White & Church
281 Church Street, New York NY 10013 (at White; map); 212-226-1607; whiteandchurch.com
Service: Attentive and friendly
Setting: A lounge-like dining room with bizarre design choices
Must-Haves: Octopus, farro salad
Cost: Easy to eat for under $20 (but drinks are around $15)
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Ambitious, notable, and radical seemed to be the consensus on Il Matto, the experimental Italian restaurant Matteo Boglione opened in Tribeca about a year ago. Earning attention for its unconventional cocktails and whimsical, even eccentric Italian fare, the restaurant won two stars from the New York Times and further critical praise. Still, good reviews don't necessarily a successful operation guarantee; Boglione closed the restaurant within months, only to shortly reopen White & Church (named for its intersection) in the same space.
This second iteration would be a good bit less formal, and less pricey, with a menu of hot and cold plates that, while still a little offbeat, didn't quite show the same wild creativity of Il Matto's. We couldn't help but be interested. A chef who'd made such an impression bringing his craft to a toned-down, less costly menu? It sounded promising.
Both at Il Matto and now at White & Church, Christina Bini's cocktails have gotten no end of attention. The menu induces a double-take if you're not prepared. There is a cocktail with mozzarella and another with anchovies. There's an entire section of the list devoted to "bugs"—bees and grasshoppers listed as ingredients. More conventional creations appear, too, but they're clearly pushing the bizarre. The Smoked Martini ($15) is smoky, indeed, but it doesn't convince us that mixing vodka and scotch, as they do here, is a brilliant idea. The addition of a piece of smoked salmon is interesting enough; dipped in the drink, its smokiness is amplified by the scotch, and if left in the mix, contributes a salinity that's not at all unpleasant. But it's not clear exactly what you're supposed to do with it. Dip it just once? Let it swim around?
Our Rosemary ($14), a rum-apple-cinnamon cocktail with "bees" listed as an ingredient, wasn't served according to the menu; "We couldn't get the bees today," laughed our waiter, "so it's a grasshopper instead." That levity was something of a giveaway. If the insects were anything more than a novelty garnish—that is, if they had any real function—shouldn't which insect they use matter? Here, it doesn't. The bizarre visual appeal is something, and the grasshoppers were quite munchable; they're crunchy and absorb a bit of the sweet cidery flavor of the cocktail. But "sweet" and "cidery" is about all we have to say about the drink itself. It sat on the table unfinished throughout the meal.
An entire section of the menu is devoted to fried things, in various stages of dress and undress; we liked the sound of artichoke croquettes ($8) with saffron sauce, burrata, and black truffle shavings. The burrata did have that soft, supple texture we love, though not quite the fresh, creamy sweetness it can have; we would've appreciated more crisp on the tender-interiored artichoke croquettes. Still, the elements are tasty, apart and together. Also fried, and also not quite achieving the texture we'd want, were the zucchini blossoms ($9)—they're served with a light tomato sauce, but otherwise unadorned. Without a good outside crisp, a bite from these large, floppy specimens isn't particularly appealing.
Meek flavors aren't a problem with the pecorino cheese creme brulee ($9), a holdover from Il Matto's appetizer menu—a savory custard suffused with that hard cheese's distinctive flavor. It's a beautifully plated dish and the shatter-crisp sugar shell works strangely well with the pecorino, salt meets sweet, smoky char against the creamy base; strands of a red onion marmelade and a balsamic reduction cut through The custard itself wasn't perfectly silken, but this is one of the few dishes in which novelty was a strong suit; it's unexpected in a good way.
Also in novelty territory was the octopus and foie gras ($11) with potatoes, basil pesto, and black olives. Thin petals of foie are beautiful alone, and they dissolve fluidly on the tongue, a soft melt under that outside crisp; get a piece that's been sitting under an olive, though, and that flavor dominates completely. The octopus is surprisingly tender—not chewy in the slightest—though some parts crossed from soft over the line to mushy. The components got eaten alone, rather than together; why does foie gras appear with ingredients that dominate it? The dish seemed to have at least one ingredient too many.
Surprisingly, the pedestrian-sounding Farro salad ($9) with baby artichokes and Pecorino was one of the best cool dishes, the farro retaining just a bit of a bite, a tomato confit adding a pleasant, concentrated sweetness.
Carbonara pasta two ways ($13) yields both a traditional spaghetti and a mezzaluna filled with the egg-cheese sauce that generally coats the pasta in the dish; of these, the spaghetti was the better prepared, properly al dente, whereas the skins of the filled pasta were a bit tough. The pancetta doesn't quite integrate into the dish—the bits we had were chewy enough to be distracting; still, even though that element seems tossed on top, each form is easy enough to eat, creamy and salty and satisfying.
Mini meatballs ($9) were unmemorable, slightly dry in the middle; our other foray into meat territory, the White & Church Burger ($12), was exactly the opposite, plenty juicy and absolutely unexpected. It's stuffed with macaroni and cheese, and while those gimmicks can get tiresome, it's an example of the idea done more or less right.
What we liked about this burger was, perhaps counterintuitively, how much the mac-and-cheese disappeared into the burger experience. Think about it; with a cheeseburger you've already got something meaty, something starchy, and something gooey-cheesey. The mac-and-cheese burger just reshuffles those parts a bit. Take a bite, and you'd know you weren't quite eating a normal cheeseburger, but you might not realize that Velveeta-cheddar macaroni and cheese was the culprit. And it's a good cheeseburger on its own—a 7-ounce patty of ground beef from Ottomanelli's whose beefy flavor is further punched up with a reduced beef jus on top, the patty cooked to medium rare, as strange a thought as cooking a pasta-centered burger to temperature is. (The bun, we felt, could be a little smaller.) It's less daring than it sounds, which we actually liked.
As we left, lit panels behind the bar started flashing green and pink and blue, and a projected video appeared on the wall behind us as the music scaled up; White & Church alternately seems quiet hotel lounge and '90s discoteque, occasionally at the same time. If that's not disorienting enough, wander down to the bathroom, where paneled mirrors, cut-outs, and a shared sink dividing the men's room from the women's is enough to induce genuine vertigo for a few seconds before you realize where in the funhouse space you are.
That sense of confusion is what you're left with after leaving White & Church. The menu is full of strange, small surprises (why is a buger on an Italian menu, and why is it filled with mac and cheese?); it's all moderately priced and more likeable for it, with nothing over $15—except the drinks, for the most part pricier than any single dish. It strays from Italian and back again, strays into the avant-garde but is at times predictable, serves cocktails both absurd and dull, in a space that's equal parts sterile and bizarre.
As such, it's not a bad restaurant, but it's a little head-scratching to figure out who to recommend it to. Take it out of its Tribeca digs and plop it in the East Village, and you could imagine it catching on with novelty-seekers, there for the mac-and-cheese burger and cocktails with bugs. Or catching on with younger diners who appreciate a whole menu under $15. But as it is, it's a restaurant that's hard to understand and harder still to sum up. One thing to consider? A weekday happy hour slashes drink prices in half. So if you're itching to try a mozzarella cocktail, that's the way to do so. You could even stay for a burger, too.