Maya: There are times when the most amazing meals are the toughest to sit down and write about. This is one of those times.
Jill: “I won a $400 gift card to Gramercy Tavern. And you’re going with me.” Notice the lack of exclamation point or question mark in Maya’s statement. She was simply stating two facts. My response was as resolute: “Okay.” There are things that you don’t question. And Maya sharing half of her culinary booty with me is not one of those things.
Maya: I received the email after an emotionally and physically draining day, and it couldn’t have come at a better time: My mother and I had spent the previous day packing up my old apartment, and the movers had come that morning. Between the crying and the heavy lifting and the gin and tonics consumed at dinner, I was pretty much a wreck—I doubt Charlie Bucket was happier to see his golden ticket. Once the dust had settled, somewhat, Jill booked a flight to New York, and we made a reservation for a late Sunday-night dinner.
Back in December.
Please don’t judge.
Maya: It’s funny, the associations you have with certain places, even if you’ve never been there. In my early New York days—ten-plus years ago now—a co-worker booked her then-boyfriend a birthday dinner at Gramercy Tavern, and I jealously drooled over their tasting menus. Over the years, I’d visit the website and halfheartedly think about dropping in for lunch; even when I was flush, though, I couldn’t quite justify the price point. Finally getting to eat here—free of charge, no less—was heady stuff.
Jill: I’ve worked in places like this, but never dined in them—the service was a well-oiled machine, the dining room buzzed with laughter and conversation. We settled into our little table for the marathon meal ahead of us, and by the time our amuse bouche—a goat-cheese chive-kissed gougere, like a fancy boursin disguised as haute cuisine—arrived, we were well and truly ready to eat.
Maya: My main challenge was avoiding the bread service. Even knowing what lay ahead of us, it was near-impossible to resist seconds (and thirds) of the fresh rolls offered whenever our plates were empty. Thankfully, we were soon distracted by our first course: sweet, tiny bay scallops in a nest of beluga lentils, carrots, and radishes.
Jill: The scallops were caramelized and sweet, cooked exactly as scallops should be cooked — not too rubbery, not too rare. They fell apart, into smooth pieces, at the slightest touch of the fork. No mere garnish, the radishes and carrots were cut like rose petals, peppery yet delicate, and repeated, in diced form, with the lentils for even more flavor.
One thing sticks out, something that I’ve never experienced before in a meal: visual alliteration, similes on my plate. Our second course was lobster served in a lemon-kissed broth with celery leaves, sunchokes, radishes, apples and mandolined carrots. The flavors of Thanksgiving (thanks to those celery leaves) enveloped the tender lobster. At first glance, it wasn’t lobster I saw on the plate, but bite-size pieces of new potatoes among the confetti of winter flavors. Someone in the kitchen was playing with me and with all my senses. The plating in our meals went beyond, “pretty” or “dazzling.” That dish tells a story. And it wasn’t the only one to do so.
Maya: This was my favorite dish of our meal, though not for the intellectual reasons Jill outlined above. (Honestly, I was too enthralled to be analytical—an embarrassing admission for a critical diner.) Everything about it just worked: The earthy-sweet sunchoke puree played perfectly off the firm, sweet lobster and crunchy-sweet apples, the celery leaves and thinly sliced carrots giving all of that sweetness a vegetal balance, and the potatoes grounding the plate with just enough heft and neutrality. Even now, months later, in a completely different season, I am haunted by the thought of this plate of food.
After the shock and awe of that lobster, I was prepared to be blown away by the fish course. Sadly, that wasn’t to be, though the fault hardly lay with the preparation: The halibut was, yes, perfectly cooked (don’t get tired of reading about perfection just yet—that was the running theme of this meal), but the fish itself was somewhat lackluster. The real winner here was the purple cauliflower, charred and way more tasty than cauliflower has any right to be.
Jill: Another mind-eye trick here, this time a playful take on rye bread: the American caviar resembled specks of caraway, while the caraway flavor itself came from the sauce strewn over the bed of Chinese cabbage. A coming together of vision and taste.
Maya: When I saw the words “duck dumplings” on the menu, I was irrationally excited. Duck has become one of my favorite proteins, and dumplings are one of my favorite vehicles for meat-and-vegetable consumption. (Who doesn’t love dumplings, really? Other than my heretical sister, that is, who recently informed me that she doesn’t like dumplings…prompting me to question the very existence of our shared DNA? But I digress.)
Of course, when your expectations are high, you have to allow for the possibility of disappointment, and I was somewhat disappointed here. The broth was insanely good, but the meat had a somewhat mealy consistency, unmitigated by the sharpness of the turnip garnish and the unctuousness of the broth.
Jill: I’m pretty sure that this was my entire ration of turnips for the winter. Or the year. I’m not big on turnips.
Maya: To be honest, by the time the meat course came out, I was so full that I nearly resented the sight of it. I ate the steak, albeit a bit begrudgingly (even though, once again, it was perfectly cooked), but I couldn’t manage more than a bite or two of the potatoes. This is the only plate I sent back to the kitchen that wasn’t scraped clean.
Jill: I loved that this meat was garnished with… meat. If a meal were ever to need a seventh inning stretch, it would be this one. And it would be somewhere between the beginning and end of this course.
Maya: As much as my stomach protested, our feast wasn’t even close to over: We had three dessert courses yet to come. I chose the goat’s milk cheesecake—tart and creamy—with concord grape sorbet and a graham-cracker tuille. The whole affair was reminiscent of that eye-opening Jeni’s ice cream I had last summer—in a word, perfection. Again. To quote Jill’s reaction, “I need this brought to my house every night.”
Jill: I wasn’t kidding.
And then there was the deconstructed apple pie, which was lovely — and angular — but not quite as satisfying as that rich, tangy sorbet.
Jill: When they brought out the Mexican chocolate balls with toasted pumpkin seeds, I started to worry that the meal would never end. The time was approaching midnight and the restaurant didn’t even look close to empty. We had become Augustus Gloop and they were going to punish our gluttony by feeding us until we die. Some sort of Willy Wonka curse. That golden ticket — the free gift certificate — would be our end. These guys were actually second to last, and were probably my favorite of the desserts. Why? Because of the pumpkin seeds: clearly this was a diet food. Healthy, too!
Maya: At this point, I had to wave the white flag. I loved these mini-macaroons, but the truffles were just too much—if a taste of chocolate makes you ill, you know you’ve had too much. When I told our waiter I’d have to pass on my final dessert (carrot cake!), he offered to have the kitchen box it up for me; I collected it, along with my jacket, from the coat check room on the way out. It’s for touches like these that Danny Meyer’s hospitality is justifiably lauded.
Jill: And then came the tiny desserts. You know, just in case we were still hungry. (Oh, and breakfast! They sent us home with breakfast! As if we could ever eat again.)
As I think about the meal, which was one of the best of my life, I wonder why it seems so incredible. The service and company were outstanding, of course, but when it comes down to the food, is it really that much better than other experiences I’ve had? Or do I just appreciate it more because it’s Gramercy, because the package was complete, because (let’s face it) it’s free?
Maya: Cost aside, I’ve never had a tasting menu like this one, and I don’t expect to have another anytime soon. But even though I had a food hangover for days, I don’t regret a bite (well, except for maybe a roll or two from that devilish bread basket). Willy Wonka himself couldn’t have designed a better experience.
42 East 20th Street
New York, NY