It was hard not to be a little bit sad when chef Peter Hoffman closed Savoy last year after a 21-year run. The neighborhood, once considered remote, was now overrun with tourists. The restaurant’s farm-to-table cooking, once pathbreaking, was now replicated on almost every block.
Yet, Savoy remained uniquely charming, especially on a winter evening with the upstairs fireplace roaring. Though never really formal, Savoy felt like a special night out. There were always better restaurants than Savoy; none had made it irrelevant. But Hoffman bowed to the inevitable: facing a rent increase, he needed a concept that would turn tables, attract walk-ins, and wouldn’t be dependent on destination diners.
His casual place, Back Forty, in the far East Village, supplied the template: a more laid-back version of the same cooking style; reservations not taken. It worked on Avenue B, so he kept the name (with “West” attached), which meant he wouldn’t get professionally reviewed. I’m not sure if that was a plan or a miscalculation.
The space doesn’t really look that different from what I remember (and what photos show) Savoy used to be. The website sports all the haute barnyard buzzwords that Hoffman pioneered before the rest of us had heard of them: locavore, farm-to-table, responsibly sourced, greenmarket, in-season.
But the menu is a lot different, with snacks under $10, and only three dishes above $21. Soft-shell crab and ramps appear, so you know it’s seasonal (and you would’ve been shocked if it hadn’t been). A grass-fed burger at $12 looks like a steal, until you realize that’s without cheese or fries (each another $2).
Then you look at the wine list, and your heart sinks. What there is, is not very good, or far too expensive. Among a dozen reds, there was nothing I trusted below a $60 2005 Rioja (not great), served in juice glasses. Are real wine glasses, even the cheap kind, really unaffordable?
The menu invites confusion, with categories labeled “Breads”, “Hands”, “Spoon & Ladle”, “Fork”, “Fork & Knife”, and “Spoon”. Everything in the last category is clearly a dessert (including cookies, which I can’t imagine eating with a spoon). But every other category is a mish-mash, as I was soon to learn.
From the “Fork” category, Grilled Kale & Escarole Salad ($14; above left) was straightforward and very good, with creamy parmesan dressing, white anchovies, fried capers, and crispy chickpeas.
Also from the “Fork” category: Smoked Bits Baked Beans ($8; above right). But this turns out to be a side dish, as I suppose I should’ve guessed, when the server asked if I’d prefer to have it with my entrée. Yet, on the bill it’s printed as an appetzier, so apparently the staff is not sure. Anyhow, it was not very satisfying, and I couldn’t really detect much flavor out of the burnt ends that were supposed to be there. The dish was mostly just beans and tomatoes.
There seems to be an on-site smoker, and the kitchen makes good use of it. A sliced pork chop special ($28; above left) shared the plate with polenta, chickpeas, and grilled shrimp. It’s a bit audacious to serve pork so rare, but it was excellent, with a rich, charcoal flavor. Chicken ($20; above right) also came out of the smoker, and was just as skillfully done.
The restaurant was busy but not full on a Saturday evening, which makes me wonder if they ought to start taking reservations. We were willing to give it a shot, and were seated right away, but I wonder how many people aren’t coming, because they don’t want to risk an uncertain wait?
Although Back Forty West no longer has Savoy’s charm, it’s a pretty comfortable place, by today’s standards. The lights upstairs are kept low, the music isn’t loud, and there’s still that fireplace. The service is not very attentive, but if it takes a while to flag someone down, you probably won’t mind lingering here. If only they’d get the wine program into shape.
Back Forty West (70 Prince Street at Crosby Street, Soho)
Food: Casual American locavore
Service: Slightly inattentive, but acceptable
Ambiance: Laid-back, but not loud, and there’s still that fireplace; date spot
Rating: Neighborhood Spot
Why? No longer unique, but still worthwhile