Entries in Peter Hoffman (8)


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


Review Recap: Savoy

Today, Frank Bruni bestows the expected deuce on Savoy, Peter Hoffman’s 20-year-old haute barnyard trailblazer:

It’s easy to forget about Mr. Hoffman and about Savoy, whose leafy, principled menu now seems less a breath of fresh cooking than the default setting of the urban bistro, where a chef contemplates ramps in May, butternut squash in November.

But if Savoy is no longer a trailblazer or paragon — and if, indeed, it makes a more modest impression than a latter-day temple of ethical eating like Blue Hill — it remains an attention-worthy restaurant, on account of how deeply pleasant an afternoon or evening here can be. Its low-key charms haven’t faded since its opening in 1990, and its adjustments over time have been wise ones.

Bruni seems to prefer the bustling downstairs bar to the refined dining room. Such a surprise! Perhaps if the restaurant were renamed Momofuku Savoy Bar, it would earn an extra star. His assessment of the two rooms is completely bass-ackwards:

Ask to sit downstairs. While both dining rooms have working fireplaces, the street-level one feels at once more intimate and livelier.

No, Frank, it’s the upstairs that is more intimate. There are a hundred restaurants that offer what Savoy offers downstairs. Upstairs is where it shines.


Review Preview: Savoy

Record to date: 1–2 

Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Savoy, where chef Peter Hoffman has been doing haute barnyard cuisine since long before you could find it on every street corner.

The Skinny: The Times has reviewed Savoy twice. In 1993, Bryan Miller awarded no stars:

Savoy is a baffling restaurant. It is a seductive little place on a shadowy corner of SoHo, with a brick hearth, folkloric knickknacks and a determined husband-wife team in charge. Yet the food is as uneven as the craggy cobblestone streets around it.

The two-and-a-half-year-old Savoy is the creation of Peter Hoffman, the chef, and his wife, Susan Rosenfeld, who runs the front of the house and makes pastries… This neighborly setting is not the kind of place where you want to discuss your divorce settlement unless you don’t mind unsolicited advice from everyone else in the room.

Bryan Miller, it should be noted, was a much harder grader than any of his successors. Ruth Reichl, on the other hand, was much more generous. Despite significant caveats, she awarded two stars in 1995:

Savoy may very well not be for you. There is something resolutely unprofessional about a place that revels in its unevenness, refusing to do the same thing twice. The service can be slow and the chef’s experiments sometimes fail. But if you have an adventurous spirit, you will discover a sense of fun that is missing in most modern restaurants. Eating at Savoy you get the feeling that the people who run it like food, like themselves and like what they are doing.

The restaurant was remodeled in 2002, leading to this Diner’s Journal update from William Grimes:

A restaurant as tiny as the Savoy doesn’t seem as if it could subdivide, but it has. After nearly 13 years the restaurant has shed its Garbo-like image of secrecy, transforming the ground floor into a modern-looking cafe with diner overtones. The upstairs bar has been moved downstairs, the entrance to the restaurant has been shifted northward to the corner of Prince and Crosby Streets, and huge windows now make the Savoy’s interior almost shockingly visible to the outside world. The upstairs remains old-fashioned and intimate. The brick fireplace survives intact.

Peter Hoffman, the Savoy’s chef and owner, sticks with the same cooking philosophy that has won the Savoy a loyal following over the years, shopping the greenmarkets for local produce and pushing organic foods whenever possible. The makeover now gives him two formats: an all-day cafe menu and a more formal menu in the upstairs dining room.

We have visited the current version of Savoy twice, in November 2006 and three months ago, rating it at at two stars on both occasions. It is precisely the kind of earnest, family-run restaurant that Frank Bruni loves. The chef has since opened Back Forty, a more casual place, in the East Village. Except for that, he has kept his eye on the ball, and we doubt that Bruni would see any point in demoting it to one star.

The trifecta is an outside possibility, but we strongly believe that three-star restaurants don’t hide in plain sight. If a twenty-year-old place that everyone knows about is one of the top 20-odd restaurants in the city, we doubt that Bruni would be the first to notice.

Re-reviews need a raison d’être. Obviously a rating change is reason enough in itself—and, to be honest, most of Bruni’s re-reviews do bring a change of rating. But in this case, given that Savoy hasn’t been reviewed in 14 years, the opportunity to give a shout-out might be all the reason Bruni needs.

The Prediction: We predict that Frank Bruni will re-affirm two stars for Savoy.



Note: Savoy closed in June 2011 after a successful 21-year run. It re-opened (with the same team) as Back Forty.


The restaurant Savoy, in SoHo, has been running a cassoulet festival in February and March, with different versions of the classic dish on the menu, depending on which week you visit.

