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Back of the House:
Gramercy Tavern

First published in the November-December 2010 edition of Edible Manhattan

Comment | November 3, 2010 | By | Photographs by Michael Harlan Turkell

Gram Tav

Where you know the day of the year by what’s on the plate.

Despite its contemporary surroundings on a businesslike stretch of East 20th Street just off Park Avenue South, Gramercy Tavern feels like it’s been bustling for a century or two. Yes, Danny Meyer’s 16-year-old interpretation of a Yankee taproom is imbued with modern-day sensibilities: The fare is fanatically fresh and lovingly local (and described in their Facebook status updates), but the dark decor—complete with muted tapestries, flickering candles, a pile of logs and a wood-fired oven—sets a stage where George Washington himself could feel at home, cozily canoodling at the bar over a pint of stellar craft beer, a plate of icy cold East End oysters, a bit of housesmoked trout topped with pickled onions, or a crispy-skinned squab atop thin rounds of late-season squash and big buttery shell beans. If old George could score a stool in the perpetually packed place, that is: Unlike the dining room, the 50-seat bar doesn’t take reservations.  Gramercy Tavern may be a bit staid in the era of crack pie and turnip tattoos—witness the career servers clad not in jeans and sneers but in crisp dark slacks and sincere smiles, or the enormous floral arrangements of pink-tasseled sedums and heirloom pumpkins, many toted by hand, like 90 percent of the ingredients in the kitchen, from the Union Square Greenmarket just three blocks south. But while the restaurant is formal and the dining is fine, none of it’s fussy, and it’s reliably flawless. So much so that the understated eatery was awarded the ultimate honor in 2006, when the James Beard Foundation’s nationally assembled panel of restaurant critics named it the best restaurant in the country.

Gramercy Tavern has always been at the forefront of the farmto- white-tablecloth scene, even when there wasn’t one. In October of 1994, just four months after Danny Meyer cofounded the restaurant with Tom Colicchio—years before Top Chef was cast or “locavore” was coined—Ruth Reichl previewed the place in the Times, where she was then the restaurant critic. “If you haven’t been able to get reservations at white-hot Gramercy Tavern,” she wrote, “don’t despair: time is on your side. Each meal I have eaten has been better than the one before; a year from now, Gramercy Tavern may well have turned into the restaurant of its owners’ dreams…. At the moment, eating at Gramercy Tavern is a bit like drinking a great wine when it is still in the barrel. You can almost taste the future, and it appears extremely promising.”

How prescient she was. Just two years later, Meyer and Colicchio earned three stars by crafting a decidedly American menu, inspired by the local harvest, with the help of a star staff including one of the city’s early superstar pastry chefs (Claudia Fleming, now running a B&B on the East End) and a porter-cum-procurer named Modesto who, at five feet and change, became the finest, fiercest forager the Greenmarket has ever seen. (Known for snagging all the Tri-Star strawberries or micro mache before other restaurant reps arrived, Modesto famously forestalled cooks from Jean Georges or Daniel. He’s even been called “the Godfather.”)

Chef Michael Anthony, under whose watch the restaurant received that ultimate James Beard honor, arrived in 2006 with an impressive resume: working first at restaurant powerhouses like Daniel and March, then as chef at Blue Hill (where he and chef/owner Dan Barber had jointly received the Food & Wine award for Best New Chef in 2002) and then as chef at its Hudson Valley sister, the food-from-the-farm temple known as Blue Hill at Stone Barns. After four years cooking with Barber, Anthony set out on his own. He drew up a business plan, and with the advice of a friend, sent it to Danny Meyer—to whom he’d once given a tour of Blue Hill’s beautiful kitchen.  As luck would have it, the document was on Meyer’s desk— and on his mind—when Colicchio left Gramercy Tavern to expand his Craft Restaurant group around the country.

Meyer says the idea that Anthony was the perfect chef to succeed Colicchio “hit me like a lightning bolt. His cooking style, while different from Tom’s, was also what I call ‘day-of’ cooking: You knew what day of the year it was, and where you were. It was exactly the sense that I got tasting Mike’s food,” recalls Meyer. “You should know exactly where you are in the year,” he says of Anthony’s ethos. “That’s his goal.”

Perhaps just as important is that Anthony embodies that rare trifecta Union Square Hospitality Group always manages to pull off: Incredible, A-plus food served up with a com mitment to doing good and a heaping side of Midwestern modest manners—Meyer is from St. Louis, Anthony from Cleveland.  And while Mike’s skills at the stove have won utmost accolades, if you say his name to anyone who’s ever worked with him, they’re likely to rhapsodize about his character before his cooking.  “He is, without a doubt, the nicest human being ever to don whites,” says Jenny Dirksen, who, as Union Square Hospitality Group’s director of community investment, was next to Meyer when he first met Anthony at the 2002 Best New Chef Awards, and on staff to receive the flood of well wishes when Meyer announced Anthony’s ascendancy to the Tavern throne.

