Review: Butcher and the Rye
The Cultural District hotspot sizzles with its extensive whiskey collection and assortment of large and small plates.
Photos by Laura Petrilla
From the day it opened in November, Butcher and the Rye, the much-anticipated creation of Tolga Sevdik and chef Richard DeShantz, has been one of the hottest tickets in town. You may be familiar with the pair’s first restaurant collaboration, nearby Meat & Potatoes, which is packed daily and generally must turn away countless would-be diners who can’t get reservations. Hence the need for another Cultural District spot within striking distance.
In some ways, Butcher’s physical space determined the restaurant concept. “This is a very unusual place,” says DeShantz. “The kitchen is in the basement, and each level has several distinct spaces. We saw this as both a challenge and an opportunity. We wanted each space to have a different design and feel so that every time you turn the corner, you see something new.”
DeShantz and his team designed the restaurant themselves, and every area exhibits quirky charm. On the entry floor, the focal point is the boisterous bar, with a glamorous amber-lit wall of liquor — mainly whiskey — and a local artist’s interpretation of “The Catcher in the Rye,” which inspires the eatery’s name. The first floor also has communal dining tables near the front window, as well as a quieter dining room accented with rabbit wallpaper and antlers hanging from the ceiling. The second floor works in interesting décor pieces — old books and a full-size stuffed bear — and offers a quieter bar with low lighting. To maintain the noise level, only a limited number of guests can enjoy a drink upstairs, where seating is offered on a first-come, first-served basis.
When dining here, a cocktail is a must. Rye whiskey is a highlight; you may want to sample the whiskey flights, ranging from the more modest $16 option to the bigger spender’s $75 assortment of 10-, 12- and 20-year aged whiskeys. Signature drinks include the barrel-aged Manhattan ($12); the lighter Whiskey Daisy ($10), concocted with Old Overholt, St. Germain, lemon, seltzer and plum bitters; and the Sazerac ($10), with Rittenhouse Rye, Demerara, Absinthe and Peychaud bitters.
The menu is eclectic, expressing an array of culinary influences. As with Meat & Potatoes, chefs here don’t shy away from fat and salt; this is a place where indulgence prevails. When it first opened, Butcher served only small plates; however, near the end of December, it added larger dishes to its menu. Butcher’s offerings vary in size and price ($7-$26). Feel free to ask your server for guidance, or start with a mix of small and large dishes and request more as needed.
Bread fans will want to try the warm housemade Parker rolls ($4 for four) plated with three condiments — orange marmalade plus apple-bourbon and honey butter. The beet salad with goat cheese, croutons and pepitas, tossed in a refreshing blood orange dressing ($10), offers a nice mix of textures and colors.
Of the charcuterie options, the duck-liver pâté ($15) comes with sweet Sauterne aspic, a savory gelatin infused with white wine, and is served in a jelly jar alongside grilled bread.
The small plates ($7-$14) are a wide assortment of fun choices. The decadent Brussels sprouts ($8), with brown butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano, are rich and sweet. The crispy pig wing ($8) is a pork shank that has been braised, then fried (like wings) and coated with a sweet yet savory barbecue Thai chili sauce.
Among the large plates, the meat options are so appealing that it’s really hard to choose. The shepherd’s pie ($20) comprises tender braised beef cheeks plated with creamed peas, carrots, potatoes and a touch of horseradish. The Wagyu flank steak ($26) is cooked to your liking and served with fingerling potatoes, smoked blue cheese and a black garlic aïoli.
Seafood choices are limited but worthwhile. The tender monkfish piccata ($16) is served atop chanterelle mushrooms and blue crab risotto — you can actually taste the crab. The crispy-skin, whole branzino ($24) is pan seared then roasted and served with ham, aji amarillo and piquillo ketchup.
Among the few vegetarian choices, the cauliflower ($14) is a toothy blend of farro, cauliflower, carrots and harissa with a romanesco sauce; it’s one of my favorite dishes.
What’s next for DeShantz and Sevdik? They’re working to open a mezcal/tequila bar and taqueria next door; at press time, local artists were painting “graffiti” in the interior. Further down the line, the duo plans to debut a brewpub/smokehouse in Lawrenceville, tentatively called Pork & Beans.
Watch: Behind the Bar
Richard DeShantz, Executive Chef/Co-owner | Butcher and the Rye
What do you want this restaurant to be?
I want it to be an unpretentious, fun watering hole with reasonably priced food. Our concept is sort of a mix between refined and elegant — and rustic. The design of the space is just like the design of the food. We like to think of both as a playground of elements, having fun with layering textures, flavors and colors.
How did you come up with the design elements?
Each room sort of dictated what it [was going] to be. We would start a room and then add things that we thought would work. We used local artists and recycled materials as much as possible. For example, we used a lot of old doors, and our purse hooks are old doorknobs.
To what do you attribute your success?
Honestly, I need to credit my team. You can only be as successful as the employees make you. Cooking can be a horrible job. You can make $8 an hour and work long hours and holidays, and put food on the plate and hate it. Or you can have passion and make the sacrifices to really make something of it. We have such an amazing group of passionate, assertive people here, and we want them to feel appreciated. We have 120 employees now, and we were one of the first restaurants to offer benefits to our employees. Also, Tolga and I are both here every day for long hours, and I think the employees really appreciate that we are in the trenches and really understand what their lives are like.
How will you maintain the quality at Meat & Potatoes now that you are mostly at Butcher?
Again, we have an amazing team at Meat & Potatoes, including bartenders, servers and chefs. Our head chef there, James Ciminillo, has come up through the ranks. He also has sous chefs helping him. Plus Tolga and I are going back and forth; we can walk between the restaurants. I think the restaurants are different but complement each other well.
You also live downtown, correct?
Yes, I moved here [more than] five years ago. It’s great to see the amazing changes that have occurred since I moved here. It feels more like a neighborhood now, and I like to think of our restaurants as neighborhood spots. It’s also nice to support the growth of downtown. Matt [Porco from Sienna Sulla Piazza and the Sienna Mercato restaurants] also lives downtown, and we would like to see more people move here.