Butter: Fancy But Not Stuffy

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:04

    "Rob would like to see you on Monday. Bring your portfolio and color clips." "Sure will!"

    Soon as I find out what that means.

    Serendipitously, I receive an e-mail from a "Director of Editorial," subject of which is "Saturday dinner," content of which is "late afternoon, early evening?" So I call her to agree and get some guidance.

    On Friday I pick up the phone again. "I'd like a reservation for two tomorrow 7:30."

    "Could you hold on."


    Is Jim Belushi the Blockbuster guinea pig? Is that a guinea pig? I like the whooping noise guinea pigs make. Jim should whoop. Who's the bunny? Initially, I thought the Blue M&M sounded more like Matt Frewer than Phil Hartman. Was this the week we were supposed to turn off the tv's?

    "Okay, 7:30? Uh, maybe 6:45?"


    "Or what about later?"

    "Well, we could come at 8:30."

    "I meant 11."

    "Ha ha ha ha ha."

    "Oh, you're laughing at that huh."

    "We could do 6:45."

    "Gosh, we are so booked. I'm going to get in trouble."


    "Okay. Smoking or non?"

    "Non if you have it."

    "Oh, flexibility. We like that. Name?"

    "Um, Morrison." Typing sounds.

    "Ouch. Some joker put 'Jim Morrison' in here."

    "It would be cool to see him there."

    "No it wouldn't. He'd be all moldering."

    I make another call. "Come over at 6 tomorrow."

    "Did you do your portfolio?"

    "I can't find big enough portfolios at Staples or Office Depot."

    The "Director" on the other end of the line is impatiently speaking to an idiot. "You have to go to Pearl or Sam Flax."

    Joe at Pearl calms me and picks out the perfect not-so-dear career-girl portfolio. When I carry it I am 22, off the bus from Iowa and ready to take Madison Ave. by storm. My credit card confuses Joe; he pauses and actually scratches his head. "That name is really familiar..."

    At 6 sharp the Director eyes the doorway of a new hall neighbor. "A mezuzah? In your building?"

    "Yeah, that makes me feel like I should put one up."

    "When I need something I buy over the Internet to support them over there."

    "What a good idea. I hadn't thought of that."

    Gold lettering embedded in the threshold of 415 Lafayette St. reads BUTTER. We pass chef Keith Harry taking some air. Through an oversized glass door sits a reception desk, fresh flowers, stacks of butter-colored menu books and matching oversized business cards. Which they should perhaps rethink, as the one I took refused to fit into the vinyl slots in my daytimer.

    Through another glass door is a blond-wood entryway. There are cutouts in the wood to display, well, things. Like a bunch of different-colored Dior watches. Or some microelectronic gizmos. Some of the little cubbies have yet to be filled. Next there's a narrow dining area of small tables and chairs. Here, seven-course tastings, presented by the chef, will be held. We're told Harry was at Chanterelle for eight years. The main dining room is fronted by a bar dotted with boats of popcorn and lined with orange upholstered stools, pleasantly backed by backlit lifesize photos of birch trees. The ceiling's high, overlapping arches are wallpapered in wood-look and mirrored by light wood flooring. A dark rustic wooden divider down the middle of the space is supported by slices of log. Along the sides, plush gray rounded banquettes; down the middle more tables for two. Little round votives abound and, on tables, heavy napkins are encircled by smooth, touchable wood rings. Soundtrack is chill jazz; unobtrusive and not worth listening to. It's a restful room; dramatic and well-done.

    On opening night, the restaurant has been kept to about a third full; they're being cautious. The menu is half fish, but not shellfish. No chicken, but there is ostrich. Also oxtails, lamb and beef. Bottled water is offered; we select tap and it's no problem; there's no discernible snoot factor in residence. A complimentary aperitif of Asti frizzante is sweet, fizzy apple. Next comes an amuse bouche of mushroom ragout on thin toast topped by a chiffonade of parsley.

    The Director says, "What is this?"


    "He said lobster."

    "Do you taste any lobster?"


    Me either, but the tender sauteed shrooms are rustic bliss and the mouthful does its job?we're intrigued and eagerly anticipating our dinner.

    Bread and butter is presented with a bit of fanfare. Three floured crusty globes sit in a folded pocket. They don't look dangerous.

    "So the Swiss say bread, cereal and baked potatoes will kill you."

    "The staff of life? So what?we're supposed to just eat chocolate?"

    "Perhaps that is their grand scheme. Well, you could give kids pastina or tortellini instead of cereal. Or oatmeal. Boiled potatoes?boiling's okay."

    "Boiled bread?" She is sticking her tongue out.


    Accompanying the miniature boules is a saucer holding three disks of butter: sweet, herbed and apricot-foie gras. We are soon asked how we like them. The herbed is soul-lifting, light creaminess. The apricot tastes first of sweet fruit then levels off to a true soft liver flavor; I like it, but a little is enough.

