Note: The Butterfly closed in summer 2015, after two years in business, as a summer hiatus for renovations became permanent, as such temporary closures so often do. The unfocused faux Wisconsin theme never caught on.
When you google The Butterfly, this is what comes back:
The Butterfly features cocktails by renowned mixologist Eben Freeman and cuisine by Michelin-starred Chef Michael White in a cozy, mid-century style space…
The distinct impression gained, is that this is mainly a cocktail spot, and by the way, you can nosh there too.
White and Freeman have gradually pivoted away from the original concept, an Olde Wisconsin supper club, and an homage to White’s home state. There actually is a “Butterfly Club” in Beloit, Wisconsin, where White once worked. Perhaps he remembers it fondly, but I doubt anyone else around here does.
The décor offers a re-imagining of “retro Wisconsin,” though you quickly forget about it. Waitresses wear old-school black dresses with blue lace trim. Bartenders (including Freeman himself) wear short-sleeve white shirts with thin plaid ties, tie clips, and pocket protectors. They probably decided all of this before the decision to dial down the Wisconsin theme.
Most of the emphasis now is on the cocktails. A couple of weeks ago, White told The Times, “Butterfly isn’t really a Wisconsin restaurant. It’s a New York place to have great cocktails — and something nice to eat.”
Ahmass Fakahany, the main investor in Michael White’s restaurants, added, “Michael and I wanted to showcase the talent of Eben Freeman.”
Freeman built a reputation for avant-garde cocktails at WD~50 and Tailor. The list here is fairly tame by comparison: most of the ten house cocktails have recognizable names, although Freeman tweaks them a bit.
For instance, his Highball ($14; above left) isn’t just any bourbon and soda, but Michter’s Rye and Coca-Cola smoked with alder and cherry woods. His Boiler Maker ($16; below right) is not just any beer and whiskey, but a house-made raisin shandy and Dewar’s infused with pumpernickel raisin bread and carraway seeds.
Freeman told The Times that the cocktail offerings will expand as the restaurant gets its sea legs. The bar certainly has all of Freeman’s toys: we’re not in Wisconsin any more. If you’d prefer to drink wine, then I wouldn’t bother: the list is perfunctory.
About half the menu features comfort-food classics that may well have been popular in 1950s Wisconsin, like a fish sandwich, a patty melt, and shrimp cocktail. Others are just generically popular items that you could find anywhere: a strip steak, fried chicken, a caesar salad.
White elevates these classics above their usual mundane selves. That patty melt is not just any patty: it’s dry-aged beef. That chicken isn’t just any chicken: it’s organic chicken from Bell & Evans.
Most of the menu is inexpensive, by Michael White standards. Hors d’oeuvres are $8–16, salads $11–14, sandwiches $15–17, entrées $19–27, side dishes $5–8, desserts $9–10. The whole menu fits on one page, and the smaller plates dominate: a dozen hors d’oeuvres and salads, against just six sandwiches and entrées.
A $17 patty melt may seem dear, but early reports are rapturous, and it’s in line with many of the city’s high-end burgers. If you believe that no one should ever pay $17 for a burger, you shouldn’t eat here.
I was sorely tempted to try it, but an aged prime patty melt is not so much cooked as curated. I wanted to try the more unusual items, so I ordered four of the hors d’oeuvres.
You might start with the Reuben Croquettes ($9; above left), little fried balls of corned beef (not enough of it) and sauerkraut with thousand island dipping sauce. Zucchini Pancakes ($13; above right) are a terrific snack—little bursts of flavor, with crème fraîche, shallots, dill, and trout roe. I don’t think there’s much of Wisconsin in this dish.
Pork Rinds ($8; above left) are flecked with rosemary and pepper, one of the better renditions of this dish that I’ve encountered, but for a solo diner they’re too much of a good thing. The Bratwurst Sliders ($13; above right) offer plump little house-made sausages, slit lengthwise, with spicy mustard and sweet peppers on potato rolls.
Service was friendly and polished, as it has been at all the White places I’ve visited: silverware was replaced after every course, plates delivered and cleared promptly. I dropped in quite early in the evening, with customers only just beginning to wander in, but I suspect they’ll be able to cope with the volume when the place is full.
Any restaurant from these gentlemen is going to attract a crowd, at first. I do think they’ll have to expand the menu pretty soon, if they want to attract repeat customers. I work near here, so I could easily imagine dropping by the Butterfly from time to time. The food isn’t destination material; the cocktails could be, once Freeman brings out more of his repertoire.
The Butterfly (225 W. Broadway at White Street, TriBeCa)
Food: Retro Wisconsin comfort food, liberally interpreted
Service: First-rate for such a casual place
Ambiance: Retro Wisconsin too, but you’re not really going to notice