Friday, January 3, 2014


Here's an obvious one for you: this place is fantastic. I was here years and years ago the first time, visited again with ex-New York Times critic Bryan Miller, and once more quite recently. Of course, the menu, the food and the staff has evolved with the progression of time, but the quality and style endure. Chef Michael Anthony is a genuine and approachable as his food, but his demeanor is much more humble than what he cooks.

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The restaurant is loosely subdivided into three areas: the bar and adjacent tables, the dining room and a slightly cordoned off anterior annex of more tables that enjoy a quieter and some what more subdued atmosphere. My only point of contention with the decor is the somewhat jarring and incongruous mural mounted high on the wall the faces the bar. Sure, the collage is farm-ish looking, but it also seems to have been created by a seventh grader, too bright and gaudy for the surrounding farmhouse elegance. Although they are the work of celebrated artist Robert Kushner, so perhaps I am alone in my opprobrium.

It is never not busy here, and reservations are indeed best made far in advance. It is one of the few New York establishments that refuses to rest on its laurels, keeping up with the trends of the moment while retaining its general aesthetic. Of course, this comes at a price, but even the tasting menus offers three degrees of damage: $58, $92 and $120 depending on your desired extravagance. Additionally, the simpler Tavern menu offers some real value . The menu is hyper-seasonal, much of which is sourced from the nearby Greenmarket just blocks away at Union Square.

You can have an equally good, if not slightly less elegant meal, at the bar.  There is a lot of crossover on all menus. Hearty American staples like pork chops and roasted root vegetables avail themselves, but also innovations like butternut squash lasagna or sweetbreads with kohlrabi.  In the dining room, our meal began with a complimentary amuse  that was a diminutive of one of the appetizer options:  a cool mushroom custard bedecked with matchsticks of pickled burdock and earthy sunchoke.  The appetizer version also boasted uni, which would further amplify its luxury.  The staff was valiantly accomodating with menu flexibility, thus I was able to choose a course of the tasting menu for my first course, a composed salad of raw brussels leaves and roasted squash, enlivened with pickled maitake mushrooms and a creamy pillow of ricotta studded with walnuts.  I admit to a modicum of disappointment that the brussels weren't roasted along with the squash, but have to admit that the components of the dish melded
together flawlessly.  The roasty sweetness of the squash against the vegetal leaves of sprout, the rich, dairy pureness of the ricotta, the mildly pickled mushroom with its natural earthiness, and just enough crunchy, toasty nuts for textural balance and pomp.  Not too much of anything, just the right of everything.  Not so the case with a simple chicken soup, that was blatantly too salty, obliterating the delicate mushrooms and clear, herb-flecked broth- a rare misstep.

But then, my monkfish arrived to me underdone to my taste: they unhesitatingly whisked it back to the kitchen and re-fired a new one entirely, this time the moist medallions cooked all the way through, crusted in sumac and surrounded with buttery roasted bits of cauliflower romanesco atop a creamy pap of pureed celeriac.    I might've liked a little more sumac and zip to balance the luxuriously mild accompaniments, but Gramercy does tend towards subtle, earthy vegetal flavors over pomp and pizzazz.  A Southeast Asian nudge gave a sturdy filet of red snapper a golden cloak of curried, butternut squash puree topped 
 with crunchy peanuts and snappy rings of pickled red onion.  Pastured chicken was also unfortunately on the (extremely) rare side, but this time the transluscent, pink flesh wasn't discovered until later than we wanted to wait for a refire- though surely they would've brought back an entire new plate again as well.  Strange, and unlikely that this would happen here, and twice, at Gramercy Tavern, where execution is as a flawless as its balance, seasoning, and seasonality.  I could mention that Michael Anthony happened to be dining at the table across from us, and perhaps his absence in the kitchen was the culprit, but I am more apt to attribute it solely as two (very atypical) blips on the radar.  

Not one to head off into the plummeting temps without a sugared fortification, we chose a single dessert to split amongst the three of us.  A moist golden bread pudding studded with raisins showed well for the classic dessert, crowned with toasty shaved almond and sided with a forcefully boozy Grappa ice cream, the plate swirled with caramel.  As fall presents apple, concord grape and pear sorbets, hickory, butter pecan and ginger ice creams, summer would feature the most profound strawberries, winter digs into quince, caramel and spice, and spring, lemon verbena and rhubarb .  The Tavern's rustic elegance echoes the food's exquisite simplicity.  Next year will celebrate the restaurant twentieth anniversary, and it is easily as popular, reliable and respected as one of New York's finest dining destinations as it was those two decades ago.  

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