Friday, March 18, 2016


Back Forty West's name  might be a little confusing if you're not familiar with the history.  Peter Hoffman, when he still had Savoy, opened a rustic little farm-to-table over in Alphabet City called Back Forty.  When he shuttered Savoy, he decided to create a sister for Back Forty in its location, technically west of the original but still on the east side of Manhattan's grid.  But the Back Forty part refers to the acreage of a farm that lays fallow or unused: it implies a little rural wildness.  It's a good name for a chef that is most notorious for peddling his bike through the Greenmarket, foraging for produce and inspiration.  But at Back Forty West, while the Greenmarket's influence is palpable,  I wish the food had been a little more inspired.

The dining room is very similar to how it was as Savoy.  Exposed brick and reclaimed wood prevail, and a hodge-podge of ingredient-centric photographs, painting and illustrations bedeck the walls.  The servers are dressed casually; you would not know them from the guests.  This is occasionally the case with the service itself, as they sometimes go a little absent when you might need something, although there are few problems to address in a restaurant that prides itself on being this simple.

The menu is pretty brief, and sometimes a featured seasonal ingredient makes multiple appearances, giving a sense of redundancy.  Winter squash currently performs as soup, salad and crostino, but 'tis the season for gourds, I suppose.  A beet salad sounded fresher, but in reality it was practically bereft of any beets whatsoever, sporting perhaps a tablespoon of golden variety in a tiny dice, completely obfuscated by a slew of grapefruit segments and few errant sprigs of mache.  I didn't want fruit salad for dinner: I never do.  It was doubly unfortunate because the salad was dressed in an alluring piney flavored vinaigrette which would've paired really nicely with  a good, deeply roasted beet... those that didn't exist.  I should've gone for a side dish of cauliflower caponata as a starter, which I wanted to try, anyways, but I ordered poorly.

As is de riguer for menus nowadays, the descriptions are minimal at best, but here at Back Forty they are not a simplistic ruse to belie the complexity of the actual dish: the actually illustrate exactly what you get.  Thus, an MP steak ($38) with mushrooms was simply that, a hulking hunk of beef over  slightly watery sauteed white buttons, tufted with a daub of pesto.  The meat actually lost a lot of its heft, however, when you lopped up the sizable fat cap flanking the cut, leaving the edible portion rather modest.  Plus, there're no starches on hand unless you order them aside, so plates can seem somewhat stark.  No bread on the table nor to order, either, which makes getting something from the For the Table section much more appealing, given its primarily starchy and/or snacky characteristics.  The size of the protein on the plate is large enough to fill you up, however, although I see an vicious brawl between Dan Barber and Chef Hoffman brewing
 imminently: these platings are not sustainable in a larger, eco-agricultural model.  But I consoled myself somewhat ordering Kentucky carp, both for my bravery in trying carp and also for helping contain the onslaught of the invasive species that is overcoming its new non-native habitat.  It's a nice fish- mild and meaty, leaving me to feel not nearly as daring as I initially imagined,  and it also appears a starter in the form of za'atar spiced Fish Ribs, which are very popular.... and perhaps more daring.  The waiter's description of their bony fattiness was slightly off-putting, however.   So I went with it as a main,  squiggled with a zesty mustard and stretched over a pile of salad greens seasoned with a small daub of caramelized sweet onion, and a lot of random, whole toasted walnut lying about.  I'm not sure what the nuts were meant to do, but they were freshly toasty and tasty as good walnuts are.  Aside from the walnuts, just a little lettuce and few confit
 onions adorned the plate, and they don't really qualify as adequate vegetable for me, so an excellent side dish of brussels sprouts, toasted with housemade BFW mustard and shallot, were more than welcome.  They were by far the best things we ate that night, and although I was the one who order them, my sticky-fingered tablemate couldn't keep her mitts off of them until they were gone, gone.

We weren't necessarily hungry for dessert so much as curious, and with three of us it was a good opportunity to share one just for tastes.  We agreed on the Tarte Tatin, which was ample enough for three beyond just tasting.  Back Forty's version uses quince and apple, which seemed appealing in concept but the quince was so starchy and riddles with offending bit of seed that it sucked all the life out of the apple, which was far superior- juicier, sweeter.  Sometimes it does not pay to mess with the original.  The crust was magnificent, though, a free-form disk that tasted just like my mom's stellar pie crusts (I regret to note of yore, as she rarely bakes anymore, much to my disdain), so it was a little tragic that they didn't just stick with apples and the milky lashings of cream.

Overall, I found Back Forty West just so-so.  I read better things about their brunch, which seems about right given the fundamentals of brunch, so if you're game for $17 eggs it might be a better choice.  Given the elemental nature of the food, it actually kind of seems like a farmer might be back there cooking, up from his own back forty. Surely Hoffman's presence is intermittent at best.   Good ingredients and seasonality?  Check.  Nuance and finesse?  Not so much.   Here, the name really does tell the story.

70 Prince St. @ Crosby St.
Telephone: (212) 219-8570

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