Entries in Gramercy Tavern (4)


Gramercy Tavern

For the legions who regularly run the gauntlet for a coveted reservation at Gramercy Tavern, I have some good news: you won’t have to compete with New York Journal for a table. After our visit there last Friday, we believe we are finished with Gramercy Tavern.

It’s not that we had a bad meal here (far from it), but we think there are far, far better ways to spend $86 per person—that’s the current prix fixe, the cheapest ordering option in the dining room. For all that, Chef Michael Anthony serves unmemorable, timid food that resembles an average night at his original restaurant, the less-expensive Blue Hill.

Our last visit to Gramercy Tavern was truly disappointing, with one of our pasta dishes served cold. To the restaurant’s credit, the general manager emailed me to follow up, and after we spoke on the telephone, sent us a $150 gift certificate. That’s about as generous response to a mishap as you can ask for, and typical of Danny Meyer’s empire: they truly want to please you.

But when you have a meal without any obvious mistakes, what are you left with? I cannot tell you that Michael Anthony is doing anything wrong. We don’t particularly mind that the menu is uninventive: there are no greater fans than we are, of classics done well. But to us, Gramercy Tavern is a big bore, the flavor profiles unchallenging and bland.

The trio of amuses-bouches was very good: a small lobster salad (above left), a potato puff with olive tapanade (center), and a cauliflower custard with sea urchin (right).

But we found muted and under-seasoned flavors in Whole Spelt Spaghetti with cauliflower and broccoli rabe (above left) and Lamb Pappardelle with olives, lemon confit and swiss chard (above right).

Entrées were served in ridiculous frisbee-sized plates with only a tiny amount of food in the center. The server informed us that lobster (above left) would be served medium rare, whatever that is supposed to mean. Some things just aren’t meant to be al dente. This flimsy, flaccid imitation of lobster should be dropped from the menu.

Venison Loin (above right) had a hearty flavor, but the casing on the accompanying sausage was too tough, and once you got inside the flavor payoff wasn’t there.

Curiously, the potato pancake that came with the venison (left) was much heartiier than any of the appetizers or entrées. It had the rich flavor that so much of the food lacked.

Things improved markedly when we got to dessert. Pastry Chef Nancy Olson’s desserts are all classics, but they grab you in a way the savory courses fail to do. The pre-dessert, if I recall correctly, was a mandarin orange jelly with mascarpone (not pictured).

We then had the Pineapple Upside Down Cake with frozen yogurt (above left) and the Slow Roasted Apples with pecan crumble and vanilla ice cream (above right). Both were excellent. The petits-fours were very good as well, and we were sent home with complimentary muffins, also from Chef Olson’s pastry kitchen. She really should branch out on her own.

A cup of cappuccino had to be sent back (not enough whipped cream), and a cup of espresso tasted like motor oil.

The service? Well, this is a Danny Meyer place overall. We remain annoyed that neither bread nor canapés are served until after you have ordered, which the GM informed me is a deliberate choice. But it does mean that if you want to relax over a drink, you have nothing to nibble on in the meantime.

We do not expect our review to affect Gramercy Tavern’s overwhelming popularity, and it shouldn’t. If you’re one of those to whom this cuisine appeals, we wish you well. We’ll be dining elsewhere.

Food: *½
Service: **½
Ambiance: **½
Overall: **

Gramercy Tavern on Urbanspoon


Gramercy Tavern

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Note: Click here for a more recent review of Gramercy Tavern.

It’s hard to be both good and popular. Large restaurants with mass appeal can’t risk challenging their customers with unusual recipes, ingredients that are hard to pronounce, or menus that stray far from the old standards.

These realities are evident at Gramercy Tavern, which has practically defined New American haute barnyard cuisine since its debut in 1994. It was the first restaurant as co-owner for chef Tom Colicchio, who had worked his way through several three and four-star kitchens; and the second restaurant for Danny Meyer (after another huge hit, Union Square Cafe).

The list of chefs who have cooked in Gramercy Tavern’s kitchen reads like a who’s who of New York dining: Marco Canora and Paul Grieco (both now at Hearth, Insieme and Terroir); Jonathan Benno (now chef de cuisine at Per Se); Damon Wise (now executive chef at Craft); pastry chef Claudia Fleming (now co-owner at North Fork Table & Inn); John A. Schaefer (now chef–partner at Irving Mill).

Before they opened, Meyer and Colicchio rather foolishly said that they were out to “reinvent the four-star restaurant.” Then, as now, if you say you’re gunning for N stars, it’s a sure bet you’ll get at most N–1 . That’s exactly what happened, as Ruth Reichl awarded an enthusiastic three stars in the Times. But as Colicchio drifted away, the restaurant ran on auto-pilot.

Two years ago, Meyer and Colicchio had an amicable divorce. Colicchio wanted to focus on his Craft empire, and Meyer wanted a full-time chef. To replace Colicchio, Meyer hired Michael Anthony, formerly Dan Barber’s partner at  the Blue Hill restaurants—places that borrowed a lot from Gramercy’s haute barnyard ethos, and arguably improved upon it.

