Say Hello To The HiHi Room, A Great New Full-Service Restaurant From The Court Street Grocers Crew
Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Smith Street for boiled peanuts and Spaghetti Cincinnati.
A decade ago Matt Ross and Eric Finkelstein opened Court Street Grocers on the sort of NYC block (in this case, by the BQE) that you wouldn’t likely find yourself at unless you lived right nearby. For locals, it was a dream-come-true neighborhood sandwich shop, but because everything was so good, and it offered such an interesting menu, Court Street Grocers also became something of a destination, and the beginnings of a mini-chain.
It’s been, and continues to be, a great run for CSG, but Ross and Finkelstein have always wanted to run a “real” restaurant as well, with table service, a full bar, multiple meals per day, the works. And so Smith Street and Cobble Hill get the duo’s brand new spot, The HiHi Room, and they seem to have tapped into the same sort of magic that made their sandwich shop such a hit.
They explained the name to me—something about Morse code and laughing?—but I still don’t really get it, other than HiHi sounds friendly and looks great as a big neon sign in the front window. The fun continues inside, with a busy decor that doesn’t really have a theme other than “things Ross and Finkelstein like“: a huge Italian Tenente Colombo poster, a print of James Ensor’s Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring, a random happy octopus, and so on.
There’s seating for about 50, up front at a large table basking in the neon glow, on stools as part of what is already a lively bar scene, and in the back dining room, which features the single most comfortable banquette I’ve ever sat on. Seriously, this thing, custom built for HiHi, is like an ergonomic dream. And despite this being their first full-service operation, the HiHi crew seem like old pros at the hospitality game. The music’s good too, mostly classic rock with an indie bent.
HiHi is definitely a Finkelstein and Ross restaurant, along with GM/beverage director Mary Ellen Amato, but the kitchen belongs to chefs Walker Stern and Marc Howard. The latter comes from much fancier local favorites Battersby and Dover, both now closed, and together they’ve done a superb job of making the almost amusingly eclectic menu seem less crazy than it really is. One of the best dishes at dinner, for example, is Whitefish Salad, a chunky version of the appetizing classic with a layer of caviar adding pops of flavor, and served with savory buckwheat waffles laid out like a star. It works beautifully, looks great, and signals that HiHi is not going to be playing it safe.
Same with another stellar selection, Spaghetti Cincinnati, the midwest regional dish that has nothing to do with anything else on the menu, and uses Stern’s sweet and oily duck chili for added richness. The pasta is chewy, the cheddar melty, and the raw onions give it some bite—an instant classic. And the best thing I ate over two dinners last weekend may have been the most straightforward, a fat, juicy, wonderfully messy Cheeseburger that makes excellent use of neighborhood butcher Rob Dellapietra’s ground beef. It’s a crowded field of contenders, but this might be the year’s best new burger. The accompanying fries, crisp and salty, are right up there as well.
Not every surprise on the menu has been perfected yet. The Boiled Peanuts, while pleasant tasting, were almost all too swollen and stuck in their shell to actually eat. Plus there were a couple of visibly rotten ones included in the bowl. And the side dish of Utica Greens—wilted escarole, bits of guanciale, pickled peppers, Grana Padano—arrived in a too soggy state to be fully enjoyed. The Crab Louise, on the other hand, was refreshing and bright, a nearly monochromatic plate of butter lettuce, Persian cucumbers, green olives, avocado, hard boiled egg, and green goddess dressing surrounding a generous heap of Jonah crab salad.
The HiHi Room is pretty much the ideal neighborhood restaurant, a comfortable, friendly, hopping spot serving terrific food from a menu you won’t find anywhere else. I will happily, eagerly be biking over there for a whole lot more, all winter long. And come spring, there’s a big backyard! Man this place is going to be popular.
HiHi Room is located at 138 Smith Street, between Bergen and Dean Streets, and is currently open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (dinner starts at 5), and on Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 to 3:00 for brunch, and 5:30 to 10 for dinner. Breakfast is coming soon (hihiroom.com)