Friday, July 10, 2009

From latkes to coffee cake: A culinary journey at Gramercy Tavern

Last Monday, on my actual ACTUAL birthday, AV and I made our way to a destination none other than Gramercy Tavern. Since last Hannukah, I've had a gift certificate for GT wasting away in my desk, awaiting the perfect time for deployment. Consider that time now. In our holiday finest, we entered the soothing space and were shown to a well-placed corner table in the festive yet understated dining room. After adjusting to the setup of sitting quasi-next to each other (which always takes some getting used to for us... see here), we settled in and were ready to attack the feast to follow.

First up: the drinks. Because nothing screams "celebration" quite like sparkling wine, I went with a glass of Peillot Brut, which was dry, mouthwatering, and crisp-- the perfect aperitif. Meanwhile, AV chose one of GT's creative cocktails: a "Last Straw," which included Maker's Mark, chartreuse, bitters, and iced tea. It was incredibly well-blended while simultaneously being manly and putting hair on your chest. Cue sounds of hunting buffalo, bench-pressing, and ripping open one's shirt to pound one's chest. Manly.


With our drinks in hand, we placed our food order, choosing from the prix-fixe offerings, and were soon greeted by the bread man. Our choices: a "regular" roll, a sourdough slice, and an olive roll, all accompanied by fresh butter and a tiny dish of coarse salt. AV went with the regular roll, and I chose an olive roll. The dough was textbook-ly delicious, crisp on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. The whole olives studding my roll were salty and tender. Perfect.

Very regular

Salty and full of olive-y goodness

Next up: the amuse bouche. We were each presented with a tiny golden ball, which we were told contained olive tapenade inside potato, all resting on a bed of shredded hard cheese (parmesan?). AV proclaimed it "the best thing he's ever put in his mouth" (careful...), and I almost concur: it was perfectly fried with creamy potato and a burst of saltiness in the interior. The cheese in the dish added a layer of flavor and complexity you didn't realize was missing until it hit your tongue. It tasted like a perfectly spherical, salty potato latke, but the uber-latke, if that makes sense. I think if GT had given us just a dish of these amuse-bouches and charged us $86 per person, we would have been happy.

Simple, beautiful perfection

But of course, there was much more food to tackle. Our first courses were coming around the bend, so we left our amuse-bouches behind and readied ourselves. AV chose the lamb pappardelle with olives, lemon confit, and swiss chard. He said it was hearty and filling and tasty (all good things, I promise). Plus, it looked beautiful:

Incredibly photogenic pasta

My starter was the arugula and turnip salad with turnip-saffron dressing. It consisted of a mass of arugula with a few shavings of turnip on top; while I was a bit surprised that there wasn't more turnip incorporated into the dish, the arugula was perfectly dressed and well-flavored, making this salad a light and well-executed beginning to the meal.

Simple and light

After our appetizers were cleared, there was a bit of a wait before our entrees arrived-- perfect for us to digest. In the meantime, my glass of bubbly dispatched, I ordered a three-ounce taste of an interesting white wine, a Txakoli from Spain. It was lively, a bit herbal, and great with food (and kudos to GT for offering the option of full glasses OR tastes for their wines by the glass, just like Proof in DC).

Soon, our entrees did make their way to the table. AV had ordered the Beef Sirloin and Braised Flat Iron, with English peas and Sucrine lettuce. He said it was incredibly rich and tender, making for a very meaty but satisfying meal. It's worth noting it was also quite a big portion, unusual for prix-fixe or tasting menus.

Mmmm, meat

My choice was actually a selection from the Vegetable tasting menu (not the prix-fixe menu), a request they easily accommodated. Entitled "Warm Salad of Vegetables and Black Lentils," it was so much more-- an incredible medley of interesting veggies (check out that purple cauliflower floret!) on a bed of al dente black lentils (themselves an unusual food) and dollops of different sauces. This dish was very filling and almost cerebral-- it made me think about how interesting veggies can be. Delish.

A beautiful melange

And then the moment we'd all been waiting for: dessert. Both of us were pretty full at that point, but press on, people, press on. First, the dessert amuse-bouche (of course), a gorgeous concoction of crisp meringue, mint ice cream, raspberry puree, and a blackberry. This could have served as my dessert on its own, it was that good. And did I mention beautiful?

Like a piece of modern art

While I was tempted by the Rhubarb Brown Butter cake on the dessert menu, I was just a touch too full to attempt it, so I went with the blueberry peach streusel tart. You can see how good it was by the fact that I took a huge bite before I even remembered to take a picture (at least I blew out the candle first...). The tart was incredible, bursting with brown sugar and soft fruit. But the roasted almond ice cream was superlative, and the tiny crumbles of outrageousness it rested upon may have been the best ingredient of all. As you can tell, I liked this dessert, and I also appreciated the effusive "Happy Birthday!" they wrote on the plate. Awww.

Dessert in progress

AV chose the strawberry cheesecake, accompanied by Mandarin Grand Marnier sorbet. I took a bite of the cheesecake, and it was the lightest, airiest, most insane cheesecake I've ever had. If you're craving a real gutbomb, that kind of cheesecake a la Cheesecake Factory that weighs about two and a half pounds per slice, this isn't it; rather, it's a miraculous concoction of cheesecake that almost floats off the fork. With macerated strawberries on top, what else could you ask for?

Cheesy and light

You'd think that we'd be done by then, but my friends, we weren't. A plate of mignardises completed our incredible meal. From the top: a chocolate tart that tasted of some mysterious herb; a chocolate truffle; and a macaron (possibly raspberry?) that was a contender for the best single bite of the evening. Aaannndd cue food coma.

Delicious little bites

Finally, perhaps to ease the pain of the check, GT thoughtfully provides each diner with a take-home coffee cake for the next morning. I can't attest to the deliciousness of this item, as I donated it to the AV Early Morning Eats fund. But from hearsay-- i.e., the fact that both coffee cakes were quickly dispatched at 5:30AM the next morning-- I can vouch for the quality of these parting gifts.

The perfect ending... for tomorrow morning

Gramercy Tavern provided a delightful, delicious, and memorable birthday dinner, just what I've come to expect from Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group. If you're looking for something a bit less formal than Eleven Madison Park but still quite special, GT fits the bill (as long as you can, ahem, fit their not insubstantial bill). From the top-notch bread to the parade of incredible freebies (circular olive latke, I'm looking at you), GT earns its five Offset Spatulas easily.

Gramercy Tavern
42 E. 20th Street, at Park Avenue South

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