New Opening: Heartwood

26 Apr

Every time I find out that I know someone, who knows something, who is opening a restaurant, I am both excited and concerned.  Excited because I am fascinated by the business of opening a restaurant and love being one of the first to try a new place. Concerned because if it sucks, or is even just average, I’m going to write about it and that someone, who knew someone, may read it.

So when I heard that Mike knew someone who knew someone who was opening up Heartwood, in the space previously occupied by the famous Donatella, I was even more concerned.  Lately, I feel like Chelsea has been opening restaurants that excel in abundant averageness. The old standbys have gone away, and now it seems like a revolving door of places that are just okay.  The area has spot after spot of places to get something to eat, and definitely something to drink, but no place you go out of your way to dine at if you don’t happen to be passing by while hungry.

But the pedigree sounded pretty great:

  • Nick Mautone from Gramercy Tavern
  • Nick Fiorentino, former bread baker at Daniel
  • Bradford Thompson, from Lever House and Miss Lily’s

Heartwood just opened on Monday, but it already got a bit of buzz on Eater, so we checked OpenTable for a reservation as we walked across town towards the restaurant…made one for 5:30 .  We got there a bit early, and it turns out the kitchen doesn’t open until 5:30, so we had a drink at the bar.

The space has a great look that’s right up my alley, with mason jar chandeliers and a comfortable dining room.

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Soon after we ordered, a bread basket was whisked to our table, outfitted with the house brown butter and a spicy mustard, as well as some nice rustic slices of bread and delicious salty pretzels.

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Now THIS is how bread baskets should be served.  Too many restaurants treat their bread baskets as an afterthought, but it was obvious that someone who truly cares about bread put this together, and it was a great opening scene.  The brown butter was slightly sweet, which was actually really fantastic, especially with the salty pretzel.  Turns out it’s sweetened with agave, which I usually don’t like, but was excellent here.  The mustard was SUPER spicy apparently (sinus clearing, in fact).

We ordered the skate fingers, which were tempura fried skate that was supposed to be served with jalapeno tartar sauce.  Since I cannot have peppers, they made a parsley aoili for our dish.

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I absolutely love sweet and sour chicken from Chinese restaurants, with that perfect golden crisp. This reminded me a lot of that kind of crisp, but a much cleaner flavor and the light skate inside was delicious.  It was perhaps a tiny bit on the greasy side, but I didn’t mind it a bit.  The aoili we had was pretty good, but it was made great by adding the tart acid of the lemon to the dish. That really made it sing.

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We had been seated at one of the few 2-tops in the back near the pizza oven, which was tucked away from the crowd.  I thought it was a really fantastic seat… nice and quiet and with a perfect view of the action.

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Apparently, the pizza oven is a Stefano Ferrara that was previously gold plated.  But it turned out a perfectly crusty pizza even though it is now repainted red.

We ordered the “When Peter Luger Goes Out For Pizza” which was topped with braised short ribs, creamed spinach, and horse radish.  While I have no idea how they are getting away with that name, I am very glad that someone was genius enough to put this pizza together. All the ingredients went so well together, were so well balanced, and made for a truly lovely and flavorful pizza.

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It was also served with shisito peppers and smoked flake salt. I don’t know if this was just for this pizza or comes with all, but I added a bit of salt to the pizza and it brought it to a whole new level (I love salt).

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The upskirt shows a lovely bit of char.  The pizza wasn’t all that crispy at the inside, however, the flavor of the dough and toppings were so good that it didn’t matter in the slightest.  Great pizza.

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We also decided to split the “Crisp Skin Chicken” which was described as coming with “day old bread sauce” and soft herb salad.

But when it came out… it looked a bit scary, as indicated by Mike’s cautious finger below.  Why scary?  See that shade of orange?  It’s a very particular shade.  It’s the shade of death. (Not quite death… but a very, very itchy mouth potentially filled with blisters).

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It did look beautiful, however.

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The waiter apologized for the mistake and offered to leave it for Mike to eat and they would make me a new one.  We were already over-stuffed, so Mike said he was fine just eating the pepper-free one that was to come.

I was also a bit surprised to see that they described what looked like parsley garnish as an herb salad.  Nothing wrong with that at all, but perhaps something that was billed a bit strangely.

It took some time for the new version to come out, and the waiter apologized to us again that each time it takes 15 minutes to prepare and it would come up as soon as it could. I could tell he was upset about the mistake.  He was upset he couldn’t get the revised chicken up sooner and that the mistake happened.  Poor guy.

But when the chicken did make it’s entry without peppers, it was worth the wait. When a chicken is billed as “crispy skin,” it certainly should have super crispy skin.  Too often I’m disappointed by chicken skin in restaurants, but this was not one of those times.  It was perfectly crisp and somehow the meat inside was super moist.  And the pan jus with it was a really fantastic sauce.

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Our waiter was kind enough to apologize for the mistake again and offered to buy us dessert.

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We chose the chocolate caramel brownie pie.

It was SO rich, but that dark chocolate in a very rich crust was great, and the caramel reminded me of the salted bourbon caramel sauce I love from Fat Toad Farm.  The cherries on top were a bit off-putting when eaten alone.  They tasted a bit, maybe, medicinal?  And I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  But when our waiter told us that they are soaked in SoCo, it all made sense.  I think they should probably mention this, because wrapping my brain around “cherries in SoCo” made them taste more like that and less like medicine.  The pie itself was really great though.  A nice balance of sweet and bitter, which a lovely texture and delicious crust. And that caramel… give me more of that any day!

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As we were leaving, we had a pretzel left in our (now second) bread basket (it was just so good).  I sheepishly asked if they could give me a to-go bag for the one pretzel to have for breakfast tomorrow, and the waiter nicely came back with a box of TWO pretzels for tomorrow.  One of my favorite touches of fancy restaurants is when they leave you with a parting gift, so this made me incredibly happy.

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And the best part? Our entire meal, including 3 drinks, came to under $100.  It felt like a gourmet meal and I was pleasantly surprised when the bill came.  (Love when that happens!)

So as it turns out, I had nothing to be afraid of.  Not only was this restaurant way above average, but Mike and I left there abuzz about how good our meal was.  Not only was it great quality at a great value, but the food felt special, different, and inspired. That doesn’t happen very often.  So not only is there now a great place to go in Chelsea, I would say it’s worth a trip to Chelsea just to visit this great new restaurant.

On our walk home, Mike and I talked about how we hope that they will soon start serving brunch, and how that bread baker would make some excellent breakfast baked goods and that adding an egg to the pizza would be incredible.  Also, I cannot image anything better than a short rib hash made with the incredible meat they serve on the menu twice (once on a pizza, and once as a main).  I’m glad to have been able to try dinner there, and I look forward to going back for many more meals.

Total Nom Points: 8 out of 10

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