Universally praised by the Times, Time Out, and us when it opened in 2011, chef-owner Jody William’s Buvette—the 50-seat self-described gastrothèque--couldn’t stay a secret for very long. After cooking with Mario Batali at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco and opening Keith McNally’s trattoria Morandi, Williams gained serious chef clout. These days during dinner prime time there are lines out Buvette’s door regularly, since they don’t take researvations. Luckily they’re open from breakfast until 2 AM, so there’s plenty of time to pick a quieter dining hour. Rigorous attention to aesthetics, such as the silver tin ceiling, baskets of wooden mallets and rolling pins, marble bar, and bicycle complete with a wine-cork filled basket, define the country heir at Buvette. The pinnacle of the vintage-inspired intimate experience is their wine list: a half-inch thick almanac that could fit the back pocket of a pair of Levi’s, filled with an overwhelming amount of information meant to guide guests through regions and varietals but actually makes it difficult to choose a glass or bottle. On the other hand, it provides endless entertainment throughout the meal and is highly educational—but there’s no way anyone can take it all in by the time a server prods you for your drink order.
We stopped in twice for an early dinner in order to beat the line. On our first visit our waitress was inattentive, with an heir of superiority, apathy, or both. Frankly, she couldn't navigate the wine list any better than I could, and when I asked her about a bottle commented: “that’s really good, yeah, it’s from Southern France”—which was the absolute least helpful wine description I’ve heard from a server in NYC. After a continuous drawl of equally useless dish descriptions, and pushing plates on us that we repeatedly told her we didn’t want, an accompanying guest was moved to comment: “What is she on?” (We concluded she was either stoned or on benzos). Granted, our second visit was we a complete 180 service-wise; seated at the bar across from a witty actor-server who managed to make us laugh and keep us comfortable. So I forgive Buvette. Generally, it seemed that the blokes behind the bar were in better spirits than the bland servers attending cramped tables.
In contrast to the wine list, Williams has curated a nearly immaculate menu of simple French country faire; a succinct list of small plates that nearly fits in your palm. The only disappointing dish was artichokes with tomatoes and fromage blanc: a red sauce and cheese-laden deep dish that completely overshadowed the taste of spring veggies. This is not to say that it tasted bad—it just didn’t do justice to artichokes during spring of all seasons. Other than that everything we ordered was on point: roasted beets with almonds ladled with horseradish crème fraîche; julienned carrots tossed with pistachio and lemon vinaigrette; a tartinette of thick-cut baguette loaded with slabs of mashed favas, mint, and ricotta; Salt Cod Brandade whipped with olvies oil, milk, and garlic; Octopus salad with ultra-thin sliced celery, red onion, and olives that passed our finicky octopus test (it wasn’t rubbery at all), and chilled slow-cooked leg of lamb over ratatouille. With such stripped down dishes approachable to home cooks, we’re tingling with anticipation for Williams’ Buvette-inspired cookbook, The Kitchen Table Gastrothèque: Perfecting the Art of Gathering With Recipes for Eating, Drinking, and Living, slated for publication next spring.
Since the plates are small, tables are tight, and you’re best off sitting at the bar—the backyard garden is not nearly as aesthetically stimulating or pleasurable as it is inside—Buvette is among NYC’s best spots for a date or a small party of four or less. On second thought, four might be pushing it. You can reserve the large wooden “Kitchen Table” in the back at least six weeks in advance for a party of 8-12 at $125+ a head (not including drinks). Any menu + décor that’s a no-lose situation is worth waiting in line for, trust us.