We liked Savoy when we visited in late 2006, but it never advanced on my “revisit” list. You know the drill: so many restaurants, so little time. Chef Peter Hoffman’s version of the haute barnyard theme, new as it was when he inaugurated it nearly twenty years ago, has since then been replicated at dozens of other restaurants. Few have done it so well.

Some restaurants get you back by lowering their prices. Savoy did it by putting cassoulet on the menu. Next Saturday, March 14, they’re even offering a cassoulet tasting festival for $55, with different versions of the dish offered by six restaurants. (A portion of the proceeds will go to charity.) We weren’t up for quite that much cassoulet, but we were impressed with the sample we tasted last Friday evening.

The appetizers were examples of the simple, seasonlly-driven cuisine Savoy has specialized in. A large hunk of Crispy Pork Belly Confit ($14; above left) came with a poached apple, carrot purée, and cider jelly. A Beet Consommeé ($10; above right) kept company with goat cheese dumplings and baby leeks.

The cassoulet ($32) was cooked in the dining room fireplace. It can be made with a variety of ingredients, though beans are a constant. This version had goose confit, braised pork, house bacon, and Toulouse sausage. Among its many merits, it was one of the few cassoulets I’ve had that didn’t take 20 minutes to cool off to an edible temperature.

The room is one of the city’s unheralded romantic spots, and service is spot-on. The space was nearly empty when we arrived at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday evening, but just about full when we left over two hours later. I don’t know how many of the patrons were there, as we were, expressly for the cassoulet, but it certainly seemed popular.

Savoy (70 Prince Street at Crosby Street, SoHo)

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


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: *


Your Seder Could Be Here

With Passover starting tomorrow, I doubt that anyone who cares about celebrating a Seder is still looking for restaurant suggestions. Still, I thought I’d share my research.

I was surprised how many serious restaurants are offering Seders or Passover-themed meals this weekend:

  • At Savoy, chef–owner Peter Hoffman cooks the Sephardic-accented meal and leads the Seder himself. Price: $110.
  • At Tabla, Floyd Cardoz celebrates Passover Indian-style. Price: $95.
  • At Compass, Neil Annis mixes a modern American and traditional Jewish menu. Price: $110.
  • At Capsouto Frères, which has offered its Seder for 20 years, the menu is Sephardic-themed, and the proceeds are donated to charity. Price: $150.

These are all wonderful restaurants—places I’d be pleased to recommend any day of the week. On paper, Tabla appears to have the best deal, not merely because it has the lowest price, but because it’s the best restaurant of the bunch.

But the pièce de resistance is Passover at Sammy’s Roumanian, where the watered-down Seder (just 20-minutes long) costs $190. Just three years ago, they were charging only $90 for it. We were actually considering Sammy’s—the 20-minute service is right up our street—but at the inflated price we’ll take a pass.

So where are we going instead? L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Same price as Sammy’s; food from another universe.



Note: Click here for a more recent review of Savoy.

savoy.jpgThese days, there is nothing newsworthy about a restaurant menu that’s built around seasonal ingredients sourced from local farmers—what New York’s Adam Platt calls an “haute barnyard.” But when Savoy opened in 1990, chef/owner Peter Hoffman didn’t have a lot of company. Savoy has remained a New York favorite, offering a refined and romantic dining experience.

When you arrive at Savoy, you find yourself initially on the bustling ground floor, which serves small plates and sandwiches, and doesn’t accept reservations. If you’re there to visit the fine-dining restaurant, the hostess leads you upstairs, where the setting is far more serene, with a wood-burning fireplace, warm lighting, and candles on every table.

My friend and I were attracted to the identical menu choices. To start, we had the Grilled Sausage with mustard greens and lentil salad ($10). I thought it was terrific, although my friend was concerned to see pink on the inside of the sausage. (As Frank Bruni has noted, many restaurants are now serving pork rare, but not all diners have gotten used to it.)

Salt Crust Baked Duck ($28) has been one of Savoy’s signature dishes for many years. The server explained that the salt is used during cooking to keep the moisture in, but it is scraped off before serving, so the duck doesn’t taste all that salty. It is an excellent preparation. I especially appreciated that the duck breast was sliced thick, and there was a visible layer of fat on the edges. The accompanying plum dumplings were an unexpected treat, but black kale was rubbery.

The wine list is not long, and features mostly smaller vinyards. We landed on a very fine grenache for $42. Service was very good, aside from one pet peeve that seems to crop up more often these days: no butter knife.

Many chefs with this kind of success would be looking to branch out—launching a second restaurant, then a third. Peter Hoffman just keeps his eye on the ball at Savoy, which continues its charming ways in a renovated 1830s Federal style townhouse in SoHo. For my money, Savoy a more relaxed and romantic atmosphere than Blue Hill, while offering a very similar style of dining that is arguably just as good, or better. By all means give it a try.

Savoy (70 Prince Street at Crosby Street, SoHo)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: **½
Overall: **