There’s an ineffable, quicksilver quality to trends in the restaurant world, and for those of us without a keen nose for fashion, it’s not always easy to know how to keep up. One trick is to keep an eye on certain restaurant spaces around town. Over the course of years (and sometimes months), a single address will mutate and change, as fads bloom, then wither away. Take the cavernous, windowless room at 415 Lafayette Street, on the western edge of the East Village. It used to house Belgo, an ambitious establishment whose splashy opening and rapid demise marked, respectively, the height and the end of the city’s brief Belgian-food craze. Now comes Butter, a restaurant unlike its predecessor in almost every way save one: It’s another ambitious establishment, designed to capture the new spirit of the times.
Let’s call this new Zeitgeist “sylvan chic.” Post–September 11, fashionable restaurateurs seem to be crowding their menus with comforting free-range foods (Ouest, Washington Park), indulging in earthy, orange-hued lighting schemes (Meet, Industry food), and decorating their rooms in woodsy, outdoor motifs (Industry food, Chateau). At Butter, these trends converge on a grandiose, almost alarming scale. The vaulted walls of the great windowless dining hall are clad in cedar. At one end is a swank bar, and at the other is a lovely, translucent wall mural depicting a forest of birch trees on a summer day. I once saw a similar, less lovely photo mural in an atomic-bomb shelter outside of Washington, D.C. The intent, in both cases, was to soothe, only at Butter, there’s also a frenetic after-hours region downstairs called the Birch Room, replete with a D.J. booth and rustic love seats carved from giant blocks of cedar.
Predictably, there are three kinds of butter on the table (lemon, herbed, and salted), although when I asked our waiter about the derivation of the restaurant’s name, he said, “To be honest, I think it just sounded cool.” The coolest of the appetizers cooked up by executive chef Keith Harry (formerly of Chanterelle) was a sizable portion of crisply sautéed sweetbreads, dripped with a nice caper-mustard sauce, over a mound of mustard greens. There was a parade of demure salads, the best of which was a combination of mâche and smoked sturgeon, with baby beets in a horseradish vinaigrette. My friend the crab nut liked the soft-shell crabs (laced with a strangely sweet reduction made from Japanese dashi), although I thought they were a little limp, and I preferred the raw hamachi, doused in ginger, to the ahi tuna tartare, which was gummy to the point of tastelessness.
These excesses are mostly absent from the dinner menu, which is almost chaste by the standards of the city’s other trendy dining establishments. On my first visit, I enjoyed a roasted breast of chicken served with mashed potatoes shot through with truffle oil and fresh morels. All of the seafood entrées were passable, and some were better than that, particularly the seared tuna (paired with a surprisingly nonsticky lemon risotto) and the turbot, which had a tender texture and was brushed with a beurre blanc tinged with sake. The grilled lamb chop and beef fillet were decent but not outstanding as those dishes go, although my eagerly awaited portion of grilled ostrich (served with white asparagus in a red-wine sauce and speckled with blobby bits of bone marrow) tasted like a gamy, week-old version of the beef fillet.
If none of the food at Butter grabs your attention, you can addle yourself with a series of loopy designer cocktails or ogle various knickknacks put up for sale by what my press kit called “notable socialites, celebrities and cultural gurus.” These charity items (watches from Christian Dior, a cartoon by Gary Trudeau) were listed on the dessert menu when I was there, next to de rigueur items like a milk-chocolate walnut cake and a decently gooey chocolate gratin. I liked the less copious desserts best, like vanilla tapioca pudding (mixed with a sweet compote made from cherries and apricots) and a fromage blanc bombe served in a cooling consommé of fresh berries. Keep your eye, in the dim nightclub gloom, on the mural of rustling birch trees, and you’ll swear these dishes taste almost like summertime.
Butter, 415 Lafayette Street (212-253-2828). Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $10–$16; entrées, $27–$30. All major credit cards.