First Impressions: White & Church

I first went to White & Church, a.k.a. Il Matto 2.0, last week. The space has been seriously rethought: You still enter up a short stairway, but on either side of it are now lounge areas. The bar is on the southern side of the main room, with tables on the White Street side. My partner and I met there at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, but there was nowhere to sit, excluding the lounge areas. We sat for a minute wondering if we should have a drink. There are curtains on the windows, as well as words like “Restaurant” and “Lounge” stenciled onto the glass; there’s a lot of stone and tile; the furniture is heavy-looking. What I call “office plants” sit in corners. A video was being projected against the back wall (or not, as you can see from the photo below), and Middle Eastern music was playing. I felt like I was at the coolest spot on the Upper West Side. Many people didn’t love the decor in Il Matto, but to my mind it at least acknowledged the strength of the room; what’s the point of having all those big windows above street level if you’re going to obscure them? (That said, I have no doubt many people will prefer the new version.) The lounge area might be fine for a group—the couple making out in the other half felt at home there—but I don’t like to eat food at knee level and I don’t like to drink without food, so we went across the street to Petrarca.

I returned to White & Church last night, solo this time (which isn’t ideal because my picture- and note-taking are much more conspicuous). The restaurant was fairly empty, so I grabbed a seat at the bar—right in front of the spice jars filled with insects.

Il Matto’s shtick, in case you weren’t familiar with it, was that the food was edgy because chef Matteo Boglione was a madman (“Matto” in Italian); his wife, Christina Bini, made drinks that had odd touches like vegetables and stones. Boglione and his partners, in revamping the restaurant, said the food would get friendlier (I didn’t think it was that crazy), but Bini would still make avant garde cocktails. In fact, judging from the number of insects on the cocktail list, she’s pushing the envelope even farther.

I knew I should order from the “innovative” part of the drink menu, but the room made me defensive. I ordered a Negroni (right), the pecorino crème brûlée, the farro salad with shaved baby artichokes, and fried zucchini blossoms. The food menu includes entrées, but increasingly, I’d rather order three appetizers than an appetizer and an entrée.

It’s possible that the Negroni is responsible for what happened next, but…. The night turned highly enjoyable. I had a front-row seat as Bini and the other bartender made their funky cocktails. A martini with a garnish of smoked salmon made more sense when it was in front of me. A red drink that I think was the Maltese martini—ginger-infused vodka muddled with red bell pepper, among other ingredients—got a pretty radicchio garnish. The cocktail that I’m still kicking myself for not shooting was the Ovetto Fritto, from the trompe l’oeil section of the menu. Served in a dish (the restaurant is fond of wide bowls that call to mind high-end dog dishes), it resembles a fried egg; the yolk is a peach, and I watched enthralled as Bini painted a balsamic vinegar reduction dark around the edge of the white part. You “drink” it with a spoon and a straw. Bini was adorable, and I don’t mean that in a patronizing way: I genuinely enjoyed her focus, her precision, her enthusiasm. She would hold out a clump of basil, make me smell it, and exclaim, “I love it!” She offered me someone else’s dividend of a frozen drink called Smilla, as in “Sense of Snow.” It tasted of celery, which I happen to be feeling in a huge way these days, but I won’t bore you with it—just buy some celery at the Greenmarket when it’s available and you’ll see how herbaceous it can be.

Emboldened by the gin—and more inclined to trust the bartenders—I asked Bini to recommend something “innovative” as a second drink. She suggested the Basil Americano, with Campari, vermouth, and Pellegrino orange soda, with a basil and carrot garnish. The drinks are conversation pieces, but the ones I tasted were also delicious. As for the insects, I asked if anyone orders the bugs, and Bini said, “A lot, surprisingly.” She then offered me a taste of something else but I was already two sheets to the wind.

I’ve been focusing on the drinks because White & Church struck me as a bar with food: I counted around 25 seats at tables, while the bar and lounge areas could probably seat at least 40. It’s impossible and unfair to judge the cooking when I only tried three dishes, but I will say that the pecorino crème brûlée was much better than I remembered; I finally understood why it’s a signature dish. The farro got the job done, and the zucchini blossoms were nicely fried. And the service was far better than from what I recall at Il Matto, even if the waiters have “explaining disease”—I know what I ordered!—although I could see it coming in handy in regard to the drinks.

The place has retained some of its quirks: The flatware still doesn’t interact well with the dishes; the music included Barry Manilow singing the “American Bandstand” theme. Despite my reservations about the decor, the restaurant feels like it’s on the right track. Given that the drinks are guaranteed icebreakers and the lounge seems to have an arousing effect (last night, another couple moseyed up to the lounge to neck for a minute or two), White & Church might be Tribeca’s best place for a first or second date.

Someday, as a public service, I’m going to invent a sandwich board that doesn’t look tacky.


1 Comment

  1. Wow. Thanks for the review. I appreciate all the work you do in putting together this site. I will have to check it out.