May 26, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Hey Toto, We’re Not in Oz Anymore 

Tavern Salad ($18) stars La Quercia speck, Nettle Meadow Kunik, asparagus, some chicories.
Tavern Salad ($18) stars La Quercia speck, Nettle Meadow Kunik, asparagus, some chicories.

           I am not one of those Manhattan stiff-necks quick to leave landmark dining to the tourists. I happen to live a stroll away from the new Tavern on the Green, but even if I didn’t, I’d want to claim my place under an umbrella in the garden for a romantic dinner on some not-too-humid evening this summer. 

Waiting for my party one evening, I watch this burger eater in the lounge, planning to do the same.

           The idea of sitting at a coffee table in the lounge just the two of us -- a friend or a man I’ve yet to meet -- to share a salad and a burger without the hassle of reserving strikes me as a real draw. (And if the kitchen remains as fractured as it has been in my early visits, I won’t have to fight the madding hordes to claim a spot.)

A pair of upstanding sheep stand guard on the new Tavern coat of arms.

           Eventually, most cabbies will have heard of Tavern on the Green. I found two on rainy nights who didn’t have a clue. If you’re lucky, your driver won’t speed by the entrance while you scream for him to turn left because the “Park Drive Closed” sign is so big and the tiny “Tavern Pick Up and Drop Off” sign is barely visible. As if the new team didn’t have enough challenges.

Exuberant diners and a wall of glass in the Central Park Room whip up a painful din.

           The truth is, I got a kick out of Warner LeRoy’s glitzy Tavern. The unabashed excess made me smile. But I’m perfectly content with a ration of restraint, even good taste in the Tavern’s 21st century downsized edition. I actually love the sheep embracing the new coat of arms, the rich cream and ivory tabletops, and the fireplace -- too small to roast a pig in -- is fine. It doesn’t have to be a Ralph Lauren hunting lodge, although the catalogue chandeliers make me long for the banished excess of emerald green Baccarat crystals. The Central Park Room (replacing the Crystal Room) looks through a glass wall into the greenery beyond the patio. That’s a nice plus.

Terrine of smoked bluefish (Narragansett, RI) with juniper salt toasts could have a lot more oomph.

           It’s okay. It’s fine. The kitchen doesn’t have to be dazzling, just confident and consistent and reasonably affordable. I’ve been here for dinner three times and so far, it’s good enough. You might catch a glimpse of executive chef Katy Sparks behind glass, enforcing the drill. True, there’s too much salt here and there. The bluefish terrine, a bit dry, a bit tame, is not exactly thrilling. Real toast would be better than crisps. The duck egg is nicely runny atop smoked ricotta with pitted, oil-cured olives and scallion on a clumsy crostata. Sorry, couldn’t help noticing that clumsiness.

Local duck egg rides atop a spring onion and ricotta crostata with anchovies and oil-cured olives.

           Still, all of us attack the tangy white cheese that comes with olive rolls and breadsticks in a standup swirl. It’s goat cheese or sheep’s cheese or labne, depending on which waiter you have tonight. It almost masks the staleness of the bread sticks and is maybe the best dish of the night. All three nights. Patatas bravas run a close second. More oomph in the aioli wouldn’t hurt. The currently-essential roasted carrots are successfully cooked through.

Fennel, morels and wood-roasted rhubarb sit on the Heritage breed pork chop with honey.

           The house’s thin-cut pork chop is good enough. I was expecting a thick, juicy monolith that fights back a little, because that’s what most chefs are serving these days. This one comes with lashings of rhubarb, just $28. My friends on two different nights like it. On another evening, my companion is happy enough with his marinated skirt steak. I agree. “Lobel’s prime,” the menu says. Locavores will kvell. 

Two of us in the lounge could easily have shared this lamb shank but we liked the burger better.

           In the lounge on another evening, my friend and I could have shared her lamb shank, a Godzilla, on creamed chard with pickled white raisins. It’s somewhat dry too. But after the braised squid and a Tavern salad to start, dividing a nicely cooked burger -- prime too -- in a commendably chewy roll, is very filling. It’s $2 extra for one thickish slice of bacon. Having voted for just one dessert, we wish that the icebox cake didn’t taste like rye bread crumbles refusing to morph with maple rye whiskey pudding.

It’s not easy to saw this tough but tasty roll in two to share Tavern's delicious prime burger..

           To sum it up, even if the food never rises above this level, it’s okay. And so far, the freshman class of waiters come on earnest and perky. Too perky even. I am fussy and old-fashioned about service. I don’t want to know the waiter’s name or what dishes are his favorites. I get impatient if she or he explain the obvious at length.

Seviche trio for the table: Faroe Island salmon, tuna, Maine scallops with black sesame sea salt.

           In this case, the menu is a little bit eccentric. So I guess we have to endure our waiter enthusiastically spelling out that the “Chilled Seafood” in the left hand corner is chilled seafood and the trio of ceviches on the other side of the listing would be good for the table. And as we can see, and may already have noticed, “There are big plates and small plates listed under each of the three categories of cooking, The Hearth, The Grill, and The Plancha.”

Prime skirt steak is marinated and served with red onion marmalade, criminis and bacon.

           My companions are more tolerant than I when the server returns after a bite or two of each dish asking each of us, one at a time, how we like it, again and again, interrupting the conversation if we don’t look up. Clearly, they have been trained to do this. But to such excess? And why shouldn’t the runners know who ordered which dish instead of trying to guess?

An original: baked farro pasta with shiitakes, heirloom beans, asparagus and glazed ricotta.

           Even though I rarely went in its final years, I missed Tavern on the Green after it sputtered to a cruel death -- the country’s once top-grossing restaurant humbled by recession thrift. Every time I passed on the 65th Street transverse, I thought of the 1000 lights that had outlined the trees and their branches, gone. I was shocked when Warner LeRoy’s treasures were auctioned off, and disappointed when seasoned restaurateurs refused to make a bid to rescue the place, leaving Dean Poll, who’d made a success of The Boat House to win the contract. I thought he should have been tarred and feathered when he walked away months later because he couldn’t come to terms with the union.

Rhubarb and berry pavlova is delicious on first tasting, but next time the meringue is weird.

           Then, after more years of neglect, and an invasion of food trucks, a couple of guys who owned a crêperie in Philadelphia won the new, revised bid with a promise to spend millions and deliver a big split to the city. I read the news with a mix of cynicism and measured cheer.

Smooth bartender quickly tosses the Bronx Cocktail I didn’t like and gives me a mean Negroni.

           But why not? The park has always been rimmed by towers housing the hungry affluent with more multi-million pied à terres shimmying in shamelessly every day. I don’t mind sharing. I’ll be by when the rain stops.

Bittersweet Mast Brother chocolate mousse with chocolate brioche croutons, bay leaf chocolate sauce.

           I ordered a $14 “Bronx” cocktail at the bar one evening because it was made with Dorothy Parker gin and it seemed the feminist thing to do. But I took a sip and then another and, sorry, I hated it. “No problem,” said the bartender, tossing it out. “Let me give you something else.” She then delivered a mean classic Negroni.

Tavern on the Green. West 67th Street and Central Park West 212 877 8684. Lunch Monday through Friday 11 am to 3 pm. Dinner 5 to 11 pm Late night 11 to 1 am. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 9 am to 3 pm. Green-To-Go 7 am to 6 pm.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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