Anthony, of course, also happens to be a breathtakingly talented chef: “His magic,” says Meyer, who had Anthony prepare a few sample meals in the USHG catering kitchens before he was hired, “is that he cooks without masking any of the ingredients, but he doesn’t use their purity as a crutch.”

As a result—and true to Ruth Reichl’s predictions nearly two decades ago—lucky are the few who take a seat in Gramercy Tavern’s formal dining room in 2010, where the fare is simultaneously subtle, serious and splendid. It’s a place where eaters in search of the city’s finest food experiences (CBS’s Morley Safer on one night, maybe, and Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner on another) come to taste what executive chef Michael Anthony—a master of fresh ingredients, both flora and fauna—is making today. He’s the genius, for starters, behind some of this city’s very best salads—delicate rings of calamari meet carrots and toasted pine nuts in an almost drinkable lemon vinaigrette; thin slices of scallop float airily in verjus with a few sweet Champagne grapes split and spiked with Meyer lemon–infused olive oil; or a trio of crunchy-crisp bitterness—pale sheaths of escarole, slivers of fennel, wafers of radish—tamed by a sweet cider vinaigrette and slivers of crackly-skinned porchetta.

The latter, naturally, is made in-house, as Anthony is also the curator of some of this city’s plushest proteins, thanks to knowledge gleaned in part from helping out the on-site animal farmers up at Blue Hill Stone Barns. He now sources celebrated sustainable pork—hogs arrive whole from famous Virginia farmer Bev Eggleston, and he and his and team butcher them in-house—and serves the loin and belly paired over a delicate, nearly quivering pile of sauteed beech mushrooms and a scatter of broad white beans, each tender and taut as if they’d been individually poached.  He’s a captain of the seas, too: witness a perfect rectangle of butter-seared flounder, its flaky white flesh foil to a tzatziki-like salad of shaved cucumber in a tart yogurt dressing; or the Arctic char with a few skinny string beans and a puddle of lovage-perfumed cream, which has to be the greenest sauce you’ve ever seen and the brightest you’ve ever tasted, due to a happy harvest in the expediting chef’s late-fall Connecticut garden; and the sweetest, pinkest Maine shrimp, positioned atop a nutty polenta chosen from seven samples procured by the kitchen.

There are links of garlicky house-made kielbasa crisped in the wood-burning blaze with fluttery slabs of foraged-mushroom lasagne, baked until their creamy edges are perfectly burnt by the flames, plus silky pappardelle, made in the downstairs kitchen and bundled into bowls with braised lamb and Swiss chard and spiked with sea salt, shards of Aleppo pepper and slivers of preserved lemon peel. All carefully seasoned, like every plate, by a slew of chefs in the quiet kitchen just before the sharply dressed waiters ferry them out.  It’s a team supported at the start by Juliette Pope, the beverage manager behind standout seasonal cocktails like the Concord Crush and one of the most revered beer and wine lists in town, featuring the finest bottles from around the world—and from our own state’s vintners; and at the end by pastry chef Nancy Olson, whose cheesecakes (made of local goat’s milk and topped with Finger Lakes’ Concord grape sorbet), and piled-high New York State apple pies—let the cinnamon–creme fraiche ice cream start its melt into your slice before you take a bite—are some of the city’s best modern Americana sweets. Or if cheese is your preferred last course, there’s a 14-plus selection of local and international finds—served with upstate buckwheat honey and fragrant Middle Eastern almonds whose intense flavor defies description—all revered by the most artisanally minded mongers.

Despite all that luxuriousness, Gramercy Tavern remains decidedly accessible and wonderfully welcoming—especially that 50-seat front barroom where the wood-burning stove crackles in the background, and $15 bar snacks can accompany your post-work pint. And what snacks they are: A tub of rich chicken liver mousse with impossibly sweet baby turnips and little ridged cubes of jewel-like stems of Swiss chard; a fat fried fish cake served over a lemony wash of white beans and wisps of arugula; the house-cured pastrami plate scattered with crunchy, canary-yellow pickled cauliflower.

And the daily lunch menu boasts one of the better burgers—and bargains—in Manhattan (made of house-ground beef and served with onions three ways, smoked bacon mayonnaise and house-made ketchup, it was rightfully declared “stupendous” by Food & Wine) as well as one of the best meatballs, a fat, luscious five-bite blend of pork, beef and veal stuffed with warm Fontina and served split over a slick of creamy freshly dug potato puree.

Not that you’d know these details about your dinner unless you asked: Gramercy Tavern’s menu is noticeably missing any pious provenance, or even much writerly detail, despite Anthony’s status as one of the staunchest Greenmarket shoppers in town: “Michael’s support of sustainable agriculture goes far beyond his encyclopedic knowledge of our farmers and their products,” says Marcel Van Ooyen, director of not-for-profit GrowNYC, which runs the Greenmarkets. “He works in schools, leads children on tours and supports programs throughout the city. He is a wonderful example of how chefs, having started a culinary revolution in the Untied States, are now leading it.”

