Usually when friends want to go out to dinner, “British” is not on their top list of desired cuisines. Nevertheless, the buzz about British restaurant Whitehall has been building since it opened six months ago, and it’s full almost every night. We stopped by recently to see what gives.
The atmosphere is the first draw. Big plate glass windows look out onto bustling Greenwich Avenue, but the dimly lit interior still feels cozy. White subway tiles, Edison bulbs and metal school chairs nod to the design motifs of the day, putting hip restaurant habitues at ease immediately upon entering. The spacious bar with more than 10 seats is another reason to feel welcome here.
Unlike a few other farm-to-table establishments, Whitehall doesn’t take itself too seriously. A gin special is called “Mother’s Ruin of the Week,” and a vegetable side is “mushy pea fritters.” This self-deprecating sense of humor makes the actual food and drink even more pleasurable when you taste it – British food isn’t so bad after all!
We started with two of the house cocktails, the No. 3 – gin, sparkling wine, lemon juice, and blood orange pineapple jam ($12) – and the No. 8 – mezcal, the King’s Ginger liqueur, grapefruit, lime and soda ($13). Both were wonderfully refreshing, complex but oh so easy going down.
An appetizer of oysters Kilpatrick ($20) proves yet again that everything’s better with bacon. They’re baked in their shells with bacon bits and vinegary remoulade à la new Orleans, but Worcestershire sauce puts these oysters firmly in British territory.
The kitchen, helmed by chef Chris Rendell, also has a knack for sausages: the finely ground, spicy pork one in an appetizer of impossibly tender pan-roasted squid ($13) really makes the dish.
We received a gratis watermelon salad with feta when one of our entrees was delayed. It was a surprise in more ways than one, because it was so fresh and crisp, a perfect composition of vegetally sweet watermelon and salty feta, fresh oregano and a splash of red wine vinegar, that it barely seemed British at all – until you remember that Nigella Lawson popularized a similar recipe in her cookbook Forever Summer.
An over-easy egg on top of the Whitehall burger ($16) took me back to New Haven’s Yankee Doodle times. There’s something so eminently satisfying about a burger topped with an egg. The rest was a little more complicated than necessary – pickled beets on top, Worcestershire sauce and other spices in the beef patty mix – but the Worcestershire sauce at least was in keeping with the British theme. Excellent fries came flecked with herbs, and the artisanal ketchup alongside will make you think twice before you put down this classic condiment.
From the “simply grilled” menu section, the lamb sirloin ($27) arrived perfectly medium rare, infused with herbal flavor, dotted with peas and accompanied by pea fritters. Even a child would love these peas. “Mum’s mint sauce” served alongside was duly minty but unexpectedly spicy, like a mint chutney.
A surprising leitmotif here is the vegetables. There were lots of them, and lots of fresh herbs, in almost everything we ordered. This, I think, is the key to Whitehall’s success. Meat eaters get what they want, but there’s also plenty for the non meat-eaters here, who could bypass the more traditional British fare for new school items like navy bean soup with fennel oil dressing ($10), or root vegetable and curried lentil stew ($19). If these are anywhere near as well-executed as the side of asparagus with pine nut dressing ($8), vegetarians have nothing to fear. There’s something for everyone here.
So Whitehall is British, but it’s not your grandparents’ British. This is Great Britain as represented by Jamie Oliver and so many other British chefs who are doing wonderful things with fresh ingredients. It’s only a matter of time until Whitehall’s style of cooking replaces our idea of what British food really is.
19 Greenwich Avenue, between Christopher and West 10th Streets
New York, NY