By: Seth Baker
On a chilly Monday morning in New York’s East Village, the plethora of dining options could verge on overwhelming—coffee shops, fine dining, and the countless locations in between. The Bowery has become a haven for restaurants that are designed to appeal to the musical and artistically inclined individuals who frequent this area, yet more often than not it takes a discriminating wallet to avoid falling into the trap of the $30 entrée.
For those who want to experience the Bowery’s disheveled charm minus the high costs, many of the area’s most popular restaurants offer brunch and sometimes breakfast. The Smith is a prime example, a trendy restaurant that really becomes popular during the springtime and summertime months when the entire façade is opened for outdoor seating. With subway tiled walls, dark varnished woods, and light fixtures that bring to mind dangling light bulbs in a decrepit Vermont attic, The Smith appears to be the love child between a French brasserie and an Alphabet city speakeasy.
While dinner can get mildly expensive for this area, The Smith’s breakfast, with no item on the menu exceeding $9, seems like a genuine bargain. Sitting at the large rustic table towards the back of the dining room, I was perplexed to find that many of the glass bottles placed on the table seemed to be filled with sparkling water, not still. After my initial confusion, I decided that it was a nice diversion from the ordinary.
The waitress appeared quite cheery even while disguising her surprise at the large size of our dining party. Many of my companions around me ordered the fresh squeezed orange juice ($3) which, when arrived, seemed to be comically small, a Lilliputian amount that rested in what appeared to me to be slightly larger than a shot glass. Making matters worse, to my knowledge the glass was never re-filled.
Due to the large number of our party, we were given complementary Cheddar Biscuits ($2) to commence our meal. Being from South Carolina, I am no stranger to a hot home-style buttermilk biscuit, and the ones served at The Smith were no exception—golden on top and flaky when torn in two to reveal a slightly doughy center. From this bite I thought that The Smith would fall under the recent trend of high-end restaurants that focus on non-fanciful simple cooking done well.
However, unlike the increasingly popular New York restaurants The Red Rooster and The Dutch, The Smith fails in taking something comforting and commonplace like oatmeal ($6), and finding a way to slightly alter some aspect of its preparation that makes it unique and justifies its place on the menu. My oatmeal, served with a whole banana sliced on top, came with a plastic maple syrup pitcher of the IHOP variety—cloyingly sweet high fructose corn syrup that required no tree tapping to produce this sticky mess. For a restaurant of this caliber, this was strike one.
Good oatmeal, in itself, stems more from the quality of the actual product than from the creation itself. The quality of the Smith was adequate— warm, nutty, with a nice chewiness that is lacking in those instant oats packets, yet that was about it. Overall, everything was incredibly dull, and when you decide to leave your normal cup of coffee and cereal in the morning for a decadent breakfast, the last thing you desire is ordinary.
What something like oatmeal requires is a creative twist, be it a light brûlée or an added flavor note like lavender. The Smith never took the effort to go outside the boundary of the mundane and expected, further illustrated by the overcooked bacon and non-crisp home fries that were also given complimentary.
The Smith is not a bad restaurant per-se, I would lightly recommend it for a nice Friday night dinner with drinks when it’s at its most charming, but for breakfast, I find that the food preparation in itself was slightly above diner food. When done well, these simple foods can be quite delicious, but when served in such upscale surroundings like The Smith, one expects something more creative, which was never delivered.