Jane, on West Houston Street, has long been a reliable American joint — crowded at brunch and casually elegant at dinner. So when its chef and owners embarked on another venture, I gave the new place, which lacks some of Jane's finesse, perhaps a little more benefit of the doubt than I would have without that context. The initial signs weren't terribly promising. The Smith takes the place of Pizzeria Uno in a neighborhood crowded with New York University students and, despite a handsome redesign, seems to be aiming at the same niche.
The restaurant takes cues from places such as Landmarc, which has achieved success by offering a gluttonous variety of dishes in a middle-American idiom: steaks, pastas, a little bit of everything. Even the oversize single-page menu at the Smith resembles Landmarc's. The food, environment, and oppressively outgoing staff seem carefully targeted at a youthful audience with limited budgets, catholic palates, and speedy metabolisms. Only a few main courses exceed $20, among them a couple of steaks. For the most part, the dishes are rich, simple, likeable palliatives for homesickness: spaghetti and meatballs ($13), say, or tomato soup with melted cheddar ($7). There are creative touches, but most of the inventiveness comes swathed in layers of fat. A starter of "Alsatian pizza" ($8) is appealingly covered with bacon and caramelized onions; but genuine Alsatian flammekueche excels on account of its crisp, flavorful crust, a far cry from this bland, limp rendition. A meaty chunk of pork belly ($9) has rather less fat on it than the cut usually does; as if to make up for that momentary lapse in cholesterol, it's topped with a runny fried egg. And there's not much respite from the heaviness, not in such dishes as a giant bowl of potato chips ($6) slathered with melted blue cheese.
Fried calamari ($9), rings and tentacles alike, are thickly breaded and served "Brooklyn style": under a hearty scoop of coarse, garlicky tomato sauce. Chicken wings, usually an uncomplicated gnawer's delight, are a flop here: They're coated in a sickly sweet honey glaze that actually compares favorably to the sub-standard and greasy meat ($7). Fortunately, the food doesn't often reach that sort of nadir: Most dishes do their jobs just fine.
A main course of lamb schnitzel ($17) shows what the kitchen can do at its best: not particularly much. Decent thin and tender lamb is breaded (the breading tends to flake off), with a squeeze of lemon on top and rich mashed potatoes beneath; the lamb's flavor comes through the coating effectively, and you walk away nourished but without a lingering memory of the meal. Sizable wings of skate ($16) get the standard treatment of capers and brown butter, plus buttery nibbles of cauliflower, in one of the restaurant's rare efforts at refined fare. More usual are the toughish steaks, the "street fair" sausage and peppers, and a good roast pork sandwich ($11), in which the juicy meat is accompanied by cute, spice-coated little cauliflower florets, inside a sturdy roll and sided with too many French fries. The restaurant serves abnormally oversized gnocchi ($11), as big as golf balls at least, and with an odd, bready texture that soaks up their thick cream sauce all too readily.
The dessert list is really just a sundae list, providing vigorous doses of sugar in a variety of forms. I enjoyed the one I got, of vanilla ice cream topped unsubtly with a slab of chocolate-iced layer cake. Other sundaes incorporate apple pie, peanut brittle, and bread pudding. In addition to beers on tap and a generous, varied 20 wines by the glass or carafe, the Smith pours a wealth of cocktails, educationally classified as "muddlers," "long pours," and "fancy cocktails." The couple of drinks I tried — a cucumber margarita and a Manhattan — were, unsurprisingly here, sweet and unsubtle.
Eager to please as it is, the Smith will doubtless have its fans, people who find reliable renditions of their favorite dish there, and wash them down in a comfortable setting with complimentary house-carbonated water. The proprietors' experience shows. It's a well-run restaurant without a doubt, and pleasing some people much of the time is a fine strategy for a restaurant — even as it leaves out those of us who want something a little more special.
The Smith (55 Third Ave., between 10th and 11th streets, 212-420-9800).