There are three kinds of dining companions: the interesting conversationalist, the deadly bore and the monologist. I'm always happy to break bread with the first type, I dread being stuck with the second, and I have mixed feelings about the third. I have to be in the right mood for a monologue, which is sort of like eating in front of a television without being able to change the channel.
The other day I was having lunch at City Tavern, the seven-year-old Crossroads restaurant, with Carol Ann and Harris. Happily, I was in the mood to enjoy my meal without having to contribute a word, a thought or an opinion. There was something liberating about that; I could focus on food while Harris regaled us with tales of his recent European adventures. I don't remember the entire monologue — it had its riveting moments — but it involved too little sleep, too much vodka and the best bread in the world.
The more Harris talked about the bread in Budapest, the more I wanted a piece of bread at City Tavern. Instead, the servers brought out a snazzy metal tray containing three small, square porcelain containers, one filled with several kinds of olives, another with button-shaped cheese crackers, and the last with spiced nuts — the kind of snack food that goes well with a cocktail or City Tavern's signature ice-cold oysters. But I longed for the days when bread and butter was every meal's opening act.
While Harris talked, I looked over the single-page lunch menu (which isn't all that different from the dinner menu, including prices). Last autumn, City Tavern owner Dan Clothier hired a new chef, Jason Czaja from Yia Yia's, and started serving lunch again after briefly discontinuing the midday meal last summer. When he hired Czaja, Clothier told me that he was going to make City Tavern less formal and less expensive: lower prices, a more casual ambience, no more white tablecloths.
Clothier has succeeded, although City Tavern — which evokes a 19th-century brasserie — was never that stuffy. In the early days, when Clothier's culinary crew featured high-profile chefs such as Dennis Kaniger and Tim Doolittle, the menu was more imaginative and pricey. Czaja has pared the list to a dozen or so entrées, while keeping a few dishes that have been on this restaurant's greatest-hits list for a long time, including the pan-roasted chicken and the shellfish potpie.
I like Czaja's choices a lot, although not all of his innovations deserve a rave — or a monologue. That includes the starter that we shared at lunch, a duck confit with house-made sweet potato gnocchi in a caramelized onion broth. The traditional gnocchi, made with regular old potatoes, is a tough act to pull off: If the dumpling dough isn't light and airy, those little boiled balls can be as heavy as lead bullets. City Tavern's dumplings were chewy instead of heavy or tough. The duck was heavenly, though.
Harris, who is always on some kind of diet, complained about his Caesar salad, griping that it arrived with croutons (and not particularly good croutons, I might add) when he had requested no croutons. The complaining created a temporary lull in his storytelling, so Carol Ann used the intermission to rave about the soup du jour, a pumpkin-colored seafood bisque. "It's fabulous," Carol Ann said of the ridiculously rich dish, "but after three spoonfuls, I'm woozy."
"But back to my story," Harris announced.
As his tale picked up steam, I focused on my salad, the petite lunch version of the iceberg-wedge creation with chopped bacon, hard-boiled eggs, beets and a slyly subtle Maytag blue-cheese dressing. By the time Harris was telling us about collapsing on a bed in Paris after his wild adventures in Hungary, I was contemplating the sensual marvels of the golden pan-roasted chicken in an herbal jus, served with delicious mashed potatoes seasoned with just the right note of horseradish. Horseradish was also the featured ingredient in a vinaigrette splashed on the wilted spinach alongside the first-rate grilled salmon that Carol ordered for lunch. We both marveled over the adorable goat-cheese croquette on her plate, although I ate most of it.
I don't usually order dessert at lunch, but Carol Ann insisted. And Czaja presents a compelling list of sweets: a crème brûlée (of course), a fruit cobbler and a flourless chocolate torte served with a tiny scoop of gianduja (a hazelnut ice cream that sounds a lot more exotic than it tastes). We enjoyed the fudgy and dense chocolate torte, but remember this description because there's more to the torte tale.
When I returned for dinner on a cold Wednesday night, I was with Shelby, a conversationalist. He mostly talked about trying to find a new job. As it turned out, our beautiful server, Carly, had been laid-off from her white-collar position nearly a year ago. She was an excellent waitress, though: candid, diplomatic, personable.
After we briefly mourned the state of the economy, we all turned our attention to the dinner menu. I let Shelby choose the starter and winced when he chose the crispy shrimp and calamari combo. I'm pretty bored with calamari, but I liked the light tempura breading on City Tavern's version, which had lots of crunchy fried shrimp and tons of fried onion strings and not so much calamari. Actually, I'm not sure there was any, but who gives a damn. I'm sick of it anyway.
I was hardly more enthusiastic about the Caesar salad, best described as pallid (except for the croutons, which were good this time). Shelby's soup, on the other hand — a supple potato and goat-cheese concoction — was wonderful.
Because City Tavern has a good rep for its steaks, I insisted that Shelby order the medallions of filet mignon, served on a mound of creamy, blue-cheese risotto dotted with chopped Anjou pears. The beef medallions were lusciously tender. While the risotto was too rich for me. Shelby savored every bite.
I never would have ordered the shellfish potpie if it wasn't one of this restaurant's signature dishes. A potpie filled with shrimp, lobster and grilled scallops in a lemon cream sauce seems like the culinary version of Dame Edna — way over the top. But I've got to say it was one of the most sensational variations on the potpie theme I've ever tasted. Under the flaky, golden puff-pastry crust was a comforting assortment of pink shrimp, chopped scallops, lobster, potatoes, celery and carrots in a light cream sauce. It's not for the fainthearted, though; I could only finish half.
I was ready to try that night's cobbler, an apple-and-pear creation, but Shelby wanted chocolate. And that damn torte was the only one that met that requirement. So I ordered it again and made an interesting discovery: It didn't even look like the same confection served the previous week. This time, instead of being dense and fudgy, the cube-shaped slice of cake was airy and dry. I wouldn't even bet that it was flourless. But it was chocolate, and Shelby ate most of it.
"It wasn't bad," he said, "but it wasn't quite the way the waitress described it."
I'm sure there's a story there. And I would gladly go back to hear it, while I just sit and do what I do best. Eat.
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