Quirkiness can be an endearing quality in small children and certain house pets, but it doesn’t always translate to the world of restaurants. I’m one of those mirthless souls who, upon hearing the imprecations rumbling from the kitchen at Kenny Shopsin’s famously odd pack-rat West Village restaurant, quickly paid my bill and left as quietly as I could. I had a similar reaction to the popular East Village wine bar Terroir. The staff affected a languid hipster hauteur, the menu was uneven, and the wine list managed to be zany and condescending at the same time. Recently, Terroir’s chef, Marco Canora, and his partner, Paul Grieco, opened a second, more ambitious Terroir in Tribeca. After avoiding it for several months, I dropped in for a taste of the vaunted meatball sub (the ninth best sandwich in the city, according to our own Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld). Lately, I’ve been dropping in a lot more, for the other excellent sandwiches, for the bar snacks, and even for the occasional quirky pour of wine.
The original Terroir was conceived as a clubby annex to Canora and Grieco’s restaurant Hearth. But Terroir Tribeca is a larger, stand-alone operation, with 65 seats (all at various bars and dining counters), an expanded menu, and a darkly polished, bottle-lined interior that gives the room a subterranean Bat Cave feeling even on the brightest summer evenings. Canora, who ran the kitchen for Tom Colicchio at Craft, is one of the city’s masters of Italian cooking. But like lots of master chefs, he’s been cultivating a more populist small-plates repertoire lately, one designed to facilitate the consumption of beer, profitable cocktails, and, of course, wine. There are fourteen types of cheese available at the new Terroir outlet (compared with eight at the original); a profusion of sandwiches, salads, and assorted finger foods (try the fried risotto balls with oxtail); and even a steak entrée, cut from dry-aged Creekstone beef.
Like the original Terroir, the menu at Terroir Tribeca is an antic document filled with numerous sections and subsections (there are eight), along with a tasting option of unspecified price and content called “Just Put Your Ass in the Seat and Let Us Feed You.” This food isn’t designed to be transcendent, but if you choose wisely, it’s possible to put together a decent meal. The tasters at my table enjoyed the frisée salad (interspersed with shreds of crispy duck confit and shallots) and the lamb sausage (under Fried Stuff), which the kitchen wraps in little packets of frizzled sage. The bruschetta selection includes elegant, tea-sandwich-size wheels of toast topped with whipped lardo or rich nodules of bone marrow and garlic chives. The excellent sandwich list has been expanded to include a toasty, upmarket Reuben ($11). And if you’re in the mood for a more substantial feast, I suggest the veal meatballs (softened with ricotta) or the steak, which is a relative bargain at $20.
Canora isn’t in the kitchen at Terroir Tribeca on a daily basis, of course. That responsibility falls to chef John Lomanto, who does an admirable job working in a space only slightly larger than a mop closet. But the wine is procured (and sometimes poured) by Grieco himself, whose list is a testament to the inherently subjective (yes, quirky) side of the sommelier’s trade. You can get the latest in box wines at Terroir Tribeca, a well-chosen but not inexpensive selection of sparkling whites (only eight cost under $100), and a bottle of what Grieco considers to be the greatest Italian wine ever made (Sassicaia Tenuta San Guido ’85) for $1,900. But his real mania lately has been for Rieslings. The wine takes up fourteen pages of the list (including one devoted to why “Obama Needs a Glass of Riesling”), and until September 22, it’s the only white wine the restaurant is serving. If you happen to enjoy Rieslings (I do), this quixotic policy is not such a bad thing. If you don’t, pay your bill and leave as quietly as you can.
Il Matto (“The Mad Man”) is another new restaurant in Tribeca with its own eccentric agenda in mind. The bar serves strange, avant-garde cocktails flavored with brandy and ricotta cheese (the Pasolini), and Midori liqueur blended with zucchinis (the Zucchinidori). The tabletops in the high-ceilinged room (the old Arqua space, on the corner of White and Church Streets) are sticky white plastic instead of linen-covered, and the banquettes are perfectly round and set on casters, like giant spinning teacups in a Mad Hatter ride at the amusement park. One of the walls is decorated with a colorful, oversize oil painting depicting one of the co-owners enmeshed with an octopus; the menu is scrawled with flowery, slightly runic drawings; and the salt and pepper shakers set at each table are exact replicas of hand grenades.
But the real chaos at Il Matto takes place on the plate. Chef and co-owner Matteo Boglione pairs olive-crusted sea scallops with almond foam, folds his flat-tasting lasagne with spelt, and touches curls of octopus with an unfortunate substance called “lard cream.” Some of these concepts actually work (the pappardelle with osso buco ragù is laced with an inventive bone-marrow zabaglione, for instance), but the real problem lies in the execution. The recipient of a dish called “peanut crusted chicken” claimed it tasted like “a mixture of drywall and peanut butter,” the foie gras–stuffed beef tenderloin was stringy, and my tuna entrée was cooked to an unpleasant grayness and set on the plate with a dreckish black-olive sauce and the remnants of a hairy artichoke heart. If you survive this gauntlet of self-conscious, inconsistent grub, you will be rewarded with some interesting desserts. The quirkiest is a mille-feuille built with slivers of eggplant. The most satisfying is an old-fashioned tiramisu, which is soaked, mercifully, with plenty of Amaretto.
Address: 24 Harrison St., nr. Greenwich St.; 212-265-9463
Hours: Sunday 5 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Wednesday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., Thursday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $10; entrées, $10 to $20.
Ideal Meal: Crispy duck frisée salad, lamb sausage with sage leaves, meatball sub or Russian Reuben, veal-and-ricotta meatballs or steak.
Scratchpad: Half a star for the drinks, and another half for the solid neighborhood fare.
Note: Besides its weirdly subjective wine list, this version of Terroir serves cocktails, and an eclectic selection of 30 beers.
Address: 281 Church St., at White St. 212-226-1607
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $13 to $15; entrées, $21 to $27.
Ideal Meal: Pappardelle with osso buco ragù, tiramisu.
Note: The zany, avant-garde house cocktails are composed by Christina Bini, a renowned mixologist from Florence.
Scratchpad: One star for the daring, occasionally inventive menu, minus a star for the inconsistent execution.