The classy, old-looking City Tavern just needs a little true grit.

Calling All Cowboys 

The classy, old-looking City Tavern just needs a little true grit.

A very macho, tobacco-chewing friend of mine stepped into the bar at the City Tavern one night for a drink. "It looked like the kind of place where you might see a cowboy and a whore sitting at the bar," he said of the dimly lit, tiled room. "And you were disappointed that they weren't there." It was a brilliant observation. City Tavern's owner, Dan Clothier, designed his restaurant to look as if it had been a long-standing tenant of the century-old Freight House Building, where it's been squeezed between Lidia's and Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue for only a year.

But because it has such classic appointments -- dark reclaimed woodwork, vintage mirrors, exposed brick walls and antique light fixtures -- some novice diners and out-of-towners might think the restaurant has been there since Warren G. Harding was in the White House. Back in the Stockyards' heyday of the 1920s, those randy cowboys and sneaky cattle buyers would surely have enjoyed the masculine ambience at City Tavern, had it been around.

In fact, City Tavern has all the ingredients to be one of this town's great restaurants. So why isn't it? At its first anniversary, it's still suffering growing pains. The first setback was the departure of celebrity chef Dennis Kaniger, who created the establishment's first menu. It wasn't a particularly successful launch: That initial menu was too expensive, too complicated and included too many additional charges (for sauces!). Less than four months after the restaurant opened, Kaniger was history, and so was his menu.

Kaniger's talented young sous chef, Tim Doolittle, donned Kaniger's jacket and seriously overhauled the menu. He lowered the prices, and dinners now include side dishes and sauces. The food is exceptional right now, but weeknight business is still rather stagnant. Unfortunately, cowboys and hookers still haven't found the place.

My acerbic friend Ned, who prefers dining in the stylish bar, thinks the restaurant needs a charismatic bartender (like the legendary Harry Murphy, who is finally opening another restaurant of his own) to build up the smokier, boozier side of the business. Although I don't drink, I've eaten a couple of light dinners at the bar and noted the same problems that drive Ned crazy. The bar staff tends to be distant, rarely making eye contact; service there could be called perfunctory at best.

"The bar is the heart and soul of the place," Ned blasts. "That bar could be a great guy place, a place to hang out, smoke and drink, but the bartenders are bumpkins!"

I'm happy to say that the food servers are not. In fact, one of the young waiters, Justin, was so intelligent, attentive and cordial that we insisted on sitting in his station on every visit. He carefully pointed out which dishes had been recently doctored by Doolittle (the venison chops are now pork, for example) and which were especially good that evening. "Isn't it nice, for a change, to have a server who really understands the menu?" my friend Tomas said.

That's a lost art these days. But Justin had that terrific sense of server spontaneity and didn't go into a panic when our friend Larry asked if he could order the striped bass prepared as the yellowfin tuna would have been. "No problem," Justin said. Larry beamed as if he'd just won the lottery.

I ordered fried oysters as an appetizer, forgetting that I hadn't especially liked the cornmeal-breaded bivalves on an earlier visit ("Urban Legend," October 24, 2002). But even this simple dish had been improved -- now delectably light and crunchy, it came with a punchy rémoulade sauce instead of the dull salsa of its previous incarnation. Tomas, however, wasn't impressed with the New England clam chowder. "Too many potatoes," he said. He'd just returned from a trip to Boston, where the chowder is, apparently, much clammier. The chicken soup was far better, with a rich, creamy texture and three tiny dumplings floating in the center.

Maybe it was the comforting taste of roasted chicken in the soup that influenced my dinner decision: a delectable roasted chicken breast, marinated in musky achiote seeds and served with an Asiago-cheese tamale. I loved it, but Doolittle has since replaced it with a version française: chicken breast stuffed with porcini-mushroom mousse.

Thank God the splendid quail dish -- stuffed with pork sausage and perched on a towering, skillet-fried potato cake -- isn't getting a makeover. It's one of the city's prettiest autumn dishes, surrounded by topaz-colored apricots. Tomas practically inhaled the crispy, succulent little bird.

We were far too indulgent ordering desserts that night, especially the richest offerings created by pastry chef Roberto Luna (who soon will leave the restaurant to open his own bakery, which Clothier will co-own; Doolittle will take over the City Tavern pastry duties). Few desserts are more luxurious than Luna's glistening slab of chocolate cake -- milk-chocolate mousse layered with bittersweet ganache -- accompanied by a scoop of buttercream-rich white-chocolate ice cream. Tomas, an unabashed Francophile, insisted that our waiter drop the bombe, a neatly molded mound of mocha ice cream on a round, slightly spicy chocolate sponge cake. He tried to be discreet, but he ate enough to get bombed himself.

A few nights later, I returned with my friend Patsy, who had been to City Tavern once before. "I only hung out in the bar, so it doesn't really count," she said. She loved sitting in the dining room. "It feels as if we're in New York, only much, much less expensive," she said as she glanced at the menu. Not wanting to waste the intensely flavored Kumamoto oysters' supposed aphrodisiac qualities on me, she ordered just three of the petite bivalves. They arrived as shiny as jewels, and Patsy ignored the cocktail sauce in favor of the lighter minuet sauce, which, she said, didn't smother the flavor of the oyster.

I decided it was probably my last opportunity to partake of Doolittle's clever summer salad of a chilled, peeled red tomato sliced in half and reassembled with a thick disc of mozzarella cheese and fresh basil. It was light and cold enough to perfectly counterbalance my dinner, a tower of tenderloin slices and equally meaty grilled portabella mushroom, gleaming with a mahogany veal-stock reduction and truffle oil.

Patsy, who makes frequent trips to Mexico, was eager to sample the dish she knows as huachinango Vera Cruz: grilled red snapper served with a coarsely chopped fresh tomato concassée made with olives, garlic, cilantro and spices. Doolittle's version, Red Snapper Vera Cruz, is somewhat untraditional. Rather than a hunk of fish smothered in tomatoes, it's served in a bowl looking a bit like a stew. "Our version makes the concassée ingredients more important to the dish," Doolittle explained later. "The fish becomes almost inconsequential."

I thought the combination of moist, flaky snapper and the slightly fiery vegetable-and-herb concoction to be intoxicating. So did Patsy, once she got over the unexpected presentation. And after another glass of Pighin Pinot Grigio, she felt festive enough to finish the meal with an airy cream puff surrounded by fresh raspberries.

On our way out of the restaurant, we peeked at the two or three people languidly smoking at the bar. None looked familiar, and there wasn't a cowboy or a hooker in the lot, damn it.

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