The current Times critic, Frank Bruni, had “a few forgettable dinners” and “a clumsy, laughable one” during the first few years of his tenure. Unusually for him, he gave Anthony time to right the ship before weighing in with a respectful three-star re-review last June. Bruni was about right, when he noted:

There are restaurants with more shimmer, and there are certainly restaurants with more spark. There are restaurants that take bigger chances and stake bolder claims to your attention.

But is there a restaurant in this city more beloved than Gramercy Tavern?

gramercytavern_inside.jpgIt was a tough to get a table here in 1994, and it is tough today. In the Zagat survey, Gramercy Tavern is the second-most popular restaurant in New York (behind only Union Square Cafe). Its Zagat food and service ratings are 27 out of 30; no restaurant is higher than 28 in either category

When reservations opened for Valentine’s Day, they sold out in something like fifteen minutes. Even on a “normal” day, Gramercy Tavern is usually booked solid at prime times. To be sure of getting a table, you need to call four weeks in advance at 10:00 a.m., wait on hold, and cross your fingers. By the time you get through you may find that 5:30 and 10:00 are the only times remaining. We were finally able to book on OpenTable during the slower summer season.

gramercytavern06.jpgGramercy is really two restaurants in one, with a casual no-reservations “tavern room,” which serves an à la carte menu; and the more upscale (but not really formal) dining room, where your only choices for dinner are an $82 three-course  prix fixe, which we had, or one of two tasting menus ($88; $110).

Like all of Danny Meyer’s restaurants, Gramercy Tavern practically defines excellent service. I was seated immediately, even though my girlfriend had not yet arrived; and they gave us as long as we wished to ponder the menus. There was no sense of being rushed through the meal, even though you can bet your life that our table was going to be turned. Our three-course dinner played out over a relatively leisurely two hours and forty minutes.

gramercytavern01.jpgThe wine list is of middling length, but there is something on it for just about everybody. I was pleased to find a 1996 Fronsac for $72, an unusually low price for a decently aged French wine. It was a bit tight at first, but opened up nicely over the course of the evening.

The amuse-bouche (photo right) was a small wedge of house-made sausage. There were three kinds of bread to choose from, but none of them really floated my boat. The olive bread was too hard, and the butter wasn’t soft enough.

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Foie Gras Custard with cherry marmelade and hazelnuts (above left) was probably the most exciting dish we tasted. Besides being very good in its own right, it was a more creative way of presenting foie than the usual terrine or torchon.

But Lamb Pappardelle (above right) was cliché, other than the unusual beet greens on which it lay, and it wasn’t quite warm enough. It wasn’t a very attractive plating, either.

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Neither entrée offered a trace of originality. Glazed Duck Breast and Duck Leg Confit (above left) were at least impeccably prepared. The duck skin was crisp, the inside succulent and tender. We were less enchanted with Rack of Pork and Braised Belly (above right). The rack was slightly on the tough side, while the belly didn’t have quite the crisp–gooey texture that it should.

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If, like the rest of the meal, the sweets were devoid of fanfare, they were all at least well executed. The palate cleanser (top left) was a strawberry–rhubarb crisp. I had the selection of cheeses (top right), while my girlfriend had the Grand Marnier Mascarpone Cheesecake (bottom left), which she felt the average chef could make at home. I found nothing wrong with it, though. The meal concluded with petits-fours (bottom right).

I agree with Frank Bruni that the empire’s best food in Danny Meyer’s burgeoning restaurant empire is now being served at Eleven Madison Park and The Modern. (Bruni favors the latter’s bar room over its formal dining room, but at least he has the right address.) Gramercy Park has become the Zagat set’s go-to occasion place. There’s no doubt that Michael Anthony is a serious chef, and unlike Tom Colicchio he’s actually here most of the time. But the menu falls back on predictability, which doesn’t leave much room to excuse its occasional flubs.

You won’t have a bad meal at Gramercy Tavern—far from it—but there’s more excitement to be had elsewhere.

Gramercy Tavern (42 E. 20th Street between Park Avenue South & Broadway, Flatiron District)

Food: **
Service: ***
Ambiance: **½
Overall: **½


The Payoff: Gramercy Tavern

Today, Frank Bruni awarded three stars to Gramercy Tavern. A good deal of what we predicted yesterday came true. As expected, it was a “yes, but…” kind of review:

  • There are restaurants with more shimmer, and there are certainly restaurants with more spark. There are restaurants that take bigger chances and stake bolder claims to your attention.
  • They steer clear of anything too challenging, and if tameness is a consequence, so be it. Gramercy has never been a destination for the most adventurous or jaded gourmands.

