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The Road to the 38: Gramercy Tavern in NYC

Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.

Ten minutes doesn't sound like much time, but it can feel like eternity in the Danny Meyer finer-dining universe. That's how long a friend and I waited for a server to greet us at Gramercy Tavern on a Sunday night earlier this month. We sank into our chairs in the handsome back room and then watched the staff circle around nearby tables. We began exchanging puzzled glances when no one paused long enough to say hello. Our waiter arrived at last, a glimmer of fluster under his outward composure, and he didn't apologize. He only asked us what we'd like to drink and launched straight into the menu options. It set a jangling tone for the evening that, service-wise, never quite landed back on key.

First world problems galore, right? Well, this is the beloved institution that established a new order of hospitality in American restaurants. Twenty years ago this July, Meyer and then chef-partner Tom Colicchio implemented a style of service that Meyer had been perfecting at his first venture, Union Square Cafe. The approach was polished yet unusually warm, closing the gap between upscale and casual dining. I know this philosophy endures in practice as well as in theory (for which Meyer is famous): The table next to us had a different server, and we noticed with envy that those guests basked in the fellow's wholehearted attention.

Beef tartare

Colicchio formally left the restaurant in 2006 to devote himself to his own restaurant Craft and Top Chef stardom. Michael Anthony, who had cooked at the Blue Hill restaurants in Manhattan and Westchester County, took over the kitchens shortly thereafter. Nearly eight years into his run, Anthony and his team put out satisfying, approachable plates that match the cozy-swank ambience. Under the elegant wooden beams and butterscotch light, the legions sigh over dishes like beef tartare, its flavors strong and reassuring, punctuated by pine nuts, pickled mushrooms, capers, and chives. The menu doesn't intend to surprise; it aims to comfort with familiarity and impress with sterling ingredients.

Steak with chickpea fries; Tagliatelle with pork Bolognese

Meats higher on the food chain made a particularly strong showing at our dinner. A special of sliced New York strip came nestled in the lap of springtime. The beef was splayed over a bright, masterfully sharp puree that included angelica, green chickpeas, ramps, and spinach. The creamiest chickpea fries stood in for potatoes. And I loved the way Anthony used pork in ways usually associated for beef. A piggy Bolognese tossed with tagliatelle had an appealing unctuousness and meaty bite, and he included the little-seen pork spinalis muscle (sometimes known as the rib cap or deckle in beef) with roasted loin for added richness and textural variation.

Our server did deliver when we asked if we could order an extra course borrowed from the seasonal tasting menu—a gentle lobster salad arranged in an artful jumble of shaved asparagus and pickled ramps.

Lobster salad with asparagus

I lived in New York in the mid-1990s and worked in restaurants, and Gramercy Tavern's opening pastry chef Claudia Fleming was one of my heroes. Her desserts were singular balancing acts between homey and sophisticated, savory and sweet. I miss them. The gorgeous-to-behold creations by current pastry chef Miroslav Uskokovic, a veteran of Jean Georges, were more fiddly than I've had before at the restaurant: A half-moon of torn angel food cake pieces and other busy bits covered a coconut custard, and a slice of almond cake with rhubarb could have used less saucy swipes and edible flowers and more buttery depth. But that may just be my sentimentality. Next time I'll grab a bar stool in the more casual front room and order the apple crisp, a holdover from Fleming's days (though undoubtedly tweaked), and vanish into my memories.

Coconut custard

Gramercy Tavern

42 E 20th St, New York, NY 10003
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