Not everything at Foul Witch is small. The dining room is long. The ceilings are high. The bathroom is spacious. The wine pour is fine, which has, in recent months of apparent ounce counting, become generous. But some of its smart, appealing preparations are paltry. Not that they’re trying to keep that a secret.
The new East Village restaurant, which opened in January, follows a couple or several hospitality operations or businesses by some of the same partners, depending on who’s counting what. First was Roberta’s, which launched as a Bushwick juggernaut in 2008. Absent reservations but with the benefit of BYOB and tremendous buzz, the wait for tables wasn’t much faster than the time it took a Netflix DVD to arrive in the mail.
Then came Blanca, which, after occasional engagements, formally took over 12 counter seats inside Roberta’s with a $180 per person, wide-ranging 20+ course, three-hour tasting menu in 2012. Though Blanca took bookings, Time Out called them “impossible" to get in a four-star review that summer. Back on the opposite end of the spectrum, Roberta’s pies were available in freezer aisles in-between.
Blanca went on to earn two Michelin sparklers before it closed in 2020. Today, in addition to its original address, Roberta’s has satellites elsewhere in Brooklyn, plus Manhattan, Montauk, Nashville, Houston, Los Angeles and Singapore. Foul Witch was initially conjured as a Frieze Art Fair pop-up in 2018 at a moment when a lot of this was brewing simultaneously.
The 2023 edition has a permanent space on Avenue A, and a decent amount in common with all of the above. It’s Italian. There is zero online availability at press time. It is rusticly appointed, though more polished than its progenitor. It seems sort of trendy enough, I guess, but maybe like your erstwhile indie music fave made a tidy sum and started writing cool-parent children’s books. And, although they aren’t as tiny as they’d be at a tasting, some of the plates skew quite petite.
The polenta ($29) isn’t one of them, for an app, though without explicit categories, the menu’s outline is mostly intuitive. The silken, golden grains are creamy and comforting, gilded with a lusty kiss of barely firmer sea urchin. Together, the textures and slightly-above-room temperature approximate a warm hug, and the urchin lends the, in this case, pretty rich polenta a saline, marine depth. It’s a fun one to play with: a bite of both side by side for distinct sensations; or one or the other, or swirled into harmony. A version previously existed at Blanca.
Sometimes you get what you pay for, others, you pay what something’s worth to you, and occasionally the two shall entwine. If one night in 2012, service at Blanca rattled through the lower end of its rounds, 20, at $180 per person, each dish would have shaken out to $9 by a willfully simplistic calculation. That would be $12.31 at this moment. Part of the conceit at Foul Witch was to turn a bit of Blanca à la carte, and, like buying a bottle of perfume, the true price does rise as volume decreases. It’s the cost of access across many goods and services, widely and sometimes unconsciously accepted. Here, the dollar signs become a little more pronounced farther down the menu.
Maybe the expense of the excellent, included bread is baked in. A lovely baguette is accompanied by the best, salty and dairy fresh butter I’ve had this year, and an oil-soaked focaccia. They’re wonderful on their own, even as the latter’s a little drippy, and intended to match with cheese and charcuterie like the Fire & Ice $16, which combines both with a cool, mild stracciatella and a lower layer of ‘nduja. The proportions are a tick off, with the cheese cloaking, rather than veiling the lightly spiced meat that’s also a little more piece-y than the evenly spreadable consistency expected. Another starter, it’s still among the more industry-typical serving sizes on offer.
Things shrink around the pastas. Asked about the veal tortellini ($28), for example, a staffer is swift to number its 10-12 pieces before other details. Even so, it’s a pauser, seeing how easily counted the stuffed pockets are in what most people will fairly assume is a main. And, while that could make a fun debate, it does fall outside of area entrée norms. What’s there is good, though—the calf soft and concentrated with its dainty springtime flavor inside its expertly finished wrapper posed atop a lightly bovine broth.
A spaccatelli with aged game bird ($29) is less alarming without those individual pieces to tally, but still on the snacking end of the spectrum. Its appropriately springy tubes and tender duck are almost imperceptibly coated in a whisper of an almost sauce seemingly created by its ingredients’ natural cooking process. The sum is showered in pungent, thinly shaved Parmesan, and it all mingles successfully. A couple of larger items like grilled pork ($32) and whole roasted turbot ($145) are also available.
The drink list splits the difference between those old, BYO days and the beverage programs that came later. Beer and wine are available, sans plans for a full bar.
The Vibe: Rustic with polish and probably cool enough, for those who care.
The Food: Italian that follows the pizzas at predecessor Roberta’s and adjacent erstwhile tasting destination Blanca. Excellent included bread, some terrific apps like the polenta with sea urchin and notably small but good pasta options like the veal tortellini.
The Drinks: Wine, beer, and a few non-alcoholic options.
Foul Witch is located at 15 Avenue A. It is open Thursday-Monday from 5-10pm.