Summer is the time for present thinking, so far be it from me to suggest you look ahead to next spring, when your CSA delivery will at some point contain a gaggle of the first itty-bitty squash deemed fit for picking. Should you want to be prepared for those little darlings, though, you’d do well to schedule a visit to the new Butcher & Bee while the sit-down restaurant is still serving its marvelous grilled squash, a local foods master class in a bowl.
There’s nothing overly complicated here, seemingly nothing you couldn’t pull off on a warm June night, with wine bottle open and windows cracked. Thick wedges of squash are grilled and tossed with a spot-on basil pesto, then scattered with enough shattered almonds to remind you of the restaurant’s dual citizenship in the Lowcountry and the Levant.
Of course, a few pesky details could trip up the replication process. How exactly does the Bee kitchen, led jointly by chefs Chelsey Conrad and William Mote, achieve a pesto that penetrates every square millimeter of the squash without sloughing excess oil? What’s the secret to the gorgeous grill marks that allude to fire without presenting as ashy blackened scars? These kind of puzzles might well demand a second round.
While you’re at the table, you’re likely to delve into the other seasonal vegetables that make up the vast majority of the menu, divided into smaller snacks (the kale slaw lives on!), larger snacks and traditional entrees. And here’s where things get weird. Despite all of the excellence encompassed by preparations such as the squash, or a lovely mass of grilled okra pods empowered by anchovy paste, there are a few items that clunk hard.
Kohlrabi dusted with sumac, so pretty in the company of right-angled watermelon radish slices, was nearly too firm to fork. An over-minted melon gazpacho finagled its way into the precise unhappy medium between smooth and chunky.
Yet at Butcher & Bee, which existed for five years as a sandwich shop and BYOB late-night destination before this May graduating into its current full-service incarnation on North Morrison Drive, the blunders don’t register as particularly problematic. Because far more than perhaps any restaurant in town, Butcher & Bee feels like a culinary laboratory, where the experiments are informed by the chefs’ command of flavor and curiosity about ingredients likely to deliver it.
For instance, if you’ve heard anything about Butcher & Bee 2.0 (which was preceded by a similarly formatted Bee in Nashville), you’ve probably heard about the whipped feta. It’s a mound of peppery, custardy cheese, depressed at the center in traditional Middle Eastern dip style. The feta’s fine, but it’s really the honey that fills the hollow which deserves top billing.
The Bee starts with a cup of astoundingly good honey from Horsecreek Honey Farms in Bowman. (To the restaurant’s credit, the menu is remarkably modest about sourcing, perhaps because taste is most telling.) Then it stirs a tablespoon of homemade fermented chili oil into the stuff, so the blend sparkles with sweetness and heat. That’s a terrific example of what happens when you cross local products with a global mindset.
Owner Michael Shemtov is part Israeli, and his enthusiasm for that culture’s cuisine is conveyed through the eggplants, olives, pomegranates and dates that have become increasingly trendy with each successive feat of deliciousness by chefs such as London’s Yotam Ottolenghi, Philadelphia’s Michael Solomonov and New Orleans’ Alon Shaya.
Still, those nods to the Sephardic diaspora are somewhat superficial compared to Butcher & Bee’s Israeli soul. The mood in the modern-looking dining room, with its clean white walls and concrete floors, is scrappy, optimistic and confident.
To be fair, in a restaurant setting, those characteristics don’t translate directly into the prevailing American definition of warmth. Butcher & Bee’s servers, who collectively look like a set of love interests from HBO’s “Girls,” thanks partly to their slouchy checkered shirts, are earnest and kind (while their skill level varies drastically, an attentive manager is on hand to attend to oversights.) But the austere wooden chairs are unforgiving, and chatter veers toward cacophony when the restaurant’s full, things worth noting should you associate dining out with settling in.
Still, the comfort quotient is helped considerably by the bar program, which is a brand-new venture for the Bee team. Cocktails are still coming along: The four drinks detailed on the menu are totally divorced from the restaurant’s guiding principles. There’s nothing like the Z&T served at Solomonov’s Zahav, which features gin infused with za’atar, the Middle Eastern spice blend. On one of my three visits, I had the Slumber Queen, an old-fashioned that inherited its sticky melted lollipop quality from Cheerwine syrup.
Look instead to the beer and wine lists, which are fantastic. The beer lineup is almost entirely local, and super smart where it’s not; if you haven’t yet sampled Evil Twin’s Sour Bikini, here’s your chance to let the tart IPA tear through the rich coconut milk surrounding Butcher & Bee’s terrific greens. As for wine, my server brought the wrong listan blanco when I ordered it by varietal name because there are two examples of the Canary Island grape offered by the glass. Hooray for that kind of confusion, as well as the rest of the volcanic-leaning list, sorted by price and featuring a sextet of intriguing $30 bottles.
Other than the cocktails, if there’s a consistent weakness on the menu, it’s the dinner plates. (At lunchtime, eaters are offered the same selection of mezze, but the entrees are supplanted by sandwiches; Butcher & Bee debuted breakfast within days of this review being written.)
When a diner at a neighboring table rightly complained about a painfully overcooked beef kebab, his server sympathetically told him, “Yeah, the lamb is way better than the beef.” The appealing flavors of a porterhouse pork chop, which spends two sous-viding hours with pepper, sriracha and thyme before basking in the glory of peak summer peaches, are similarly undermined by toughness.
Away from that menu section, though, wonderfulness isn’t hard to find. It lurks in the blistered and puffy pita (not a fixture of the ever-changing bread basket, which is sufficient reason to order hummus.) It invigorates the crisp, verdant falafel, and the current salad of tomatoes and cantaloupe, prickled with a green tomato vinaigrette. I haven’t decided if it extends to the cold shrimp-and-calamari salad, a Thai-inspired collision of lime, fish sauce and honey, but I like it just the same.
Then, dessert. Pastry chef Cynthia Wong is awesomely talented, but more than willing to muck around with popular culture. Her macerated blueberry-topped pistachio financier, filled with a smidge more custard than boring old sweets standards would allow, is really sort of a sophisticated Twinkie. It’s great. And just like Butcher & Bee at its best, it’s both accessible and brave.