By now, Michael White has left little doubt that he’s one of New York City’s best Italian chefs. Of course, he’s not Italian, but he just happens to create some of the city’s better Italian restaurants, including Marea, Osteria Morini, Nicoletta and Costata.
He and partner Ahmass Fakahany have also demonstrated that they’re damn good business people. In the last five years, their company—Altamarea Group—has opened the aforementioned Manhattan restaurants, plus two others in New Jersey (Osteria Morini and Due Mari), one in Hong Kong (Al Molo) and one in London (Chop Shop).
Until Chop Shop, which is a butcher shop-inspired concept, their focus was strictly Italian. Their latest restaurant, The Butterfly, reminds us all that White is an all-American boy who grew up in Beloit, WI. In fact, White cut his culinary teeth at a place called The Butterfly Supper Club, and Altamarea’s version pays homage to that style.
The Butterfly in Tribeca is not so much a supper club as it is an exceptional cocktail bar with great American food. While White has been the star and front man of the group, it’s clear that this concept was built around Eben Freeman, Altamarea’s head of bar operations. He’s someone with two decades of cocktail experience in New York and Asia. At The Butterfly he’s featuring a cocktail list of mid-century American cocktails, including the Brandy Old Fashioned, the state drink of Wisconsin. On that note Freeman is staying true to the spirit of supper clubs. On the other hand, he’s employing modern bartending techniques, such as sous vide, to create lighter, brighter versions of drinks, including the Old Fashioned.
Freeman’s cocktail list is a walk down memory lane if you’re someone who was diggin’ Frank, Dean and Sammy. But the Rat Pack never had drinks this good because Freeman uses fresh and often surprising ingredients that elevate. His Rusty Nail, for example, replaces scotch with mescal and a boutique version of Drambuie. Other classics that get a facelift include the Whiskey Sour, Tom Collins and a High Ball featuring Michter’s Rye and smoked Coke. Reflecting The Butterfly’s Badger State roots, guests can also order a Boiler Maker, though Evans offers a more upscale version.
With someone as talented as Freeman creating cocktails, a simple bar setup would not do. The Butterfly features a 22-foot-long bar cut to resemble open butterfly wings. Servers, by the way, wear aprons bearing a butterfly logo. With the butterfly as its overall theme, the décor is considerably lighter and brighter than a traditional and moody supper club.
To back up the talent behind the bar, White and his culinary team have created a regional American menu with an emphasis on hors d’oeuvres that go so well with Freeman’s cocktails. Recent examples include deviled eggs ($6), reuben croquettes ($9), smoked whitefish mousse ($12), fried cheese curds ($11) and bratwurst sliders ($13). The Butterfly may have a Tribeca address, but it keeps one foot firmly planted in Wisconsin.
Overseeing the kitchen are executive chef Jared Gadbaw and chef de cuisine Charles Lutka. Some of their larger plates include a patty melt (with dry-aged beef—$17), a fish fry (with cornmeal-crusted Alaskan cod—$19) and buttermilk-fried chicken ($23). The only tip of the hat to White’s love for Italian is a dish called Ravioli Al Forno (ricotta-filled ravioli baked with marinara and mozzarella and served with garlic bread crumbs—$19).
Creating the desserts is Bob Truitt, who stays on course with ice cream sandwiches—$7, Hot Blonde (brown butter pecan ice cream and soft blondies—$8) and Coppa Cola (Coca Cola ice cream, caramel popcorn whiskey cream and amarena cherries—$8).
The Butterfly also offers brunch featuring exactly what you’d expect from a Wisconsin-inspired menu—eggs “your way” ($16), corned beef hash ($17), biscuits and gravy (with a deep-fried soft-boiled egg $16) and chicken and biscuits ($15).
Whether The Butterfly signals a new American direction for Altamarea is highly doubtful. After all, White is a perennial James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef New York City because of his outstanding Italian cooking. Still, The Butterfly is a nice reminder that the Wisconsin kid can flex his regional American cooking skills with the best of them.