Dining with Moira Hodgson

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Gramercy Tavern’s Winning Formula

Several years ago at Gramercy Tavern, I sat next to an elderly bald man in a striped suit. He was eating alone, after kicking off with a martini. He had a three-course lunch: prosciutto and brioche toast, braised lamb with lentils, blueberry tart, plus a glass of red wine and an espresso. Given the food and the service, he could’ve been dining at a top-notch restaurant in Paris, were it not for the fact that the newspaper he pored over throughout his meal was not Le Monde , but the New York Post .

Gramercy Tavern is not a temple of haute French cuisine; it’s quintessentially American. When the restaurant first opened 10 years ago this summer, partners Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio made a splash on the scene with a new form of “haute” dining, American style. The dress code was relaxed and the dining rooms had a tavern feel, with plain wood floors and a casual bar at front where you could eat without a reservation. But the food in the main dining rooms was as elaborate and the service as “correct” as any temple of French gastronomy.

I didn’t fall in love with Gramercy Tavern right away. Of course, the food was great (how could it not be, with Tom Colicchio in the kitchen?) and the wine list was equally impressive. But I found the atmosphere, rather stiff-as well as the bill.

Over the years, however, Gramercy Tavern’s food has become simpler and more focused on ingredients with a capital “I”-a philosophy that reached its zenith in Mr. Colicchio’s Craft, where diners select the ingredients and put together their meal as they choose. Also, heavy brown velvet curtains have been installed in the Tavern’s various dining areas, softening the hard edges and absorbing noise. Everything feels more relaxed. So now that the restaurant is celebrating its 10th birthday, I invited some friends to join me there for dinner.

“I haven’t eaten here for years,” said one of my guests after we’d sat down to dinner and were looking at the menu ($95 tasting, $72 three-course prix fixe). “I didn’t come back because I found it a bit precious.”

As if on cue, our waitress, who wore a black vest with a white shirt, arrived at the table and set down before each person an oversized white bowl. “Diced watermelon salad with melted feta cheese, niçoise olives and microgreens,” she said. The salad was nestled in the middle of the bowl, a thimble-sized portion that looked like an arrangement of miniature semi-precious stones.

My friend stared down at his dish. “An awful lot of words for such a teeny, weeny thing.” But then we tasted the teeny, weeny thing. Each ingredient of this minuscule single mouthful stood out; the juicy beads of watermelon were perfumed with the aroma of fresh mint. If the point of the so-called amuse bouche is to open your appetite, this certainly did the job. It also set the tone for the meal: summer harvest, with ingredients so fresh you’d think the restaurant had its own farm out back.

Tom Colicchio, with his long-time executive chef John Schaefer, has a gift for extracting maximum flavor from his ingredients. His food is vivid and joyful, with unusual juxtapositions that never seem overwrought or forced. All my favorite summer things were on the menu: sweet corn, sugar snap peas, beets, tomatoes, figs and even gooseberries (you don’t often see the latter in America, although they’re very popular in Britain-they were once banned here because they carried a disease that killed white pine).

The corn chowder is amazing-a distillation of essence of sweet corn, laced with tiny cubes of potato, chanterelles and onion, and seasoned with tarragon and (surprisingly) caraway seed. Sweet corn also comes as a sauce with salmon: two generous square chunks baked in salt and garnished with a silvery piece of crisp skin and lobster mushrooms. It looks like a dish served in a Japanese restaurant.

Chanterelles and sugar snap peas, scented with lemon verbena, are a summery mix to go with roast scallops. And a soup of sugar snap peas, garnished with pea shoots, complements the Maine crab meat, along with a deep concentration of lemon buerre blanc, sprinkled with pieces of smoky fried pancetta and given a spicy crunch of pink peppercorns. Briny pieces of glistening lobster recline invitingly on a salad of artichokes barigoule, roast tomatoes and herbs, with the cooking juices of the artichokes emulsified into a vinaigrette.

“I’ve changed my mind about the cooking here,” my friend said at last. He had ordered monkfish, which was wrapped in thin, crisp strips of pancetta that look like wires. It came with gooseberries, which added tartness, and soft, almost melted roast beets laced with red vinegar.

“This food’s not twiddly or precious at all. It’s great.”

It was great. Braised lamb shoulder, tender enough to cut with a spoon, was paired with rare loin chops. The dish was brought together with a zap of lemon confit, and garnished with Swiss chard and Jerusalem artichokes. Delicate pieces of rosemary-scented rabbit came with a rustic combination of black olives, roasted shallots, garlic sausage and rabbit livers-and a small white casserole dish with a lid you lift up to reveal perfect mashed potatoes.

The only problem my friend and the rest of us had was that our knives and forks kept sliding into the center of the deep plates, so beautiful for showing the food but, as he put it, ongepotchke -a Yiddish word for “messy” or “impractical.”

Michelle Antonishek’s desserts are as good to eat as they are to behold. They include the best fig tatin any of us had ever tasted, the figs reduced almost to a jam, with pistachio ice cream on the side. The peanut-butter-and-chocolate semifreddo, topped with peanut brittle, elicited a single comment: “Mmmm.” The lemon soufflé tart was an airy fluff on a disc of pastry with lemon curd, served with a tequila-lime ice cream that tasted like a frozen margarita.

The next day, my friend sent me a copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joy of Yiddish . I looked up ongepotchke -and then I found a word that summed up Gramercy Tavern: haimish . It means “welcoming, friendly, relaxed.” And the food’s so good you can even read the Post without losing your appetite.

Dining with Moira Hodgson