than a deck of playing cards. Mackerel, illogically served in a bowl (please don’t serve things that need to be cut in bowls), with an almost invisible layer of shellfish cream, delivers about three flawless bites of deliciously oily flesh for $21. Better bang for your small-plate buck comes in the form of pork belly, shaved like carpaccio under a rainforest canopy of fennel. It’s a modestly sized plate, and with good reason: too much more of this salty, herbaceous bliss and the palate would go utterly dead.

No, the old iteration of Hearth wasn’t cheap, but the new version is downright expensive. Small plates add up.

Among the heartier portions are the pastas and grains, including the very good bread service, which is no longer complimentary, nor should it be. Three large slices of Sullivan Street sourdough arrive with a trio of dips: grassy butter, fruity extra virgin olive oil, and smoky whipped lardo from, to borrow Canora’s words, “good clean pigs.” A generous portion of carrot and beet tartare never seems to end, perhaps because the bland creation doesn’t pack the same complexity as the foie gras or trout roe-laced versions at Little Park or Semilla. Instead, try the tart grilled cauliflower over a mash of smoked, shredded trout, a functional one-plate meal for $16.

But the king of Hearth is cow. There are no traditional steaks on the menu, so you get your bovine fix from a few weighty slices of beef neck. The meat is braised, but the cow’s grass-feeding (and barley finishing) means the lean cut has a heft that’s closer to a firm filet mignon than it is to the short rib of a more conventional corn-fed steer. The flavor is concentrated, and doubly so when you drink the clear “sauce,” which isn’t a reduced braising liquid but rather — there it is again — Canora’s beef brodo.

And then there’s the burger. So often, the burger is the most middle-of-the-road item on a menu. Here, it’s among the most challenging offerings. The “Variety Burger” is a medium-rare patty made from a coarse grind of brisket, chuck, heart, and liver. It’s served with sweet potato wedge fries (heresy!) and without a bun (hiss!). The lack of bread means there’s nothing but a slice of melted fontina and a heap of caramelized onions to soften the organ meats’ clean, ferric blow. It is, without a doubt, the biggest risk a New York chef has taken with a hamburger since Daniel Boulud stuffed one with foie gras and truffles over a decade ago, and it’s easily one of the standout dishes of the year.

Desserts, from fried apple donuts to the dark chocolate board (which feels like a gourmet market raid), are great, but they don’t wow the same way the brodo or burger does. And it’s hard not to feel a swell of nostalgia for Grieco’s wacky, annotated wine list and its epic Riesling selections. (There are still tons of Rieslings on offer, though only one by the glass.) Still. Canora deserves credit not just for turning his health around, but for keeping a neighborhood mainstay open and relevant in a city that eats up and spits out so many young venues a year in — let alone a dozen. I’ll raise a cup of hot broth to that.

Ryan Sutton is Eater New York’s chief restaurant critic. See all his reviews in the archive.

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