It’s been said (and if it hasn’t, then I’ll go ahead and say it) that great chefs have many of the same qualities as great musicians. Both disciplines require virtuoso talent, a taste for performing under pressure, and an ability to process prodigious amounts of detail and technique in a unique and creative way. Many chefs, like many musicians, are card-carrying control freaks. Many chefs, like many musicians, keep erratic, unhealthy hours, have a taste for addictive substances (Bordeaux, pork fat, cocaine), and are prone to towering displays of temper. And like musicians, certain chefs are drawn, divalike, to the spotlight, while others are content to make their careers in the shadows, as proficient and talented sidemen. For the last decade or so, Michael Anthony has been one of the most influential sidemen around. He has worked at Daniel and at March, but he’s best known for his collaboration with Dan Barber at Blue Hill, then, upstate, at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where he helped fashion an influential, aggressively seasonal, Slow Food style of cooking.
Recently, however, Anthony took over the kitchen at Gramercy Tavern (he replaced the divalike Tom Colicchio), and now, for the first time, he is conducting his own show on a big-city stage. With its calibrated, Pottery Barn-style décor (twiggy flower arrangements; bright, Martha Stewart-type farmhouse murals; carefully stacked piles of wood along the walls), Gramercy Tavern has always been the most self-consciously twee of Danny Meyer’s restaurants. In recent years, with Colicchio off starting restaurants and starring in a TV show, the cooking, especially in the main dining room, has been conspicuously adrift. But Anthony is an expert in the delicate arts of poaching and braising, and over the last several months, he has revamped the menu, filling it with subtle, slightly bucolic creations like lightly smoked lobster (decked with seasonal springtime ramps), crispy poached barnyard chicken, and delicious soups made with parsnips and strips of bacon or chunks of creamy heirloom cauliflower.
Anthony is not a fiery, pyrotechnic cook, and his soft, low-key approach is not for everyone. “This pig is a little wet,” commented my friend the pork fiend, as she examined her plate of belly and rack, which was braised to a kind of soft, bubblegum pinkness and served with an assemblage of Honshimeji mushrooms, leeks, and sweet green apples. But it was also excessively tasty, albeit in its subtle, braised way. Ditto the short ribs (also braised, with crunchy fried “puffed” potatoes and vinegary red cabbage), and my smoked-trout appetizer, which melted, in a most pleasing way, into a bed of crunchy pickled onions and sunchoke purée. Anthony doesn’t coat his tuna tartare with the familiar layer of avocado, but tosses it inventively with sweet beets and a scattering of hazelnuts. My lunchtime portion of calamari salad was complemented with strips of carrots (plus pine nuts), and if you order the braised lamb shoulder (also on the menu at lunchtime), it comes wrapped in a tight little roll, which breaks open over a bed of Swiss chard when you crack it with your fork.
Not surprisingly, there’s a new all-vegetable tasting menu at Gramercy Tavern (like the other carnivores at my table, I did not order it, though I took comfort in its presence), and a whole array of new haute barnyard specialties are available at the casual tavern portion of the restaurant, up front. The aforementioned parsnip-and-bacon soup is one of these, along with a nicely done hanger steak (served with buttery “Hoppin John” grits), and an excellent $16 pulled-pork sandwich piled with savoy cabbage and sweet apples. The restaurant’s new pastry chef, Nancy Olson, has a knack for turning out comforting old recipes with a light, gourmet touch. She produces an impressive haute cuisine Mounds Bar equivalent called a “Chocolate Coconut Tart,” and a very nice apple tart, garnished with slivers of fresh green apple. But the star of the show at this revived, and newly countrified, establishment is the bread pudding, which is flavored with rich deposits of chocolate and served with candied cherries and a spoonful of barely melting anise ice cream.
At Gilt, the highbrow restaurant in the Villard Mansions, another accomplished, well-traveled sideman, Christopher Lee, has recently replaced a well-known diva in the kitchen, with similarly edifying results. Lee, who has worked with Daniel and Jean-Georges, among others, takes over for Paul Liebrandt, a temperamental English auteur known for his experimental emulsions and foams. I’ve always admired Liebrandt’s cooking, but under Lee, the kitchen has a more settled, steady feel. Like his predecessor, the young chef (Lee is 31) has a fondness for esoteric ingredients, but tends to use them in a more restrained way. Order the properly opulent foie gras torchon, and you will find that it’s infused with pleasant hints of smoked bacon and caramel. The ultrafresh yellowfin-tuna tartare comes with a little platoon of crispy, piping-hot scallion pancakes on the side, and Kobe beef makes a single, blessedly brief appearance on Lee’s new menu, floating in a delicious onion soup filled with chanterelles and melted Gruyère.
Gilt is a pricey, old-world kind of restaurant, and although its refined, even haughty tone has not changed, there’s nothing stodgy or old-world about Lee’s cooking. His version of beef Wellington is stuffed with yellowfin tuna, instead of beef, and cut in little wheels, like a decorative sushi roll from Japan. That gourmet warhorse, the lamb chop, is given a slightly Moroccan twist (it’s flavored with preserved lemons and served with falafel filled with fat golden raisins), and if you order sturgeon, it comes with a crème fraîche sauce dotted with caviar, and little bite-size pillows of smoked potato gnocchi.
The desserts I sampled included an architecturally impressive chocolate coupe (with salted caramel ice cream), and a delicious concoction of bananas, honeyed ice cream, and a sesame tuile that was called “Jasmine Crème Caramel.” Sadly, the pastry auteur who created these treats left the restaurant a week or so ago. Apparently, he was prone to outbursts of temper in the kitchen. His replacement in the ensemble is rumored to be less excitable, but just as good.
Address: 42 E. 20th St., nr. Park Ave. S.; 212-477-0777
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 2 p.m. Dinner, Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $11 to $16; entrées, $21 to $25; vegetable tasting menu, $82.
Ideal Meal: Smoked trout, roast rack of pork and braised belly or braised lamb shoulder, warm chocolate bread pudding.
Note: Try a vintage beer like the ‘98 Crustacean, from Belgium.
Scratchpad: We’ve had Gramercy Tavern pegged as a two-star restaurant for years, but Anthony lifts it a notch.
Address: 455 Madison Ave., at 50th St.; 212-891-8100
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 10:30 p.m.
Prices: Three-course prix fixe, $78; five-course prix fixe, $105.
Ideal Meal: Yellowfin tuna or foie gras, tuna Wellington, chocolate tart.
Note: If you are feeling flush, request the $18 “monkey picked” tea from Anxi province, in China.
Scratchpad: We gave the restaurant three stars with Liebrandt in the kitchen. With Lee’s arrival, we see no reason to change our minds.