The name Gramercy Tavern is usually preceded with the phrase “You can’t go wrong with”. One of NYC’s favorite restaurants among locals and visiting food enthusiasts has received a myriad of awards including one Michelin star, three from the New York Times and, more recently, the 2008 Outstanding Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation. In both public opinion and press accolades, “consistency” is often regarded as its best quality.
The restaurant is divided in two areas; the more relaxed tavern that can be seen through the glass facade and the formal dining room. The latter stretching through 3 rather large spaces that in total sit well over 200 guests. A surprisingly large capacity for a restaurant of this level.
The interior design is a contemporary take on the classic American tavern, with high beamed ceilings and solid wood furniture. Long banquettes upholstered with muted floral patterns, large paintings resembling Native American patterns and pottery displays take you from a busy Manhattan neighborhood to a quaint Yosemite-like lodge.
While the dim light of copper sconces and scattered candles provide an intimate atmosphere, strong spotlights aimed at each table make sure you see what you eat.
Service is very professional and attentive. Each table is set with a great deal of care in every detail; plates facing the correct way, glasses wiped clean, flatware properly spaced. As our drink orders arrived, the waitress asked if we wanted to look at the menu or take our time and relax enjoying our wine first–something rare as restaurants rush service to fit as many sittings per table as possible.
There’s a noticeable gap between staff levels though. While waiters eloquently describe dishes, whenever food is served by food runners, explanations are often wrong or confused.
There are 3 dinner options at the dining room. You can select your dishes from a three-course menu as well as order the full six-course Summer or Vegetable tasting menu. The restaurant is welcoming when it comes to swaps or substitutions. Although the three-course option had some of the most appetizing dishes, I decided to try the chef’s tasting menu.
Michael Anthony’s French training is apparent in the sauces and techniques employed in his dishes. There’s also a Japanese influence noticeable in the delicate fish preparations and presentations. His food is honest to ingredients and makes the most out of each.
Individual bread rolls are served with butter and fleur de sel, promptly after ordering. But unlike most high-end San Francisco restaurants, in NY as proven by my tasting tour de force, serving warm bread doesn’t seem to be a common practice. Gramercy’s was fresh but cold.
As an amuse bouche, House made mortadella, pickled chipollini onions, pistachio. Despite its tiny size, it was a tasty start. But not very surprising.
For the first course, Citrus Cured Arctic Char Lemon Confit. The delicate dish is prepared with char tartar wrapped in lemon-cured char, served with picked Swiss chard. A beautiful presentation with subtle flavors, almost too subtle.
Second; Smoked Trout, Cippollini Purée and Pickled Onion Vinaigrette. The star of this dish isn’t the fish but the onions. Prepared in 3 different ways, from a mild purée to a tangy vinaigrette. The trout itself was fresh and well cooked but by the end of the second course, I was ready for stronger flavors.
Third; Cod, Zucchini Purée and Avocado Squash. A celebration of squash, prepared in 3 different ways. Thin slices of avocado squash, a Korean variety distinguished for its nutty, buttery taste bring a crunchy texture while a smooth zucchini purée ads creaminess to the dish. To complete, a zucchini blossom adds its beautiful color. The cod is perfectly cooked and flavorful.
Forth; Duck Confit, Heirloom Peppers and Eggplant Purée. The duck is crispy and moist; the vegetables, a nice accompaniment. A tasty dish with only one flaw, its size. Almost too small to be appreciated.
Fifth, Rack of Veal, Corn, Tomato and Basil. Served with summer peak white corn, sungold and sun dried heirloom tomatoes. The meat is flavorful, tender and juicy. A good main course.
The first surprising dish on the menu came as a palate cleanser before dessert. A refreshing Strawberry tomato soup served with cherry tomato wedges, lightly salted almonds and balsamic reduction.
There are only 2 options for the tasting dessert; Lemon verbena granita over peach ice cream and a Chocolate hazelnut mousse. In my opinion, the best course on the menu. The delicate mousse is served with mocha ice cream and a caramelized hazelnut. A beautiful combination of flavors and textures worthy of every scoop.
Regrettably absent from the tasting menu is the restaurant’s enviable cheese selection. But as a nice way to remember the dinner from the night before, you go home with a Coffee cake, nicely wrapped to go.
Gramercy Tavern offers a welcoming, elegant ambiance and sharp, attentive service. Michael Anthony’s celebrated cuisine also won’t disappoint. But is quality consistency enough to make an outstanding restaurant? The tasting menu although impeccably prepared felt flat at points until flavors picked up towards the end. I was expecting more diversity of flavors and inventiveness. Apart from the last 2 dishes, I can’t say it was a memorable meal. But in all fairness, eating well is not a synonym with innovation. And if a great meal is guaranteed every time you go, that alone is a well worth reason for Gramercy Tavern to be in so many people’s favorites lists.
Gramercy Tavern is at 42 E. 20th St