New Kid on the Block: 1 White Street

I’m just going to say straight up that there are no placemats and no beer on tap at 1 White Street, and those are the only negative things I can say about the place. Really. After six courses and two and a half hours, that’s all I can come up with.

I can’t really explain why I am so attached to this newcomer already, especially since the price point upstairs (read on) is a once-a-year-max kind of place for me. Maybe it’s the careful and creative renovation of a Tribeca landmark? A chef and sommelier who clearly just love being hosts? The fact that they have their own farm just up the Taconic? The buzz? All of it?

So first, the back story. Chef Austin Johnson and master sommelier Dustin Wilson met in Paris, when Johnson was running the kitchen at Frenchie, the celebrated Paris bistro (he earned a Michelin star there) and Wilson would come by on wine trips to Europe. The two had some overlap here in the states: they both did time at Eleven Madison Park (lots of Michelin stars). And it seems a lot of roads in Paris lead to Tribeca: in 2016, Wilson and Derrick Mize met in France and had the idea to open Verve Wine at 24 Hubert.

Johnson realized early into his teenage years in Omaha that he wanted to cook, so much so that his parents kicked him out of the house at 15 since they didn’t approve of the career path. “I knew I wanted to achieve something in the world of cooking — I was having too much freakin’ fun — so I said ‘peace out’ and I did it. I’ve now worked in the best restaurants in the world.” That was 20 years ago. I’d say it’s worked out.

His vision for New York, once he and Wilson decided they wanted a joint venture here, was to recreate the vibe at Frenchie, a 20-seat restaurant with a tasting menu that had a walk-ins-only wine bar — high top tables, casual food, more rock and roll than fine dining — across the tiny little street it sits on in Paris.

“There was a real sense of community on that street with the neighbors,” Johnson said. “After living that for years and running back and forth, I didn’t want to create a one-dimensional restaurant. I love using my tweezers” [more on that later] “but I have more to offer. A change of scenery is something a lot of chefs don’t get to create for themselves.”

1 White St. was the first place he and Wilson looked at and right away the vision of a vertical Frenchie came into focus. The wine bar would be the ground floor and, as it turned out once covid hit, so would the curbside space. The tasting menu would be on 2 and 3. There’s a kitchen on all three floors. The ground floor would be no reservations and more casual.

“This place is a neighborhood restaurant,” Johnson says. “The first floor is for Tribeca. It’s for a neighbor who wants a burger at the bar with a home-grown salad from the Hudson Valley.”

It’s certainly true that in my first two experiences at 1 White Street — the neighborhood meet-and-greet they hosted a couple weeks ago and last night’s opening day dinner — there was not a whiff of pretention. Every bit and every bite is calculated and considered, but with comfort and hospitality in mind. And when I say comfort, I don’t mean the seating (though the velvet banquette is very cozy). I mean the atmosphere and the attitude toward the diner. There’s a definite vibe, set up by the refined rustic decor (sculptural iron sconces, aggregate stone floors, bleached wood window frames) and the sound track. We caught The Verve (coincidence?), Run-DMC, U2 and the Presidents of the United States of America.

Wilson told me last night that one goal was to reduce the “hovering” that comes with a six-course meal. The servers are required to be at the table a lot as it is, so the staff brainstormed ways to streamline service. For example, the silverware is placed in a cup on the table — and I loved this — and there are no table cloths, which I also loved, but that’s what had me wishing for a placemat (maybe leather?) — somehow it seemed the beautiful ceramic dishes deserved a frame.

It had been ages since I last had a fixed-price, chef-driven tasting menu — well, excluding the great omakase at Takeshi — and while I generally like to be in control, it was such a treat to have someone make all those decisions. No debating, no second guessing, and with six courses, no feeling like you had to pick the one perfect thing. The psychology of it went a long way towards the fact that I could enjoy the food, the wine and the company.

We didn’t get a menu until we paid (the fixed price is $150 a head, and $86 a head for the wine pairing) and it was then that I realized how glad I was to be dispensed with that whole process. Our (many) (excellent and charming) servers seemed to really know their stuff, even on day one. And they will have to be on their toes: the menu will change a lot and often.

So to the food, if you are still with me:
The gougeres — one chromosome away from meringue, as our server said — were delightfully squishy and salty, with bacon baked into the dough and caviar in a neat little pile on top. I am one of those who loves cilantro, and it turns out I love the spice in a cilantro flower even more — they were sprinkled on the peeled and smoked tomatoes. I do not often seek out foie gras, but if it comes with truffle mousse and potato parker house rolls served hot, I just might.

The sea bass in green curry with charred avocado would be the meal I would come back for, if forced to choose just one. And the pairing with the pinot blend from Tasmania was really fragrant and special — even I could tell this was the good stuff. Every dish had something special and surprising — mostly sourced from the farm they created in Columbia County just for the restaurant, so they could grow what they wanted when they could. Chrysanthemum greens. Basil flowers for the pavlova. A caraflex cabbage that comes sized for three bites.

But perhaps my favorite part of the evening was the pacing and the setting. We were seated at a corner table on the second floor, peeking through the trees at a classic Tribeca view. The decor is flawless, and I won’t even get into how exciting it is to sit across from a Gordon Matta-Clark photograph, especially given his New York City and restaurant legacy. And the plates were timed perfectly, which is remarkable for an opening night. We never waited, and never rushed. Johnson had promised that dining at 1 White would not be a precious affair — the idea is to be in and out in about two hours. He was right. To me this is fine dining at its best.

A final note on the Nutopian Embassy connection. Johnson doesn’t love the idea of any kind of food Utopia — too precious. But he’s clearly given some thought to the building’s quirky heritage. “The food will have no boundaries. It will be all over the map. Foie gras with Thai green curry. Why not? We will call it Nutopian cuisine.”

 

2 Comments

  1. Wow. What a night. I didn’t realize/remember it was to be three levels. I thought it was the one floor. Great story and new restaurant to enjoy.

  2. Well I know where I’ll be going for my birthday dinner this winter! Welcome to TriBeCa.

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