Literally: Erin Fairbanks, who worked in Anthony’s charcuterie program before taking a job with the live animals at Flying Pigs Farm, says that whenever a new grain or green or gill comes in, “he’s kind of like a high-school coach with the huddle factor, always sharing what’s going on.”

“It’s freshness, it’s responsibility,” shrugs the chef of his commitment, insisting he wants the restaurant to appeal to all diners, even those who don’t share his near-religious zeal for supporting local farms and farmers, many of whom have become personal friends.

One of those—and there are many—is organic grower Zaid Kurdieh, who runs Norwich Meadows Farm upstate. Kurdieh has sold to many of the city’s most revered chefs, but says Anthony is one of the few who doesn’t just personally return Kurdieh’s calls— “despite his being so busy, he always gets back to me”—but wants to hear all about life on the farm. Kurdieh now delivers produce to Anthony’s wife at home (who, by the way, Anthony took to Per Se for their first date), and twice a week Kurdieh and his own wife slip away from their stand at Union Square to eat at the restaurant, reversing the standard one-way flow of food going from farmer to chef. “In fact,” says Zaid, “we usually have family meal on Saturdays.”

They’ve even collaborated on crops: On a trip to Japan a few years back, Anthony snagged seeds from a deep reddish-orange carrot with a beautiful shape and flavor that intensifies when cooked.  Zaid was happy to grow it for him, and now sells it as the Kyoto.

Anthony might be known as one of the premier producers of seasonal American cuisine—with Bill Maxwell’s Italian winter squash and Alex Paffenroth’s turnips roasted to perfection with some of those Kyoto carrots under a crispy-skinned, wood-fired roast chicken—but his techniques were honed overseas, starting in Tokyo, where he moved after earning a degree in business, French and Japanese from Indiana University. He went to master the language, but instead fell for the food, eventually working at a little bistro with a French-trained chef named Shizuyo Shima who urged him to go to Paris. Luckily, he did: first to culinary school, then to an apprenticeship at La Camelia, a job at Jacques Cagna, and after some time back in the States, a role at the revered restaurants L’Arpege and L’Astrance. (His two small children by his first wife still live there most of the year.)

Despite France’s fabled reverence for food from small farms, Anthony says it was in Japan that he was struck by a food culture with a “sense of connection to the land and a romantic appreciation for the change of the seasons.” (While there he also picked up a penchant for pickling and the elegant habit of using long chef’s chopsticks to plate his dishes, both of which most of his chefs at Gramercy Tavern have since mastered.)

That might sound pretentious, but if you’ve met Anthony, you know he’s the first to say the praise should go not to him but to his staff, or his employers or the farmers. Maybe it’s his Midwestern roots, but this is a guy who takes a reporter’s coat during dinner rush even when the visiting brewmaster from Goose Island is standing at the bar, or apologizes for making you wait when you’re the one who was tardy. Ask him to do a two-hour cooking demonstration for kids touring the Greenmarket, and he’ll turn it into an ongoing series.  The night after Gramercy’s biggest event of the year—when David Chang and Grant Achatz came to each prepare a course—he let his tavern-side sous-chef go home to rest while he worked the station.

“To sum it all up, he’s just a great guy,” says Kurdieh, who knows from experience that not all top toques have pleasant personalities.  “It’s hard to find somebody like that who’s as successful as a chef.”

Not that he’s a pushover. Anthony has high expectations and an uncanny awareness of every corner of his kitchen, recalls Fairbanks, despite the fact he never raises his voice. But like any magnificent manager, he pushes himself hardest of all: He tossed out his vegetarian tasting menu for one centered on produce instead—meant to celebrate vegetables rather than just the absence of meat, it also shockingly includes flesh—or serves a $22 dish of bass with Swiss chard two ways: “We’re turning Swiss chard into a luxury item,” he says in all seriousness, after wondering whether even the words “autumn menu” are too restricting.

I want the restaurant to be consistently delicious, not just consistent,” explains Anthony: “Simply consistent is mediocrity.” An old-fashioned sentiment that may not have been written by George Washington in some colonial-era Gramercy Tavern, but we’re sure he’d approve.

About Rachel Wharton

Rachel Wharton is a deputy editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn magazines with a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, where she focused her research on sustainable agriculture and food culture (with a minor in tacos). She has 15 years of experience as a writer, starting her career with fisheries, water issues, coastal life (and fried oysters) in North Carolina, where she grew up. Before joining the Edibles, she spent four-and-half years working as a features food reporter at the New York Daily News. She also won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award for stories in Edible Brooklyn, while her profile of Russ & Daughters in this magazine will be included in the book 2010 Best Food Writing. P.S., she will eat street meat with abandon, no matter its sustainability.

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