Buvette in the West Village: Jody Williams Does French (Well)
42 Grove Street, New York NY 10014 (b/n Bleecker and Bedford; map); 212-255-3590; ilovebuvette.com
Service: Helpful and eager to please, if still working toward polished
Setting: The beautifully redesigned former Pink Tea Cup, with a striking marble bar and West Village-style exposed brick
Must-Haves: Caillettes, Lentils & Kale, Rabbit Confit
Cost: Small plates around $7-12; a person could fill up on $20 before drinks
Not quite a wine bar, not quite an appetizer-and-entree restaurant, the new Buvette in the West Village calls itself a gastroteque—a French-styled establishment where small plates dominate the menu and wines are marked by provenance on the chalk map of Europe scrawled over one wall. Classy but determinedly casual, structured for drop-in dining and drinking, it's well-suited to its neighborhood.
And that's perhaps to be expected, given how well Jody Williams must know the West Village after so many years in its restaurants. She made her name in New York at Morandi, Gusto, and Gottino, Italian establishments all. Of these, Buvette resembles Gottino most closely—a slim, elegant place for both food and drink. But Buvette feels a bit grander: in looks (long marble bar; striking chandelier), in scale, and in fare. Though the food, for the most part, is quite simple—most dishes combine just one or two elements on the plate—such cooking requires skill and attention, and it works here. With a few exceptions, the dishes we tried were well-composed and beautifully cooked.
It's clear that Buvette is a personal sort of spot, a place Williams herself wants to feed people; an extension of her kitchen, not a calculated project. We saw her behind the bar on one visit, a closed-lipped smile on her face as she flew around, working about as hard as a person could seem to work—serving one side of the bar herself while watching eagle-eyed over the second half, instructing her servers on everything from angle of bread placement to menu distribution. That kind of attention, a person taking ownership of every aspect of her restaurant, is heartening; and given how appealing Buvette is already, it's easy to imagine the place only getting better.
A dish of Savoy cabbage ($8) was as straightforward as it was remarkably tasty—a heaping bowl of crisp shredded cabbage in a light oil dressing that bound crumbles of Pecorino to each strand. Cabbage may be a winter vegetable, but the fresh, green crunch of this dish could have you looking forward to spring. Lentils & Kale ($8), on the other hand, is just what you want on the few remaining cool nights of the season; like the French version of baked beans, it's a perfect little cocotte of tender lentils and smoky braised kale. Also in the hearty camp is Salsify w/ Red Wine ($8), the subtle flavor of salsify dominated by the red wine braise and melty Roquefort spooned on top, which is not to say that red wine and Roquefort are not delicious nonetheless.
Anything spread on toast is a good bet, like the Brandade ($8)—the assertive brininess of salt cod whipped together with potatoes—or Oxtail Marmalade ($8). At Buvette, the oxtail is quite literally cooked down with citrus rinds, giving it a unique bitter-sweet flavor that's seriously addictive. Still better is the Rabbit Confit ($8)—tender and chunky, rich with duck fat, but lighter in texture and flavor, it's the kind of stuff that goes down so easily that it's only when you glance down at the cute little pot it's served in that you realize you've just finished the whole thing without sharing.
Any self-respecting wine bar should have the cheese list to match, and Buvette's does the trick: largely Northeast-sourced, sheep, goat, and cow. Burrata ($8) is an Italian cheese, but so what? The one at Buvette was about as good as it comes; a tender shell of mozzarella around a not-quite-liquid-not-quite-solid ooze of curd in the center. A funky, pungent brie on the menu another night was served at a deliciously meltable temperature, just asking to be slathered on bread. It's nice when a passion for good cheese service manifests itself so clearly on a plate.
Meat and seafood dishes were a bit more variable, though even our least favorites were nothing to complain about. Pork Ribs ($12) were intensely porky, but also a bit undercooked, requiring a bit of chewing with little nuggets of slightly rubbery fat. (The beans soaking in the pork juices at the bottom of the bowl are the best part of the dish.) Two slim octopus ($9) tentacles were tender and satisfyingly meaty, if priced a bit steep. Moules Provencale ($9) arrived in a small and searingly hot vessel; so hot, in fact, that it was a good few minutes before we could bear to take a bite. By that point, the mussels were overcooked and tough.
Far better were the Caillettes ($12)—halfway between a meatball and a French saucisse de tolouse, they're made with veal, pork, and beef, and are wrapped in a veil of caul fat, which bastes them as they cook; their flavor is dominated by the chunks of cured pork mixed into them in a very delicious way.
A decidedly savory Apple Tarte Tatin ($8) had big, chunky pieces of perfectly caramelized apple; the crust was a little soggy, but the whipped crème fraîche was a nice touch.
The food alone is enough to recommend Buvette. But it's other aspects of the restaurant that may draw many in: the welcoming elegance of the space; the promise of smartly curated wines, by the glass and the bottle; the waiters' French accents; the charm of tiny folded menus and thimble-sized water glasses and leather baskets of unshelled nuts as bar snacks. Yes, charm may have wooed us at Buvette; still, it's the food that'll have us coming back.