There is such a thing as Smith Street fatigue.
I know because I’ve experienced the syndrome. It began with a
disappointing meal in one place, followed by another, and before
long I was looking for new neighborhoods to explore.
But I was lured back to this restaurant row with new places like Provence en Boite (a French bistro) and Stinky Brooklyn (a cheese shop). And in July, the Italian eatery Porchetta opened in the former Banania space.
With several well-established restaurants offering cuisine of that region, it can be argued that Smith Street doesn’t need another. But there’s room for one more if it brings something new to the table. After a beguiling dinner there on Tuesday night, I can say, "Yes, Porchetta adds something special."
After some trial and error in the kitchen, the restaurant’s owners Marco Rivero, the former proprietor of Pappy and Harriet’s Honky Tonk Saloon, a bar and music venue in the California dessert that, Rivero says, was "right out of a David Lynch movie," and his partner in this venture, Rody Carrillo, who served as a manager at Jean-George’s Spice Market in Manhattan, hired chef Jason Neroni. His arrival in late October generated plenty of buzz.
Previously, Neroni succeeded Wylie Dufresne, the much-heralded, creative chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food in Manhattan that closed in March. With his first menu at Porchetta ("porchetta" is an Italian pork dish), Neroni explores his fondness for the beast by smoking, curing and even grinding sausages in-house.
A menu that celebrates the heartiest of animals needs a setting with a touch of humor. Hand-stenciled wood grain runs along one wall near the bar. It’s adorned with a plywood stag’s head, an allusion to an Italian hunting lodge. A back wall sports stylized gold pig motifs that are far more sophisticated than they sound.
The silly notes are offset with a mix of elegant bistro touches such as gleaming copper wainscoting and a gorgeous tin ceiling. The room has a glow of good will that makes it a natural setting for a date.
Neroni takes an imaginative, highly personal approach to the dishes. Just reading the menu is exciting. Chicken liver mousse, country fig marmalade, pistachio crumble, focaccia toast and pickles are the ingredients of one antipasto that captures his enjoyment in mixing rich, deeply flavored ingredients with a single - or several - bright, acidic notes.
Some of his melanges, like a smocked sunchoke soup was more palatable on paper than on the palate, but when he hits his mark (which I’m sure Neroni will do consistently once he’s settled in) the food can be a joy ride.
A surfeit of at-their-peak ingredients undermined the sunchoke soup. With a lighter hand, golden raisins, a lush square of braised pancetta, chives and tangy sheep milk ricotta would lend a delightful sweet/sour, sharp and smoky richness to the mix. Instead, they overpowered the mild puree.
Pastel colors and over-chilled cheese made the "Brooklyn mozzarella" chilly going for a fall evening. In the warmer months, its braised artichokes, slivers of fennel and mint and pieces of candied lemon zest would make a lively beginning to a meal.
We followed the appetizer with one large, loosely assembled, silky "raviolo." Neroni served a woodsy flavored mix of slow-simmered mushrooms with nutty tasting browned butter, then layered the mix with a barely set poached egg, a silky sheet of tender pasta and a heavy shaving of sharp parmesan. Cut through the noodle, and the yolk oozes, adding more richness to the works.
"Sardinian fish stew" featured a moist, silken-fleshed filet of Chatham codfish. "Boquerones" (anchovies) and olives, cooked down to a briny mass, enriched cubes of buttery potatoes and smoky pieces of grilled squid.
A brittle-crusted square of fried pork belly oozed fat and pulled into luscious strands of meat when cut. A compote of winy, dried figs and a pool of "melted" cauliflower lent sweet and nutty touches. As delicious as it was, the plate needed something green with a touch of acidity.
There are just four offerings on the dessert roundup. One perfect conclusion to the meal, and a palate cleanser in its own right, is the buttermilk panna cotta served in a highball glass. The sharp, creamy custard is iced with a layer of clear lemon gelee so tart it almost stung. Fresh slivers of mint and toasted pine nuts graced the dessert’s top. With its chic appearance and stunningly vivid taste, this version gives the old workhorse new life.
Smith Street fatigue? The memory of it is fading fast.
Porchetta (241 Smith St. at Douglass Street in Boerum Hill) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $17-$20. From 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm each evening, a three-course, $25 prix fixe dinner is offered. The restaurant serves dinner daily. Brunch is available on weekends, from 10 am to 4 pm. Closest subway stop: F to Bergen Street. For reservations, call (718) 237-9100.