For Christmas '01, Bestfriend told Wife to give me a copy of Think Like a Chef by Tom Colicchio. On Bestfriend's recommendation, I read it like a book rather then just recreating the dishes inside. The story of Young Tom at the beach eating the family's whole allotment of shell steaks while they swam, because he was playing with salt, struck me. I remembered eating myself sick on a basket of tomatoes out of our family garden when I was eight, because for some reason my dad had brought home a box of something called kosher salt. I had finished the book, made the chicken, and was desperately awaiting Spring so I could pop over to the Greenmarket and buy ramps and morels and try my first trilogy when it was announced that, to re-stimulate a post 9/11 NY restaurant community, a special two-week Restaurant Week would be held in January.
The plan was that I would eat ten lunches, spend about $240 (including 20% tips), and try a serious amount of this guy's food. If you eat ten consecutive lunches in any restaurant because you are so appreciative of the chef’s new book, even if you are doing it on the cheap, you become a regular of that place. If you become a regular of a place as special as Gramercy Tavern you go for many occasions.
Occasions are different for different people. My new associate, Client One, has just moved to New York City from London and is a vegetarian. My birthday was Thursday. GT has a wonderful vegetable tasting menu. Occasion! Last night Coworker, Client One, Client Two and Augie had dinner in the back of GT. C2 had been before, Co and C1 were both new to the experience.
We met in the actual tavern portion and had cocktails -- for me, gin Gibson; for C2 vodka-soda; and the rest went with the Rouge draft beer. GT always has wonderfully esoteric beers on draft and even if you know the producer, Brooklyn Brewery, for example, GT will have a unique label of theirs, such as Saison, which they are pouring now. One down, we popped back to start our dinner.
C1 and I went Vegetable tasting menu $80.00, Co and C2 Autumn tasting menu $95.00. We also decided to add a $60 white truffle course to be split by the four of us and fit in at the chef's choosing.
The first wine was an Alzinger Smaragd Reisling, '02. I was torn between this and an Auslese from Germany. Our server figured the Austrian was the way to go because it would have the fruit and acidity to make it fun with the foie that the autumn menu offered first, but would not be as sweet and slow down our palettes at what was the beginning of an eight-course menu. Well chosen. It was light and bright, while remaining engaging enough to play off the food.
The second wine was an Olek-Mezy Chinon '99. Opened with the white, so that if anyone hated the Riesling there would be a red, it was interesting, light enough not to muddle their first courses while still being a red, which most members of the Client family insist is all they drink. Hey, I knew it could take me all the way to the mushrooms. As it turned out both were well received and the Riesling went pretty quickly.
At some point in this dinner truffles were going to show up so, following the "what grows together goes together" credo, I went Barolo for number three. '95 Roche dei Manzoni, Capella Santo Stefano had the earth and minerals, while incorporating the kirsch that plays to modern palates (without getting in the way of the food.) Plus Wife and I walked up and touched the Capella while touring the hills of Monforte (really do stay here) and I love that.
First up for dinner was fennel a la grecque with figs, feta, and mint. It was presented on a thin rectangular plate, nicely spread so that there were four fennel ribs (I believe braised) with the other ingredients between, encouraging you to include each ingredient in each bite, and they played very well together.
Eggplant napoleon with piquillo peppers and lemon came next. A lemon section was presented on a sliver of roasted (or at least skinned) piquillo pepper on a small salad. Lemon played again in the Napoleon in the form of zest. The eggplant, which was like a caviar or a caponatina but simple enough that it tasted like eggplant, was great. The discs that separated the layers were some how like flat gougeres without the cheese. They had that egg-y toothsomeness that made them fun to bite with your front teeth.
Penne with Savoy Cabbage, cranberry beans, autumn truffle and Parmesan was cast as character three. Great simple dish with black truffles, strangely, sliced in the kitchen. As great as it was, and as much as they permeated the entire dish, I thought the wonderful waft of truffles hitting the hot food for the first time was lost. At this point the big tragedy of the meal happened. Co, who hadn't flirted with the attractive waitress in a couple minutes, called her over and had her remove my half-eaten dish while I was distracted picking the Barolo.
Next came our supplemental white truffle course. Homemade fettuccini in what was basically a butter Parmesan sauce, with a fried egg and sliced white truffles. The sauce was creamy and really worked to translate the aroma of truffles. In fact, I was very happy that when I skipped to the loo between courses, I smelled the remnants of truffle in my retro nasal cavity over that awesome hand soap they use. I still wish the truffles had been sliced at table but it's hard to argue with the result.
Roasted beets with wax beans, garlic chips and chervil showed up after the truffle course. A thin crimson beet juice covered the bottom of the plate with roasted yellow beets on top. It was a lot of fun to knock the little fried slivers of garlic and sliced wax beans into the beet juice, let them turn red, and suck the sweetness out of them while you ate.
Last entrée was mushroom tart tatin. Roasted mushrooms stacked on puff pastry with a pickled mushroom salad and a mushroom cappuccino. The tart tatin paid great attention to detail: scoring the broader stems in the mix, giving it a look that made me I think they may have snuck me some roasted bacon till I bit it. The cappuccino is just the amazing essence of good mushrooms and the pickle brightens up the earthiness of the other two components.
Possibly the greatest dessert ever invented for people that prefer savory to sweet is GT's coconut large pearl tapioca with passion fruit sorbet and basil oil. I have yet to find anyone not floored by it. So I was delighted to see a smaller version of it in the dessert amuse spot. C2 took one bite, decided he didn't like it, put his spoon down, then had the layers of flavor hit him and devoured the rest in four swift spoonfuls.
Two versions of a tasting dessert were next. One was a study in chocolate with an opera cake, a chocolate raspberry tart, and an ice cream. The other was raspberries: a canoli, a napoleon, and a pile of them with some crème fraiche. And it all came together to a finish with a plate of petis fours.
Jack Nicholson is one cool M-er F-er. When he is around guys like Bon Jovi say "oh my god, that's Jack Nicholson!" The best part is no one ever says "Jack is cool because..." He is so cool it is just accepted. GT is this kind of cool: the place exudes a, "we have nothing to prove" confidence that is readable throughout the place; from the guy in the t-shirt sitting at a table next to an 80-year old couple in bespoke clothing (all there because this is our unique place in our unique town) to the fact that a little dessert wine was sent over at the very end to say Happy Birthday. They really just rule.