Recently having read “Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer, I decided to visit one more table in his many-kitchened empire. Earlier this year, I had visited both the Modern Bar (see here) and Eleven Madison Park where was impressed by young chef Daniel Humm (“review: the earth stood still…“).
I was especially excited about visiting the now-13 year-old Gramercy Tavern because of its relatively new executive chef, Michael Anthony. Anthony landed at the helm of Gramercy Tavern in the later half of last year (2006) after a run at another restaurant I had long-admired, but never visited, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York (where I also had a spectacular meal on this trip to New York).
The evening started off strong and on a good note. The chef offered to cook for us, which on a weekend night, I found to be quite gracious and generous. What I hadn’t realized when we accepted the offer is that in Chef Anthony/Gramercy Tavern parlance, this meant that everyone of us at the table would receive something different for each course.
While I was most appreciative of and grateful for the gesture, from past experience, when each guest gets something different, I find that my attention inevitably gets diverted to some other person’s dish… and what I call “course envy” sets in. There’s a lot of sharing and fumbling with plates and tasting and forks-across-tables… it usually leaves my head spinning after the meal – sensory overload; the meal ends up being confused and fragmented the morning after…
The restaurant was especially busy, and my only disappointment of the evening was that service suffered as a result.
We were serviced, but not always by our server, whom we found missing or hurrying about in our section. I think the restaurant was particularly busy because the room seemed unusually crowded with (extra?) tables (Although I’ve never been in the dining room before, I have seen pictures – but I’m not sure they’re an accurate gauge either). Our poor server was clearly over-loaded and I did feel sorry for him… but it was a little annoying to have to flag someone down to find him a few times. Silverware was not always replaced, and coffee nor after-dinner drinks were ever offered.
The back waitstaff was efficient, but the language skills were a little lacking. I could hardly understand half of what was said that evening, and had to beg for repeats.
Disclaimer: a significant portion of our bill was mysteriously discounted. I didn’t ask what for/why.
As far as food goes, every single dish was impeccably composed and executed. Plating was uniformly beautiful and elegant.
Here was our progression:
Amuse Bouche (a triptych)
Fish and Shellfish
Cheese (we opted the supplement and were not disappointed, despite warnings from a friend not to, for fear of stomach failure).
Pre-Dessert (the *best* pre-dessert I’ve ever tasted in my entire life)
I can’t say that there was one course that failed – not even close. However, I can’t name one dish that absolutely sang, either. They were all very very good. Some I preferred over others, but those instances were strictly a matter of personal taste.
The ingredients were fresh, seasonal, and well-cared for. The preparations were excellent, as stated. Fish were moist and flaky, meats were red, juicy, and flavorful – not over or undercooked. Sauces were rich, some preparations were even heavy at times – but in a reserved and appropriate manner.
Combinations and concepts of the savory items, were, for the most part pretty straightforward: classic, elegant, and simple. No outlandish combinations or contrivances. Now, having been to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, whence Chef Anthony came, I can definitely see the farm-to-table influence in Antony’s approach to cooking at Gramercy Tavern. No plate came with more than perhaps five different elements, and each one could be appreciated on its own, or in concert with the others.
Stand-out dishes: all of the pastas, particularly the House-made Papardelle with Beef Ragu (it was the scallions that did it for me). In fact, if I had to pick a favorite dish of the evening, that would be it. Also, I truly enjoyed (what little I tasted) of my friend’s Smoked Trout with pickled onion vinaigrette and celery root puree. An heirloom tomato salad that I was served at the beginning was also a successful opening volley for the night. Accompanying the fat slabs and marble-sized variety of perfectly ripened tomatoes was a brilliant medley of savory arugula, crunchy croutons, melon-sweet gooseberries, and peppery shaved radish.
Not to be outdone or overlooked, Pastry Chef Olson is my new diva of sweets
Many of you know that I don’t have much of a sweet-tooth, but I was sold at the pre-dessert: “Coconut Tapioca.” A quenelle of bright passion fruit sorbet sat upon a tuile raft floating atop a small pool of passion fruit caramel surrounded by creamy and cold coconut cream studded with perfectly-cooked tapioca pearls (an age-old signature dessert of the restaurant, as many have told me). The entire composition was encircled by a thin ring of cilantro syrup. The colours alone were magnificent. There was silence at the table.
All of our desserts were *wonderful.*
Sweet? Yes. But, wonderful. I can’t say that I had a favorite. All were minor tweaks to old favorites like bread pudding and strawberry shortcake. The most interesting dessert, I think, was a Chocolate-Coconut Tart. Here’s the description of the from my flickr (getting lazy at this point – and you’re probably getting tired of reading):
“Never have I had a dessert so rich and thick, yet so endlessly thrilling. The chocolate tart shell contains a thick gooey pavement of coconut cream chocked full of shredded coconut flakes. The coconut is then layered over with a generous dark chocolate ganache and topped with two candied almonds. It’s like a millionaire’s Almond Joy.
The ice cream is a vanilla base with chocolate, chopped almonds and coconut – basically, an ice-cream version of the tart. The almonds in the ice cream is what actually contributed the almond crunch and flavor to the dessert, as there were none in the tart – only the two “showcase” candied ones on top.”
The food at Gramercy Tavern doesn’t put on showy pyrotechnics. It’s just well-groomed food. The cooking there is solid right now. The service issues, I hope, were just an anomaly, and I was able to overlook them for the most part.
Wine parings were across the board pretty solid and agreeable with my tastes and sensibilities. (I will note that I had stressed to the sommelier that I would only be able to handle maybe two half pours and a beer at the most… this was either not communicated to our server, or poorly managed as we were given generous full pours and my friend and I each ended up with a beer and three full pours before I had to pull the plug. However, I don’t think we were charged extra, which means they were probably just trying to be very generous with our party.)
This was my first visit to Gramercy Tavern, and, based on this meal and Chef Anthony’s and Pastry Chef Olson’s performance, it will hopefully not be my last.