I met Angela on her birthday 2 sundays ago at Gramery Tavern’s casual front room, an effortless, breezy affair that almost mimicked the gorgeous weather out that day. Unlike other evenings, where a table here is notoriously hard to score, the crowds on Sunday, while still sizeable are much tamer, so I was able to be seated immediately, admire the gorgeous floral arrangements (replete with rhubarb and asparagus bouquets), sip my drink and pour over the expansive wine directory while waiting for my companion.  The most difficult task of the evening was merely the choice of appetizers, entrees and dessert, which we took seriously of course.
grilled octopus, fennel, mizuna

grilled octopus, fennel, mizuna

 To start, a duo of seafood appetizers. The grilled octopus came in two sizable tentacles atop a bed of mixed herbs and greens. The smoky, chewy meat paired perfectly with the side of grilled fennel, sweet yet with a tang.

egg crepe, grilled ramps, crab

egg crepe, grilled ramps, crab

 The egg crepe stuffed with crab and ramps was the more elegant of the two dishes, the succulent fresh crab meat encased in a loose sheet, a deconstructed ravioli of sort, bathed in a very complex, slightly acidic sauce. Addictively delicious, although I must say ramps must be the most overrated green this season found in almost every menu I’ve encountered in the last month.

merguez sausage
merguez sausage

Our servers next halved our next two dishes so that we didn’t have to suffer the indignity of changing plates mid-meal. How sweet. Unfortunately, the two dishes was pretty lackluster after the utterly enjoyable starters and could not be saved from the servers’ efforts at individual plating.

The sausage was a clunker in particular, lacking spice and heat I expected from a merguez sausage, the harissa base sauce a salt lick in a bowl, the chickpeas and almond mix doing nothing to enhance the dish.

Signature Meatball

Signature Meatball

 While not the worse dish, I was probably more underwhelmed by the famous signature meatball. Although juicy and meaty, it too suffered from over-salting that the sweet grilled onions and parsnip puree were not enough to temper the salinity. As we ate, our neighboring table was in the midst of ordering the meatballs, with one man declaring to his guests “those meatballs is AMAZING”. We tried not to roll our eyes.

Golden raisin brioche pudding

Golden raisin brioche pudding

Soon it was dessert time, and by now we were too full to order one each. But it was a birthday after all, so we gamely picked the raisin brioche pudding, which again the kitchen thoughtfully served with an extra plate and scoop of bourbon icecream. Now this is totally on point, the pudding warm and heavy, the mouthful creamy and lush. Spiced pecans provided crunch and the bourbon icecream a very nice touch, providing a slight bitterness and  fire in the stomach long after the plates have been licked clean.

It could have been a quick meal, but a long and languid dinner was what we needed and got with the spacing out of the 2 entrees into a 4 course self-constructed tasting menu. Prices are exceedingly fair, the service was excellent as expected and it was just really nice to spend the night there as a more welcoming room would be hard to find. I just wish I had better luck next time with the salt.

Gramercy Tavern (Tavern Room)

42 E 20th St (Between Broadway and Park Ave South)

www.gramercytavern.com

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octopus salad

octopus salad

It was boxing day and bargains were abound. While $200 Christian Louboutins did not set my heart afluttering, the lunch time prix-fixe at Eleven Madison Park (EMP) sure did. $28 buys one an appetizer and entree at a traditionally spendy spot, where dinner is at least $76. Would be a fool not to take advantage, no?

$28 is a veritable steal, but EMP lacks the little extras that puts Jean Georges, another multi-starred restaurant with an extraordinary lunch deal over the top.

oxtail parmentier

oxtail parmentier

 

The two types of bread on offer were good but amuse bouches and mignardises were missing. Lobster was on the menu, but foie gras wasn’t. And certain items such as the lobster roll required a supplementary charge. Egg and caviar was the only dish with the charge at JG. 
Flavorwise, the meal was uniformly good.  A simple winter salad was very well dressed and yanru’s egg and parmesan dish was sufficiently rich and fitting for the cold weather. Ruoying’s lobster risotto was generously studded with fresh lobster, and my oxtail parmentier was hearty and savory, with a creamy potato layer encrusted with parsley for that added textural contrast. However, in a face-off, I would still tip the scales towards Jean Georges, who uses a lot of acid and Asian flourishes to provide wonderful bites. EMP’s food, while comptetently made and tasty struck me as a little boring and on the safe side, with no fireworks to be found.  

Still, the meal was enjoyable, with a very attentive and enthusiastic crew offering efficient and friendly service and a dining room that while dated looking, is iconic, if only because Mr Big broke the news of his engagement to Carrie in the said room. Good food, irreproachable service and a touch of showbiz glamour for $28? This is a deal I would recommend.

Steak au Poivre

Steak au Poivre

In France, Les Halles refers to the markets, culinary bellies of french cities. In New York, Les Halles means steak frites in a bustling brasserie. Besides serving straightforward bistro fare, Les Halles also dishes up a side of celebrity through its association with Anthony Bourdain, the irreverent and foul mouthed author/ travel show host who once cooked there. It is quite well known that Tony Bourdain is no longer and in fact has not been for a long time affiliated with the restaurant, but of course there is no stopping fans who still show up at the restaurant hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

While ones chance at sighting celebrities are low at Les Halles, the probability of getting tasty, generously proportioned food is quite a bit higher. There has been talk on the blogosphere and foodie world that Les Halles is a mediocre, over-hyped restaurant, but by wisely steering away from the more complicated sounding dishes and opting for the traditional fare such as steaks, mussels and chops, we ate well. The steaks were largely cooked to the right temperature and while I did not eat any of the mussels, Alan seemed to enjoy it a lot. We largely skipped the undistinguished side salads and attacked the nicely done fries, fried golden brown and piping hot. Sides in general were simple but effective too, particularly a dish of mac and cheese with the cheese bubbling merrily away.

The creme brulee was on point

The creme brulee was on point

My dinner companions hardly needed any coaxing to get dessert. So we shared almost everything on the menu, from the crepe suzette made tableside, to the profiteroles literally drowning in deep, rich chocolate sauce and the satisfying dishes of creme brulee, their brown caramelized tops producing a crackling sound when hit with the back of a metal spoon. Yummy.

Les Halles is fashioned like a traditional French brasserie, large, crowded and very loud. Some of us may have had to rotate seats in order to talk to the others, and most of us strained our voices and ears a little to speak over the cacophony and to catch what others were speaking about. So recognize that it is definitely not the best place for a romantic tete-a-tete, nor is it for innovative cuisine. But for a large gathering of 14, who just want to enjoy each others company while simultaneously indulge in a little meat and wine  no matter the time of day, Les Halles is a fitting spot.

Les Halles

Multiple Locations (we went to the one on 411 Park Ave South)

www.leshalles.net