Entries in Back Forty (3)


The Art of the Cassoulet at Back Forty

Every winter, chef Peter Hoffman hosts a Cassoulet tasting at his Soho restaurant Back Forty, a worthy tradition carried over from dearly departed Savoy, which occupied the same location from 1990–2011.

The only constants in cassoulet are an earthenware pot and white beans. Almost any meats can be included, but duck leg and pork sausage are the most common. Savoy itself used to serve a terrific cassoulet, which it prepared in the upstairs fireplace. We had it in 2009.

There’s a cult of cassoulet, and even a Universal Cassoulet Academy devoted to the dish. Philippe Bertineau, the Academy’s only member based in America, serves an acclaimed cassoulet at Alain Ducasse’s Benoit. I suppose it would be too much to expect him to serve it at Back Forty.

Nevertheless, Hoffman assembled a worthy sextet of chefs (click on the menu for a larger image), including two from his pair of Back Forty restaurants.

The format isn’t ideal. You grab a napkin and fork, walk to serving stations (two downstairs, four upstairs), and take appetizer-sized portions of cassoulet, one at a time. Most of the tables have been removed, so you sit on benches along the outer edge of the dining room, balancing plates and bowls in your lap. It inevitably feels and tastes more like catering than dining.

There were staggered reservations between 6:30 and 7:30, and it was an advantage to arrive early. By the time we left, the later crowd was arriving and, for the most part, eating their cassoulet without a place to sit.

Within these constraints, the staff are efficient: checking coats, clearing plates promptly (you’re expected to re-use your fork), and patrolling the room with wine refills. You can’t beat the price: $65 including wines, before tax and tip, and the proceeds benefit the New Amsterdam Market.

Click to read more ...


Back Forty West

Note: Back Forty West closed in July 2016, ending chef Peter Hoffman’s 26-year run in the space (most of it, as Savoy). After more than a quarter-century, Hoffman certainly owes no one an explanation, but as noted below, he cited economic reasons for turning Savoy into Back Forty West. We have seldom seen such transformations work. Savoy was a special place; Back Forty West was just a casual neighborhood spot, and there are plenty of those. Not even Hoffman’s special touch could make it compelling.


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 (now closed), 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: ★
Why? No longer unique, but still worthwhile


Back Forty

Note: Back Forty closed in late 2014, due to “a difficult landscape and lease uncertainty.” Its sister restaurant, Back Forty West, remains open.


When I reviewed Savoy two years ago, I noted my amazement that chef–owner Peter Hoffman had remained satisfied with just one restaurant after sixteen years in business. These days, any reasonably successful chef feels the itch to open a second place, and soon after, a third.

Sure enough, a year later came Back Forty, a more casual restaurant than Savoy, but in the same haute barnyard style that Hoffman made popular before everyone was doing it. Actually, the décor feels a bit like a gussied-up barnyard, with hefty wooden tables and farm implements hanging from the walls.

In the Times, Peter Meehan reviewed Back Forty a year ago today, finding it inconsistent but promising. Reviews turn up regularly on the food boards, suggesting that this restaurant is pulling in much more than just the East Village neighborhood crowd. Then again, these days practically any good East Village restaurant can consider itself a destination.

The menu is extremely inexpensive for a restaurant of this quality, with starters $4–10, entrées $10–20, sides $3–7, and desserts $7–8. Most of the wines are under $50 per bottle, with ample choices below $40. A quartino of the house red was just $5.

I had come for the burger, which I knew would be quite filling, so I ordered just a small appetizer for my son and me to share, the Pork Jowl Nuggets ($4; below left). Had the server told us that it came with just three extremely small “nuggets,” we would have ordered a second starter. They were extremely good, with just a touch of spice supplied by Jalapeño jam, but after we divided the middle nugget in two, all we had were two tiny bites apiece.

We debated whether to order something else, but we figured our burgers would be quickly on the way. Alas, we waited quite a while for them. At another table that was seated after us, their burgers came before ours did. (The burger seems to be a popular choice; we saw quite a few of them come out.)

This being an haute barnyard, Back Forty doesn’t serve merely a burger, but a Grass Fed Burger (above right). It’s $11 on its own, $2 for cheese (only Farmhouse Cheddar is offered), another $2 for Heritage Bacon (which we skipped), and another $2 for Rosemary Fries on the side.

Meehan at the Times felt that the grass-fed beef “lacks something,” but we thought it was pretty damned good, with a delicious buttery softness, although a tad too small for the bun. The fries were terrific, too. My son, who isn’t easily pleased, thought this was a restaurant he’d happily come back to.

Avenue B is a considerable distance out of the way, so I probably won’t be returning quite as often as Back Forty deserves. There’s a whole pig roast on Monday evening, and I’d certainly love to come back for that.

Back Forty (190 Avenue B at 12th Street, East Village)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *