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“Snout-to-tail” comes to Ashland

Saturday 22 January 2011

Eaters in Ashland who are fans of Dragonfly and/or all things fleshy are in for a treat. Smithfield’s, a new restaurant up Second Street behind the Mark Antony Ashland Springs Hotel. Neil Clooney, ex of Dragonfly and winner of many culinary awards, soft-opened this place this month, with a more full opening scheduled for February. Until then, they are doing prix fixe dinners on Fridays and Saturdays only.

If you had been to Harper’s, you will not recognize the interior. It’s much more dimly lit, with a greyish wall paint and copper-topped tables. The abundance of extra furniture, which worked in a welcome-to-Grandma’s-house way for brunch at Harper’s, has yielded to a modern, sparse room that does not distract from the food.

Tonight we enjoyed a dinner of four courses, lead off by an amuse of beef heart with a bit of fried pancetta and a warm red wine reduction. I don’t seek out cuts like heart, but this was very enjoyable–a bit chewy and strongly flavored, with the sauce and pancetta to balance it out.

The first course was a cup of fennel soup with a crab beignet. I got just a hint of fennel from the soup, which is fine as I’m not a huge fennel fan. The crab beignet was interesting, a traditional beignet wrapped around a ball of chopped crab. Very nice, light start to the meal.

The second course was a Scotch quail egg on a bed of chopped greens. If you’re not Scottish or don’t seek out British food, you may not be familiar with these: whole hard-boiled eggs, breaded and deep-fried. It’s normally pub grub, and one or two hens eggs this way can be a substantive part of high tea. But using a quail egg reduced the bulk so that this was a good appetizer. The frying was done just right, not greasy at all, with the thick breading sticking well to the egg even after cutting.

The main was a hanger steak, cooked rare and sliced over a bed of mixed winter greens, with an oxtail ravioli. The hanger steak was a very nicely cooked piece of meat, very tasty. The oxtail stood out in the ravioli; it’s a deep flavor, not gamey but very rich. With the marchand de vin sauce, replete with buttery goodness, this was a very rich dish, so that even the nutrionally-correct portion of meat was very filling.

I would not normally find bread pudding to be a light dessert, but after the main, the evening’s dessert of vanilla bread pudding with caramelized pears and a vanilla custard sauce was refreshing. Extra points to the dessert chef for omitting the usual raisins and currants, which too often come across as unwelcome sugar bombs in the pudding.

Service was good, if a bit rushed at times–not that we felt rushed, but the servers were clearly very busy.

Herself, not a fish fan, looked at the menu for next weekend and saw sturgeon as the main. Her response: “we should go anyway, tonight was so good”.

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