Bruni reiterated his view that Gramercy Tavern is no longer the flagship of the Danny Meyer empire:

  • It doesn’t scale peaks as high as those at Eleven Madison Park, currently the most exciting restaurant in Mr. Meyer’s collection. But like a solid marriage rather than a heady love affair, it has stood the test of time, righting itself when it starts to go wrong, knowing that what’s at stake are a great many warm memories, some yet to be made.

As we imagined, Meyer nailed the balance between casual and formal that Bruni finds lacking—the casual part, that is—at many high-end restaurants:

  • The service is back on track, with its trademark blend of coddling and unpretentiousness, a mix that Gramercy nailed well before other restaurants and that explains a lot about diners’ loyalty to the restaurant. They find comfort in rooms with well-spaced tables and one rustic touch for every two elegant flourishes. Gramercy Tavern is a homey retort to the slickness of some fine-dining peers, and minor changes to lighting and art have made it look fresher, less where your grandmother goes after needlepoint class and more where your aunt goes after Italian for the Umbria-bound.

But having correctly predicted all of that, we failed at the one prediction that counted: the rating. Frank Bruni awarded three stars, and we predicted two. We don’t like losing, but if it has to happen, we’re glad it happened this way. In Frank Bruni’s three years on the job, this was one of the few times he awarded the correct rating to a restaurant, simply for doing classic things well. We would not be so foolish as to suggest Frank has actually learned something. We expect him to be back up to his old tricks again soon.

We lose $1 on our hypothetical wager, while Eater wins $3.50 at 7–2 odds.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $34.00   $35.67
Gain/Loss +$3.50   –$1.00
Total $37.50   $34.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 14–3   12–5

Rolling the Dice: Gramercy Tavern

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews the newly-retooled Gramercy Tavern, with Blue Hill alumnus Michael Anthony now in the kitchen. Eater’s official odds are as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 9-1
One Star: 8-1
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: 7-2 √√
Four Stars:

The Skinny: Eater is clearly as conflicted about this wager as we are. Only a half-point separates the most probable outcome (3½–1) from the next-most probable (3–1). To the best of our recollection, the Eater odds on two different outcomes have never been so close. Indeed, the careful Brunomics watcher can put together a quite compelling case for two stars or three.

The case for two stars. In Bruni’s infamous six-star double-review of Eleven Madison Park and the Bar Room, posted just five months ago, he drew a highly unfavorable contrast to the other restaurants in Danny Meyer’s empire:

I prefer them to Tabla, to Union Square Cafe and definitely to Gramercy Tavern, whose luster had dimmed some even before the chef Tom Colicchio officially severed his ties in August. It’s anyone’s guess how it will emerge from its current state of transition, which isn’t pretty. During a meal there last month a fillet of cod was a mealy catastrophe. Servers tried to deliver another table’s entrees to ours, then tried to deliver the same desserts twice.

Restaurants seldom get a second chance with Frank Bruni. Once he gets a negative impression, it tends to persist. His comments in the double-review are significant for another reason. The whole premise of the review was that the torch had passed from the former flagships of the Meyer Empire—Union Square Cafe (for which Meyer’s corporate umbrella is named) and Gramercy Tavern—to the Bar Room and Eleven Madison Park. If he gives three stars to Gramercy Tavern, he can’t help but admit that the whole premise of the earlier review was, if not wrong, at least premature.

On top of that, Bruni loves to slay sacred cows, and few restaurants are more sacred than the perennial Zagat leader, Gramercy Tavern, which is currently tied for the best food in New York City—as it usually is—at 28 out of 30. And lastly, a number of critics have been less-than-wowed by the current incarnation of Gramercy Tavern, suggesting that Michael Anthony simply hasn’t maintained the magic of the the Tom Colicchio era.

The case for three stars. Frank Bruni is a man of predictable habits and predilections. And he definitely has a predilection for Michael Anthony’s food—or at least, the kind of food Anthony is known for. He awarded three stars to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, when Anthony was sharing the helm there with Dan Barber. And he did it again last summer, awarding three stars to the original Blue Hill in Greenwich Village. Anthony was gone by then, but by all accounts he has brought the same cooking style with him to Gramercy Tavern.

And the smart money says that, with a few months to work on it, Danny Meyer surely will have smoothed out the service glitches that Bruni complained about in January.

Our conclusion: The three-star case definitely seems weaker. On top of that, Bruni is seldom wowed by the luxury service that high-end restaurants like Gramercy Tavern offer. He is liable to give no credit for service (unless it is absolutely pitch-perfect and unfussy), and then to penalize a $76 prix fixe, on the grounds that substantially the same food is available at Blue Hill for considerably less money.

If Bruni does award three stars, we suspect it will be with significant reservations, and not the exuberant three stars that the Bar Room and Eleven Madison Park (or, more recently, Esca) received

The Bet: We hate to do it. We really hate to do it. We are kicking ourselves for doing it. But we just can’t bring ourselves to believe that Frank Bruni will award three stars to Gramercy Tavern—much as it may deserve it. We are placing our money on two stars.