Home /hōm/: A place where one lives. A dwelling place held together by the family or social unit that occupies it; a household. [Merriam-Webster]
“Home is not pretentious. You don’t get dressed up or put on airs to be home.” -Danny Meyer
We were nomads; prone to throwing our belongings into black trash bags and scurrying away like night thieves. Every new apartment offered my family promise — from the whitewashed walls still wet, to the open windows that ushered in the street’s symphony — and we lived on this fiction, that these four rooms and sixteen walls would bring us closer to ourselves, would live up to the very definition of what it means to live in a home. Yet, invariably, we’d pack up our things in the station wagon and keep moving. Home became the place to which our mail was forwarded, and amidst all of the moving, I struggled to hold onto the one constant: the food.
Food is the salve, the thing that brings people together. As the years passed and the apartments became photocopies of themselves, I realized that a home is where meals are shared, and over the course of that future menu plans would be hatched, friendships reaffirmed and bonds remained forever unshaken. Our meals bound a love that would not alter or bend.
So it’s with this spirit that I dove into Michael Anthony’s The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook. The book opens with an extensive and passionate forward from restaurateur, Danny Meyer, who envisioned an establishment that would serve as a stark departure from his first triumph, Union Square Café. His second restaurant would be a European-inspired place where one didn’t “have to park [one’s] taste for good food and caring service at the door.” He envisioned a restaurant that would embody a mélange of the refined Paris restaurants, Roman trattorias, and rustic Early American watering holes — spots where people could gather without pomp, yet still expect the finest food and the warmest of service. Thus, Gramercy Tavern was born.
Meyer recounts his nearly obsessive attention to detail, which feels very much like parental endearment — he emerges as an overprotective father who struggles with letting his kids grow wings. Between his partnership with, and amicable separation from, famed chef Tom Colicchio, locating the freshest ingredients, the detail-oriented work of crafting a menu, and the tribulations that arise from managing two disparate eateries that lie mere blocks from one another, Meyer provides foodies and restaurant devotees ample opportunity to revel in the story behind the Tavern. A reader learns the impetus for the restaurant’s cuisine, as well as the secret to its longevity (Tavern opened in 1994).
In the cookbook’s introduction, current Executive Chef, Michael Anthony, echoes Meyer’s mission of creating and nurturing a restaurant where people can come together. He relays that the recipes in the book should “convey both the warm welcome of the restaurant and a sense of discovery about the food. My goal is not to have you try to slavishly reproduce dishes it takes a kitchen full of professionals to turn out every day.”
And it’s with that spirit that I dove in, fork first. I hoped to usher some of that warmth into my home.
Reflecting its namesake’s evangelical commitment to seasonal cooking, The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook is divided into seasons. Spring offers fried oysters and spinach (à la sous vide), pickled ramps and rhubarb, and strawberry pie. Summer chills with cold zucchini and corn soups, baby artichokes with summer beans, heirloom tomato salads with pickled cherries, first-season peach pie, and tender artic char and pork tenderloin. Autumn warms with kuri squash soups, spinach fettuccine with duck ragout, chowders, braised lamb shoulders, and other heartier dishes meant to provide comfort as the leaves change. Finally, winter provides the ultimate sustenance and seasonal celebration with chocolate toffee, a litany of cookies, smoked meats, meatballs, and roasted fish.
Over the course of the cookbook’s accompanying narrative, the reader not only learns about more expert techniques — braising, pickling, confit — but also tips and tricks about plotting a delicious menu — from the starting apéritif to the finishing digestif. While I found the recipes sumptuous and inspiring, I also found them oddly antithetical to the spirit of the introduction. Understandably, anyone who lives (or visits) New York knows that Gramercy Tavern isn’t necessarily your local elbows-on-the-table eatery — far from it — however, the book feels more like a down-home cookbook for those who can afford complex (and time consuming) processes and ingredients. This is a tome not for the beginning or home cook, but for the adventurous foodie, the one who revels in finding sustainable, farmed fish and obscure legumes and spices.
The cookbook is a culinary adventure, albeit an expensive one. I’m an adept cook and baker and am well-stocked with spices, flours and foodstuffs, yet I found a significant amount of recipes called for ingredients I wouldn’t consider pantry stapes (e.g. nettle leaves, shiro dashi, daikon radish, Aleppo pepper, shiso leaves, star anise, aji dulce, pimenton), and many dishes that relied on time-consuming techniques (e.g. pickling).
In short, I feel that one needs leisure and an AMEX card to make the Tavern magic happen in her own kitchen. That’s not to say that dishes aren’t extraordinary. After scouring the cookbook, I settled on items I’d make in my kitchen, except that these versions have had their flavors dialed up.
Pastry chef Nancy Olson’s chocolate walnut cookies were a showstopper, so much so that I received a host of compliments from gaped-open mouths. I informed the jaw-dropped gushers that chilling the dough overnight allowed for the flour to fully absorb the liquid, which allows for a more stalwart, hearty cookie.
The no-bake strawberry pie was an unequivocal delight that took minutes to make. A simple graham cracker crust, married with a preserve-like chilled berry topping, made for a refreshing treat during New York’s sweltering-slash-monsoony days.
And finally, the meatballs were a complete and utter triumph. Although the process was Odyssean, the result was a meatball bursting with complex notes from the added peppers, garlic puree, and a mixture of fresh and dried seasoning. It was a study in contrasting textures (i.e. charred exterior, tender interior). I didn’t opt for the accompanying bed of braised onions or mashed potatoes as instructed; rather, I served up my little gems with a simple salad and quinoa.
While the spirit of The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook is warm and infectious, the recipes within evoke a home much more lavish than my own humble abode. Along with my new favorite cookies, I’m left with conversations that will inevitably dovetail into my exhaustive hunt for the allusive pepper (when no alternative exists in the recipe). Forced to choose, I’d forego the cookies to pass the episodes of my life with food as the frame, not the thing that inevitably tires me. Fortunately, I don’t have to.