I met Bernie downtown for a pre-dinner drink. Over the years I have learned that it is a good idea to let Bernie choose the restaurant. Not only does he have impeccable taste in restaurants, but he is also gifted at choosing the appropriate one for the occasion. What was the occasion this time? The utter euphoria of artfully created food coupled with a charming yet unpretentious atmosphere and the enjoyment of fine company. With the company already taken care of, all we need was to come up with a restaurant. “ Well we could go to the Mermaid Inn…” Bernie suggested. The idea of seafood was appealing, “or there is Gramarcy Tavern.” To be honest - and please do not strip me of my foodie status - I had never heard of Gramarcy Tavern and when I asked Bernie about it, his response basically made our decision, “ Well Madelano, it is only considered the best restaurant in NYC.” We finished our drinks and jumped in a cab.
When we arrived, Bernie spotted two seats at the bar and, like two teenagers at a rock concert, we raced in to snag them. I could extend the analogy considering the enthusiasm some have for Chef Michael Anthony's elegantly rustic American cuisine. By the time we had gotten to the bar however, the seats had been taken, so we put our name down and readied ourselves for a long wait - Bernie with a Grey Goose Martini (olive and a twist) and myself with a glass of one of Alsace's 'noble five', Sylvaner. This grape is a controversial one of the region. Because it has a neutral flavor, many believe that the distinction reflects both the terrior and the skill of the winemaker rather than the actual quality of the variety. Who am I to say no to a little sip of fresh and fruity controversy?
It was a pleasant wait, and it gave me time to gain back my hunger after the afternoons feast. It was also nice to have a moment to take in the space. It was a cozy spot, somewhere between a Martha-Stewart-style country house and a warmly lit hunting den, the ideal place to get cozy with a stout and a steak in the fall, and to warm up with a Rioja and a Rack of lamb in the winter. In the front room, couples eat off of unclothed antique card tables and at the bar patrons eat off of leather place mats. Behind the bar, bottles were lined up on shelves like books in a library and just before them four bartenders, unflustered by the diner rush, danced about filling drink orders in what seemed a choreographed routine.
Before we knew it, our seats at the bar were ready and we were perusing the menu for greatest hits. For starters, Bernie got the oysters, and I must say that I was pleased because inevitably that meant three or four thoughtfully prepared oysters for myself (another reason why Bernie is such a wonderful dinner companion, he likes to share.) I was stuck between the Calamari and Carrot Salad (an unlikely combination), and the Bread and Tomato Salad with picked Watermelon rind. In the end I went for the latter, I am sucker for a good tomato.
For Entrees Bernie was deciding between the Rabbit Sausage with spaetzle and summer squash and the Venison special with creamy pureed potatoes. I on the other hand, was just lost. Everything looked good. “How about you get the Special, and I’ll get the Rabbit Sausage,” I suggested. Bernie slammed his menu closed with a smile, “Done!” All that was left was the wine, another choice I always leave up to Bernie. He chose the Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, a good choice for an eclectic menu.
Now here is where I went wrong as a food blogger. The appetizers arrived and after taking one bad picture, I basically gave up. Sometimes I want simply to enjoy my food and not be distracted by trying to capture it. It was nice not to having to struggle to get the right angle as my dinner impatiently returns to room temperature. I regret it now of course, for all I have to show is this dark dreary picture of my tomato salad.
The picture may not be so nice, but the salad was heaven. The rainbow of juicy tomatoes, artfully scattered with basil and bathed in a mixture of olive oil and there own tasty juices, were peppered with large chunks of juice soaked bread. As I slurped up my salad, Bernie prepared his first oyster with what looked like a shallot-flecked mignonette. I watched eagerly as he brought the shell to his mouth and tilted it back gingerly, “Oh man,” he said pointing to the shallot concoction, “ its like the first snow fall!” His eyes were glittering and as I stared into them I could just about make out a six-year Bernie Shananhan struggling up a snowy slope, wooden slay in hand.
Appetizers came to a close and we settled in for a much needed intermission. The headliners would arrive soon and knock our socks off no doubt, but for now we were content with some Pinot and a little tête-à-tête.
Five minutes later our entrees arrived. The sausage was adorable, sliced and lined up over the spaetzle and squash like a winning hand of cards. The Venison was stunning, sliced and fanned out over the potato puree, it was clear who had the royal flush. The Venison was perfectly medium rare and I was absolutely jealous. Don’t get me wrong, the Rabbit Sausage was a salty, savory treat, and the summer squash in the spaetzle was a nice touch, but I could not get the venison out of my mind. As I nibbled my meal like a rabbit, Bernie prepared his first bite, a wedge of meat, smeared with potato puree, and wrapped in a piece of wilted greens. He took a bit and while putting his fork down - his eyes closed - he let out a deep growl of satisfaction. I had heard that growl before, and I knew what it meant. Upon opening his eyes he got to work on the next bite and when he was finished he held the fork across the bar, “you HAVE to taste this,” he said, his eyes beaming wildly. Who was I to say no, I accepted the bite and as it melted, literally melted, in my mouth I realized something, this very well might be the best piece of meat I had ever eaten, will ever eat, it was down right perfection! The sauce was luscious and tangy though not too weighty. The potatoes were smooth and comforting like creamy polenta, and the wilted greens added just the right vibrant earthy dimension. When I finished my bite I looked back at my own plate apologetically, ‘we can still be friends can’t we?’
In the end, Bernie was gracious enough to feed me half of his meal, while taking only a few bites of my own. Of course I still had room for dessert, a Chocolate Coconut Tart with Almond Chocolate Ice cream. The tart wasn’t huge, thank God, and the ice cream was just the right touch.
After dinner, Bernie and I walked to Union Square, which is about as fare as I could walk with a belly so full of food. It had been the perfect meal; the food was creative yet accessible, the atmosphere inviting, the company stimulating as always, and though I ate quit a bit of food, I did not feel gross, and weighed down. When it comes to being 'in the know' about the best restaurants NYC has to offer, I may have a bit more studying ahead of me. Luckily that won't be hard to do with a mentor such as Bernie on my side.