Several years ago, a restaurant opened on Upper King Street and quickly became known for late-night eats and brunch on the weekends. A smash hit, it was obvious it had serious talent in the kitchen, but it seemed that the little eatery was content with being a casual place perfect for post-bar snacks and a hangover breakfast the next morning. Of course, there was much more stirring beneath the surface. The restaurant's owners had big plans and a lot of ambition.
The place in question is none other than Butcher & Bee. But what began as a place adored by late-night revelers has blossomed into an approachable mid-range restaurant serving three meals a day that can compete with the best of them. And it's well on its way to proving it's worthy of so much more than a spot for drunk munchies.
Clean lines and a sleek dining room do much to elevate the former hipster haven from it's odd mismatched interior on King Street to a serious contender in the best new restaurant category at its new location on Morrison Drive. The design is beautiful, filled with warm natural sunlight and hints of copper throughout the main dining room. The pleasing aesthetic is a far cry from the previous building that was dark in both mood and color. Seating and dining surfaces have also been upgraded: the new tables have been sanded to a fine grain and the often uncomfortable, awkward chairs — vintage tractor seat, anyone? — at the King Street location are all but gone. In their place are chairs comfortable enough to merit a multi-course dining experience.
Leaning heavily on Middle Eastern flavors, brunch features everything from whipped feta ($5) to French toast with chocolate tahini ($12). The star of the Saturday and Sunday morning menu is B&B's Mezze section ($5 each, $18 for four). Small plates feature produce exclusive of the season prepared with notes of sumac, cumin, turmeric, and garlic. The aforementioned feta was divine and silky, drizzled with a hint of honey and topped with a fresh crack of pepper. Soft, warm homemade pita complemented the mildly sweet whipped cheese. Another winner from the Mezze choices was the kale slaw. Perfectly crisp, bitter-free kale was speckled with welcome hints of sesame and soy. Conversely, the snap beans were given an unexpectedly sour pickle note with just a touch too much vinegar. While pickled green beans are a delicious treat, these were made with a hand that relied too heavily on the vinegar.
In contrast, the traditional brunch items weren't nearly as exciting. The most noteworthy observation about the brunch menu is the obvious lack of true breakfast food. Yes, there is French toast and a "Macmuffin," but I would have appreciated the addition of at least one more exclusively breakfast dish to break up the lunch-heavy menu.
Of the typical breakfast foods, the French toast was dry and burnt. The interior of the toast possessed a creamy texture and had good flavor, but the crust was charred, overpowering the subtle notes inside. Perhaps only the interior of the bread had been soaked in the custard mixture, leaving the crust to burn when fried on a griddle. The double cheeseburger ($16), once the stuff of legend, was also a letdown. While the patties were clearly fresh and handmade, the fat content wasn't high enough to give them the flavor needed to carry the dish. Instead, the ground beef was too lean and seriously lacking salt.
The dish I was most looking forward to ended up being the most disappointing. Shakshuka, originally a North African dish that features hot peppers, paprika, and eggs poached in tomato sauce, is normally a crave-worthy comfort food. Unfortunately, this was one of those cases where the expectation outstripped the reality. This shakshuka ($12) was intensely oily with a sheen of grease coating the top of the sauce. Again, a lack of salt could not be overlooked.
Lunch, however, brings all the playful sandwich combinations Butcher & Bee fans have come to love. The roast beef option ($12), for instance, features tender, pink beef on ciabatta, but with a twist — miso mayo. The condiment sounds like it shouldn't work but somehow bridges the gap between the robust flavor of the meat and the subtle roasted tomatoes and smoked onion jam. That said, $12 is a hefty price for a sandwich sold a la carte.
The mid-day meal isn't limited to sandwiches, however. The Mezze options are all there in addition to items like an Israeli salad ($5) that hit all the fresh notes consistent in Middle Eastern cuisine. The juicy heirloom tomatoes tossed with cucumbers in just a hint of rice wine vinegar were so simple and well executed I couldn't put my fork down.
Seeing as how up to this point everything served was standard B&B fare, I had no idea what to expect when I returned for dinner. I certainly didn't anticipate for my proverbial mind to be blown. But that's just what happened.
One cannot help but be drawn to the small plates listed as the Bees Knees in the center of Butcher & Bee's dinner menu. The first to arrive were the mushrooms ($11). Intensely flavored and unique, this dish featured at least four different types of fungi tossed with garlic and tarragon. Toasted hazelnuts provided an unexpected change of texture and carried the flavor from unctuous umami to roasted salt.
The smoked crispy potatoes ($10) were up next and were initially off-putting and too smoky. That is until I realized there was an avocado-lime chimichurri sauce beneath the potatoes. When enjoyed together the avocado provided a great equalizer to the strong flavor, each bite a satisfying crunch with subtle hints of lime.
My companion chose the lamb ribs ($12) and I'm so happy he did. The most surprising of the dishes with the riskiest flavor combination had the biggest payoff. The signature gamey taste of lamb was offset by an ingenious molasses-and-pomegranate glaze. I hope that this dish stays on Butcher & Bee's menu. I can't imagine dining there without ordering it.
Immediately upon seeing the entrees listed on the menu, I realized that I had to have the pork chop porterhouse ($28). With peaches and bok choy as accompaniments, it was an irresistible selection. My suspicions were confirmed when the table adjacent to me ordered two of them. All conversation at my table came to a halt when they were served to the gentlemen to my left. The presentation was gorgeous with the chop carved into two sharp triangles and presented like a gourmet panini. One half of the pork was tipped artistically onto its side, displaying a perfectly medium cut.
There was just one problem. There wasn't a pork porterhouse being sent my way.
Due to a miscalculation, the kitchen ran out of the popular menu item just minutes before it was due to arrive at my table. The manager was apologetic, and I decided upon the tagliatelle ($18) instead. Fortunately, I wasn't disappointed. Fresh corn and perfectly al dente tagliatelle paired together well, the corn bringing a crunchy sweetness to the dish and the pasta balancing out the palate with a delicious creamy texture.
While the pasta was surprisingly good, the local fish ($24) was the dish of the evening. The local snapper came seared with a crispy skin, seated on a bed of grits more akin to farro — not runny or creamy, the grain was prepared similarly to Valencia rice. Together, the dish was executed with just the right balance of textures and healthy flavors to satisfy without overly filling.
Now normally, I am not a dessert person. I'm generally satisfied merely browsing the post-dinner menu and politely declining a pot de creme or gelato. This is mostly because I tend to order too many appetizers and forget to save room at the end of the meal. But at Butcher & Bee something about peach tarte tatin ($8) sounded like the perfect way to wrap up the meal. And it was. Soft peach was perched atop a crispy tart, placed on a smear of mascarpone and dots of basil coulis. Not too sweet and thoroughly fresh and satisfying, this dessert was in no way an afterthought. Instead, it was a highly conceptualized dish that just happened to exist on the dessert menu. I wish more restaurants would take a page out of Butcher & Bee's pastry chef's book and stop wasting their time with uninspired, flourless chocolate cakes and tiramisu.
Like the late-night patrons who embraced Butcher & Bee from the start, the King Street spot is all grown up and has graduated to an excellent place for dinner. My only hope is that I'll finally get to enjoy that pork chop when I return.