Thursday, October 27, 2005

Occasions New York City Entry #30

Rip Van Winkle waking in Manhattan after a half-century would have much to puzzle over: the stuff of situation comedy. Many changes are dramatic and salutary: changes in gender and race relations, technological advances, culinary blogs. Others - drugs, divorce, The Donald - can not but dismay. Still other changes sneak up on us, changing our world without awareness.

Dining at Gramercy Tavern gave me the opportunity to consider one: a culture of informality. When I grew up in Manhattan, stepping out was Something! When one went to the theatre, church, or New York's most popular restaurant, one would dress. One was treated with honor and responded in turn. To be sure, this social drama was limited to the wealthy and the white, and so it was not without its dark side. Yet, formality assumed that perfection was within reach.

By century's end this elegance slip-slided away. In the New York culinary world, such a change was institutionalized by the opening in the mid-1980s of a trio of restaurants in what had been an unappealing business district: the Union Square Café, Gotham Bar and Grill, and Gramercy Tavern. This culinary hour was described recently by Times critic Frank Bruni. Bruni suggests that 1985 changed the world of New York dining forever.

Mr. Bruni perhaps makes too much of a year, enshrining this twentieth anniversary. However, these restaurants and their follows changed how New Yorkers with cultural capital thought about dining. Now would could order sparkling, outre dishes without suit, tie, heels, or gowns. These restaurants severed the linkage between food and ceremony, making dining more accessible, less fearful, and perhaps less special.

Is this desirable? In my thirties, I surely would have shouted yea; in my fifties, I would whisper maybe. Every critic has the self-interest of getting diners into restaurant seats to increase the vitality of the market. And yet something is lost when culture is too accessible. Moments become less momentous.

In 2005 Zagat annoints Gramercy as Manhattan's most popular restaurant, edging out USC second with GBG fourth. These restaurants have captured the hearts of New York diners, at least those Zagateers. Put aside whether Gramercy Tavern would deserve a 28 rating if an omniscient divinity were doing the judging. This is a restaurant that is both accessible and creative. I didn't eat at GT in its heyday - which in New York is ALWAYS yesterday. Perhaps I would not select Gramercy for my final meal, I would gladly accept an invitation to return.

For better and for worse, GT is a welcoming, loving, crooning restaurant - slightly too clamorous, too casual, too crowded, and too colorful for a contemplative meal. It is not a temple of haute cuisine, but a dancehall of dining. A brasserie Gotham style. The staff (captains and servers) were unfailingly gregarious and helpful, even if our server wanted to know if we would order the "price fix" menu. This is not Le Cirque.

For those who resent the status games between customers and diners, Gramercy Tavern is a happy ticket. No one gets humiliated here. We are all equals at this game. This should be to the good, but somehow I left feeling that I would never have a transcendent experience at GT, lifting me off the mortal plane to a sensory heaven.

We began with a modest but thoughtful amuse of toasted crostini with two balanced daubs of white bean puree and salsa verde, a tribute to Tuscany by way of Jalisco. The opening was global and demure, an easy start with pure flavors.

A second amuse was more creative, and began the play of textures that would characterize the evening. Rounds of hearts of palm were composed in a small dish with sea beans, avocado cream, and Japanese basil. The crunch of beans added to the smooth elegance of the fresh palm, covered by a foamy blanket of light green. As well-balanced as the textures were, the tastes matched them bite for bite. To be sure, perfect palm hearts provide a headstart for any dish, but everything worked in a dish that would have served well as an appetizer if more generously plated.

We selected the three course "price fix." I chose the Sea Urchin Ragout with Maine Crabmeat, Lobster, and Potato Puree. With its odd and anomalous this appetizer may be among the most memorable and evocative dishes of the autumn, and to that I give great credit to Tom Colicchio and his brave chef de cuisine. Any chef who plays with potato puree is bound to get stung. When mixed with liquid, potato often turns gummy, a fact that fanciers of Japanese mountain potato treasure. And yet, somehow, this dish skirted disaster. The briny liquor of the sea urchins played in tangy counterpoint to the thick potato, as the crab and lobster attempted to provide a center that could link the otherwise clashing ingredients. The mixture buzzed and tingled on my tongue. How often does one find a dish that will not go gently down the gullet; victuals in the Kunsthalle tradition of Basquiat, Twombly, or Rauschenberg, disharmonics all.

My main course was more constrained, less daring. I ordered Braised Shoulder of Lamb with Savoy Cabbage, Chestnut Puree, Quince, Turnips, and Kiwis. These strange bedfellows did not seem as oddly matched as my appetizer. Contrasts in texture and flavor abounded (unmentioned rosemary perfumed the lamb, the tiny pearls of kiwi cut through the otherwise fatty shoulder), but the combination was well within the gustatory boundaries of stew. A fine daube it was.

As a palate cleanser, we were presented lemon jelly topped with a lemon mint sherbert. I was amazed at the assertiveness of the mint, not used to shade the lemon but as an equal partner - a southern julep of a sorbet.

We shared two desserts. Coconut Tapioca with Passion Fruit and Coconut Sorbets, Passion Fruit Caramel and Basil Syrup (served with a thin lemon cookie) with its striking reds, whites and greens reminded me of the a dessert as constructed by an Curry Row decorator. Again the kitchen played with textures, a strategy of tapioca servers in high and low cuisines. I do not complain about the taste, although the flavors played second fiddle to the textures. The passion fruit and coconut didn't disappoint, although they didn't soar. I was satisfied, but not stunned.

Our second dessert was a Warm Apple Tart with Pistachio Financier, Saffron Caramel and Vanilla Ice Cream. I found this less successful. The saffron caramel added a dynamic and unexpected flavor, but the tart was somewhat soggy and the financier rather ordinary.

The meal epitomized what haute bistros do well. Gramercy Tavern explores, prods, and tests. And how can diners feel cheated when a dish doesn't quite appeal in such a glad place. Without the formality of the heights of dining, Gramercy Tavern provides haute without pain. Its casualness has a double edge. Perhaps this is not a Moment of One's Life, but a meal at Gramercy Tavern allows our consumers of casual culture to feel that the evening is filled with Moments that serve well until the next Moment slides it from memory.

Gramercy Tavern
42 East 20th Street (at Park Avenue South)
Manhattan (Flatiron)
212-477-0777

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