Over the past decade, Jody Williams has established a serious food-industry following. Mario Batali, with whom she worked at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, has called her one of his favorite American chefs; in 2007 restaurateur Keith McNally tapped her to open Morandi, his first trattoria.
But not every great chef is hardwired to be an empire builder. Instead of leveraging these votes of confidence into a cookbook deal, a food show and an outpost in Vegas, Williams chose to cater to an increasingly diminutive audience. At her last project, the precious wine bar Gottino, she served serious small plates in a space no bigger than a walk-in closet. At her latest, the equally tiny, Gallic-themed Buvette, she's got just enough space to feed a neighborhood following. Indeed, with so little room for gastro-groupies, rhapsodic reviews may be the last thing she needs.
Williams thrives in this intimate setting. As at Gottino (which still operates a few blocks away without her), the approach is small but exacting. She's filled every nook with old picnic baskets, teapots and silver trays, among other vintage ephemera. There's a bouquet of old rolling pins behind a glossy red Berkel slicer, antique nutcrackers on the marble-topped bar beside baskets of walnuts and almonds in their shells---much of the design here is both striking and practical. Even the bottles of wine seem to have been chosen as much for their aesthetics as their drinkability.
The food is just as thoughtfully curated, served on tiny plates and in little jars and crocks, receptacles tailor-made for the restaurant's very tight quarters. Williams packs an awful lot of flavor into these dishes. They arrive all at once as a bountiful spread, designed to be shared like an indoor picnic. There's exceptional fluffy brandade (house-cured salt cod emulsified with garlic-steeped milk) and rustic hand-cut steak tartare anointed with a sprightly mix of frise, capers and cornichons. There are rich shredded goose and pork-butt rillettes, too, studded with prunes plumped in red wine.
This self-consciously retro cooking is a showcase not of the chef's creativity but of her very good taste. Her classic ratatouille with garlic toast is a seasonal special of diced zucchini, eggplant and peppers. Gorgeous pink slices of chilled leg of lamb are topped with flageolet beans and black-olive tapenade.
Buvette is the sort of place where you pop in for a glass of wine and a snack---hunks of creamy Noble Road Brie; slices of saucisson sec fished from jars filled with herbed olive oil---and three hours later realize you've stayed for dinner. You've polished off a delicious cocotte of falling-off-the-bone coq au vin (the closest thing to an entre here), plus a fat, beautiful slice of perfectly caramelized apple tarte Tatin.
In spite of herself, Williams's new restaurant, which opened quietly just after the start of the year, seems to have already outgrown its sliver of real estate. Come nightfall, the queue for a seat often extends out the door, the long wait list scrawled on a chalkboard inside. The best neighborhood joints, like Buvette, may be designed with friends and neighbors in mind. But when they're this accomplished, they can't stay local for long.
Vitals Eat this: Brandade, steak tartare, rillettes, leg of lamb, coq au vin, tarte Tatin
Drink this: The wine list, limited to France and Italy, includes Chateau d'Esclans's Whispering Angel, a bright, summery Provence ros available by the glass ($10) or bottle ($39). Among the handful of aperitif cocktails, there's a classic Manhattan ($12) featuring lush WhistlePig Rye (made in Vermont by the former master distiller at Maker's Mark).
Sit here: The best seats are at the marble bar, which is spacious compared with the cramped two-tops. Big groups can book the big banquet table in back (where Williams offers order-ahead feasts).
Conversation piece: Williams calls her new project a "gastroteque," a made-up word encompassing, she says, "your early-morning coffee, your luncheonette, your stand-up, sit-down dinner." The restaurant opens at 8am on weekdays, serving velvety scrambled eggs, steam-cooked using the milk frother of an espresso machine.