Raising the Bar: Excellent Small Bites in the Tavern of Gramercy Tavern

In her column "Raising the Bar," author of Bionic Bites Tia Kim will be checking out the grub at a different bar each week.

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[Photos: Tia Kim]

Sometimes in search of the flashy and new, we forget the tried and true. In the tavern section of Gramercy Tavern, great food and drinks can be had at a fraction of the cost of a meal in the main dining room. Ed wrote about the sandwich and soup combo earlier this year, but I was curious about the rest of the menu. This week, I tried a few appetizers off the Tavern Menu. Like most people who frequent bars, I like variety (hence the endless search), but at the Tavern in Gramercy Tavern, it's easy to sample several bites without committing to a full entrée or a huge bill.

20091215_gtavern_calamari.jpgThe Calamari & Carrot Salad ($12), a cold tangle of julienned carrots and gently grilled squid, dressed in a preserved lemon vinaigrette dotted with wasabi-colored flying fish roe and garnished with lightly toasted pine nuts and microgreens, was deceptively simple but unmistakeably delicious. It's a tad heavy on the dressing, but it makes slurping up the ribbons of squid all the easier.

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I love sweetbreads, but sometimes restaurants like to show off by serving gargantuan lobes that get tiresome after a few bites. At Gramercy Tavern, my order of Sweetbreads ($14) was actually one manageable pan-roasted lobe, caramelized on the surface, and presented on a bed of hen of the woods mushrooms, cipollini onions, walnuts, and sage. There was a play in textures I liked in this dish: the bouncy sweetbread, the chewy mushrooms, the tender onions, and the crunchy walnuts. All different but all bound by an earthy richness.

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My favorite, though, may have been House Cured Pastrami with Pickled Cauliflower ($9). Sliced thin and served like prosciutto or jamón, it seems fancy, but it's just really good smoky pastrami marbleized with unctuous fat and flecked with lots of peppercorn, mustard seeds, and fennel. It's a small New York deli plate gussied up. Instead of a sour pickle, you get pickled cauliflower on the side.

20091215_gtavern_fig65.jpgTo go with the pastrami, one of the microbrews on tap would have paired nicely, but I was intrigued by the Fig 75 ($12), a bubbly cocktail made with fig-infused cognac, allspice dram, Lillet, and sparkling wine. It wasn't as strong on the fig flavor as I would have liked—I detected more allspice than fig—but it was a lovely aromatic drink, cool on the lips and warm in the belly.

Excellent bar food at a reasonable price is sometimes right under our noses. With the bar closing at 11 p.m., Gramercy Tavern isn't a place you can hang out all night (and it is the Gramercy after all; you can't exactly cut loose)—but it's a solid way to start off the evening.

Gramercy Tavern

42 East 20th Street, New York NY 10003 (b/n Park Avenue South & Broadway; map)
212-477-0777

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