    We both ask for help choosing a glass of wine. Our attentive waitress doesn't mind a bit. The selection by the glass is surprisingly ordinary, but there's enough variety to match well with your meal. Bottles are brought so we can taste first. Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir ($9) is perfumey, with not much fruit flavor, and it's mildly gravelly. Better is the Chateau du Trignon Cotes du Rhone ($8); dry enough to enchantingly turn your mouth to ash.

    Appetizers arrive. A chive spear rests atop two rectangles of Spanish mackerel ($10) that are grilled to perfection and delectable over "garlic crostini." The garlic is imperceptible. Accompanying is a chutney containing Meyer lemon, tomato, pine nuts and green olives. It's a licoricey and bitter melange that ultimately detracts from the perfect fish tiles. A moat of green sauce may be chive-based, but is too bland to taste much like anything. A sturgeon appetizer ($12) has dressed mache cuddling precious baby beets that look like beautiful candy. Wet white sturgeon strings clump in the center of the plate. The saltiness of the fish keeps your palate interested, and the beets are purple perfection, uniformly roasted to tooth-sinking lushness.

    Sound bounces oddly around the room. It seems like the behind-the-curve yuppie two tables away is sitting across from me. The Director keeps asking me to repeat myself, but can hear the Frenchwoman across the way. Then, horrified, I realize some other table is probably receiving our conversation. Which has been mostly a recounting of the plot of a cartoon I watched in the morning.

    A server announces our entrees, and the waitress comes by to issue a very civilized, "Bon appetit, ladies." Tuna filets ($25) are medium rare, black-olive encrusted and charred, over lemon risotto. The char is initially pungent, then gives way to a briny depth. A bed of risotto is perfectly cooked pap that picks up zing when it meets a carpet of sparkling green basil cream sauce. It's a spring-fever dish to bring your tastebuds out of hibernation. I'm given a special knife to ply apart the layers of my red snapper ($28). I find the fish spongy and flavorless. The sauce it's in is starchy and one-note: sweet. The creamed green leeks on the plate are heaven on Earth. Were I a more emotional person, I might cry tears of joy. Heaped ribbons of leek swim in a white sauce; they retain texture with no hint of bitterness.

    "Why are people surprised about this priest stuff?"

    "It's an old story."

    "I heard one of the cardinals say they should go after the pedophiles, but if a drunk priest seduces a 16-year-old girl, that's a different matter. He didn't state his policy on 16-year-old boys. If a priest seduced my teen I'd want to know about it. I'd press charges."

    Service has been stellar; perhaps overhovering by the slightest degree, but they've only held tastings heretofore. We get face time with just about every server. The impressive front-of-house team is practiced professionals. The dapper and personable servers are impeccably dressed in dark trousers, crisp buttondown shirts and understated ties. There is much resetting of our silver and dishes by the staff; I guess we keep messing up the table and moving stuff around. A napkin is refolded while its owner seeks the powder room.

    When the waitress brings the coffee I can't hold back a gasp. "That smells so good." The hot-as-you-can-bear French-pressed Costa Rican arabica is full of flavor without heaviness and forms its own crema when poured. It seems sacrilege to adulterate this liquory brew, but to my taste it is enriched by a little lightening. The Director takes it straight. Two cups are $7.

    The dessert menu is recited for us with enticing detail. Pineapple "tart" ($10) is a gorgeous, thick, supple ring of syrup-poached pineapple, fitted over a puffy lemon cookie. It's served with pineapple sauce and not-so-sweet coconut ice cream. Black passion-fruit seeds add crunch and crisped starfruit adorns. There's a lot going on here; it's a fanciful yellow trip. Milk-chocolate walnut cake ($10) is a seven-layer fantasia; a precisely cut nut-brittle hat tops whipped cream, ganache, yellow custard, milk-chocolate mousse and a slim rectangle of walnut cake on a chocolate base. Fudge dots the plate and a scoop of tangy banana frozen yogurt melts alongside. Also on the menu, cookies and milk?the chef's take on an oreo and a sugar cookie with a glass of goat's milk. And there is a "citrus tasting." All of the eight or so desserts sound interesting and go for $8-$10.

    Lastly, a dish of gratis petit fours is placed just so before us. A crisp-on-the-outside soft-on-the-inside butter cookie, a chocolate truffle set on a moist chocolate cookie, a swirl of golden coconut macaroon and a sugared square of fruit gel; they're a dulcet, settling farewell, like an encore ballad.

    On Monday I headed out with my spanking new leather-look portfolio and pinstripes. I didn't get the gig, but Joe, I'm not blaming you.

    Butter, 415 Lafayette St. (betw. Astor Pl. & W. 4th St.), 253-2828.