Warm, exceptionally hearty dishes with rustic Italian influences fill this East Village restaurant. While there is nothing new to eat at Hearth, there is plenty to enjoy.
In reviewing restaurants, a thin, nebulous line inevitably forms dividing good restaurants from great restaurants. While certain parameters like technical dexterity and execution are more clear, other criterion like creativity and originality are inherently vague and imprecise, and seem to often change with the direction of the wind on any given day.
I thought about this line a lot while dining at Hearth recently. I asked what made Hearth good, but not great, and more specifically, I asked if there was merit in a restaurant that lacked originality but succeeded executing a technically flawless dish. Because unfortunately at Hearth, I had the distinct feeling that I had already tried everything on the menu somewhere else, and ultimately somewhere better.
I’m going to wax philosophical for a minute. In architecture school, I took an entire semester-long studio on "Uncreative Architecture." Its thesis was that there is no such thing as originality in architecture, and that today’s students of the discipline should steal ideas from anywhere and anyone, as long as those ideas fuel inspiration and resonate with one’s imagination. The caveat, however, was that this thievery must not be concealed, but rather must be actively confronted and engaged in the uncreative production in order to create great architecture.
Using this framework, I'll now get back to Hearth. The chef Marco Canora opened Hearth after cooking at Gramercy Tavern and Craft under the influential guidance of Tom Colicchio. He billed Hearth as Tuscan-American fine dining with an emphasis on farm-to-table fare. Hm, sounds eerily similar to the concepts pioneered by those original 3-star restaurants.
While the imitative concept could be forgiven, this familiarity continues right into the dishes themselves. Hearth’s Gnocchi (above right), sitting in a pool of luxuriously rich melted butter and sprinkled with salt, pepper and a bit of dried herbs is clearly the counterfeit version of the gnocchi at Craft (above left), which stands up texturally much better than Hearth’s occasionally soft and grainy bites.
The Roasted Cauliflower with sunflower seeds and greens was more compelling, if a little bland, but was made more unsettling by its weak imitation of the same vegetable found at the stronger restaurants on Chef Canora’s past resume.
Main courses like the Beef & Ricotta Meatballs over a heaping mound of cacio e pepe polenta are the most enjoyable, though at $31, surprisingly expensive for a rustic, red-sauce kind of dish. The meatballs, however, were perfectly juicy and tender, and the polenta as creamy and salty as everyone raves. Chef Canora also handles his pastas well, and the Rigatoni with pork ragu, rosemary, and ricotta hits all the pleasure sensors on a chilly winter evening.
Despite many well executed and enjoyable plates, the service often struggles. At my first dinner at Hearth, I was seated for 30 minutes without seeing my waiter, a shocking amount of time during which I would have loved to at least order a glass of wine. The trend continued throughout the meal, with the staff appearing rushed, inattentive, and clumsy. For an amuse-bouche at one meal, I was given a warm chickpea soup in a shot glass, a deeply unsettling way to drink soup. I wondered if this was just the restaurant’s misguided attempt at creativity, but when I looked at a neighboring table, I noticed with disappointment that the same soup was served there in a much larger vessel.
There is skill, fidelity, and pleasure in Hearth’s cooking, to be sure. But true creativity takes courage, and Hearth’s inability to creatively borrow or honestly address or transform its familiar cuisine is what ultimately defines it as a good restaurant, but not a great one.