It wasn’t the braised rabbit, a favorite of filmmaker Wes Anderson, or even the incomparable veal meatballs that brought me back to Hearth after seven years.
It was Kevin Swan, a young man who once waited tables there and had since been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Swan founded “A Life Story Foundation” to join the fight for a cure. The East Village restaurant, in turn, threw a dinner for the group in September, raising $8,500.
I learned a lot at the Swan benefit, ate some pretty great beef in brodo. And I started going back to Hearth.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I like to think we’re spending more time at restaurants that not only serve great food, but are rooted in our community and give back to those in need.
Like Marco Canora and Paul Grieco’s Hearth. The Italian-tinged American spot, nearly a decade old, turns out exemplary food, features one of New York’s best wine lists and continues to press the case of Sandy’s victims, having raised $12,500 on Monday with another charity dinner. That’s how these guys roll.
So drop by. The brick-walled room, with soft chairs and smooth wood tables, is dark and inviting as you approach the chef’s counter, a walk-ins-only seating area overlooking the kitchen.
This is where Canora himself serves the same maitake mushrooms and butter-drunk gnocchi he dished out at Tom Collichio’s Craft.
It’s also where Canora takes orders, clears plates, busses, cooks, chugs mineral water from the bottle and hollers at underperforming cooks.
Start with the ribollita ($13). A dollar from every purchase goes to hurricane relief. If you’re first lured by the goodwill, you’re then knocked out by the clarity of flavor.
The verdant olive oil, biting parmesan and crunch of breadcrumbs hit the palate first. Then there’s the smooth paste of beans, a legume porridge of sorts. You’re left with the long finish of black cabbage, with its lingering vegetal musk.
You drink this with a sauvignon blanc from Red Hook Winery ($13), devastated by Sandy’s floodwaters. The vino is sweet on the nose, dry on the palate, with a hint of acidity to keep the food moving through your pipes. The Red Hook viognier is just as good, a hint steelier, a bit leaner ($13).
Or perhaps you’ll pair the beans with a $14 honey wine from Austria. Now you know why Grieco calls his wine program confrontational. He dedicates entire pages of the list to cider, mead and the semiotics of German labels.
He writes that the greatest whites in America are Friulian blends from Long Island’s Channing Daughters (which he sells for $89-$91). And he explains his love for Riesling by referencing God, Sarah Palin and NATO.
Wines sold by the glass are also available in half-glass pours. So do a short sip of minerally Darting riesling with the chicken soup, a preparation that’s especially exciting because it’s not. No sriracha foam or bacon gelee. Just a hearty broth and dumplings packing a poultry punch ($12).
And ethereal veal-ricotta meatballs ($29) are red-sauce bliss, collapsing in the mouth with all the resistance of oatmeal.
Mushroom consomme is fortified with smoked fish bellies that impart a powerful umami kick. Add a few bites of fatty cobia and what you essentially have is Kobe soup ($32).
Game abounds at Hearth in seductively restrained forms. The meat doesn’t evoke a varsity football locker room.
Pheasant is smoked over applewood for a subtle sweetness. Venison, rare and silky, is perfumed with berry-like aromas ($36).
Mole-like Boar ragu is tamed by way of cocoa-flavored rigatoni. And the $62 braised rabbit for two is a perfect symbiosis of tender meat, intense tomato paste and savory rosemary. If that sounds too fancy, keep in mind the dish eats like a basket of chicken wings, with polenta subbing for blue cheese. Your fingers turn red.
No, you don’t have room, but order the glazed doughnuts anyway ($11). Forget about those airy beignets around town. These babies are as satisfyingly dense as Entenmann’s.
There you have it: A bit of charity, a lot of calories. You’ll be back.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Most main dishes under $40; tasting menu $78.
Sound Level: Pleasantly boisterous. Around 70 decibels.
Date Place: Worked for me.
Special Feature: Dry-aged sirloin for two ($86).
Inside Tip: Try the James Renwick Jr. cocktail ($12) -- cinnamon soda with a kick.
Back on My Own Dime: Yes.
Hearth is at 403 E. 12th St. Information: +1-646-602-1300; http://www.restauranthearth.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on art and Hephzibah Anderson on books.