Chef Michael Anthony Dishes Up Delicious Local Eats At New York's Favorite Restaurant | Civil Eats

Chef Michael Anthony Dishes Up Delicious Local Eats At New York’s Favorite Restaurant

Gramercy Tavern is voted the “most popular” restaurant in New York all the time. It’s a restaurant with regulars like most don’t have anymore. People go there to eat in an unfazed New York, where restaurant eating remains a polished, “Now I shall dine,” sort of affair. Popularity is an unfortunate thing to vote on, but in a city that’s brutal whenever it’s not convinced, it seems people like reminding themselves that they like this restaurant.

Like other cities’ favorite restaurants, Gramercy Tavern has a quality that can only be gotten from being liked. It’s warmth a place can’t try for because it’s a side effect of confidence. Whatever the restaurant does well, it knows it owes a good deal to how attached its city is to it: Gramercy exists in two places at once, in a gray, stone building on 20th street, and in its patrons’ memories, in versions each of them owns and tends.

How bound those two Gramercy Taverns are to each other makes changing the restaurant’s buying priorities difficult. Its executive chef, Michael Anthony, who took the kitchen over from Tom Colicchio in 2006, is trying to. He’s committed to a local food economy in the quietest, simplest way a chef ever is. He believes cooking’s best when it’s done with ingredients from the nearest soil, pasture, and water. So he’s changing the way the restaurant considers food, trying to send new roots into the agriculture of the northeast while keeping its great taproot planted in the pavement that gave it room to grow. He’s doing it all without fanfare, and modestly, and in a way I haven’t ever seen.

In a city where most new restaurants are scrambling for the niche of diners that care by cramming farms’ names onto every menu line, Gramercy’s menu stands out for their absence. There aren’t any farms’ or producers’ names on either of its two menus—one is for its front bar room and one for its formal dining room. When I was there to cook a few weeks ago—I chopped squash and cooked kale, and ate—there was “Smoked Trout, Cippollini Puree, and Pickled Onions,” and “Warm Salad of Vegetables and Black Lentils.”

Judging by how much attention Gramercy calls to its ingredients’ provenances, you’d think it didn’t know, or didn’t mind. The other words that are nowhere on Gramercy’s menus are: “farm,” “market,” and “seasonal.” There’s no mission statement or list of suppliers. Its menu looks similar to ones of other comparable, fancy New York restaurants—like Le Bernardin, and Jean Georges, and Bouley.

The greatest difference is that the others, like a lot of seasonal menus, list ingredients that seem warming and wintry. But in the middle of February, when it’s thirty degrees and hailing, and little is being harvested here, there’s not a terribly wide variety of ingredients to make a menu out of. So Gramercy’s, most of which comes from farms in this strange, icy, northeastern winter, is made from boxes and boxes of every kind and size and shape of onion and radish and turnip, and vegetables preserved in the fall, and the spicy pickling liquid left from last summer’s pickled peppers. It’s an absolute masterpiece of onion, root vegetable, and pickled sorcery.

There’s no trickery to how they turn black radishes and tough burdock into fine food. I’m not talking about trying to fool diners. It just turns out that a mute puree of little cipollini onions is the only thing that really goes with a piece of hot-smoked trout, and that pickled chard stems, and tiny pink beets, and sliced radishes are all you’d want on your lentils. It works. And when we talked at the end of the day, Mike told me a story that’s the best way I can explain how he manages to turn the aloof ingredients of New York February into food that you eat when you dine, without feeling like he needs to justify its limitations out loud.

If you look out his mother’s kitchen window in rural Ohio, Mike told me, you see yards and coops filled with chickens. You can’t buy their eggs in the local grocery store because, like most in the country, it doesn’t sell local eggs; it’s too logistically difficult. Mike’s mother told his son how much she missed good eggs. He told her to cross her neighbors’ backyards and ask if she could buy some; she did, and she does, and she eats better eggs than most people in rural Ohio.

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It does seem hard to keep yourself in good, local eggs. Fewer people raise backyard chickens (except in Berkeley and Brooklyn, where more people raise backyard chickens). But it’s often so hard because we’re accustomed to doing things one way, and to get good, local food means doing them another. Sometimes it only means seeing the chickens in our neighbors’ yards.

Seeing them, and using the other smallest-possible ways to not just eat local food, but raise it up like good cooking can—even in New York in the middle of February—is what Mike’s doing to connect to one very demanding, time consuming source of richness and value for his restaurant without disconnecting from another.

You don’t need to know you’re eating virtuously and turnip-ly to be happy in a quiet dining room in front of a plate of pureéd turnips. Gramercy is being judged according the same standards as restaurants whose ingredients are going whizzing around the planet in cold storage as I type. And it still works.

Mike wonders if by keeping his buying and cooking philosophies implicit, he’s missing a great opportunity to say something. A restaurant, especially one as loved as Gramercy, is a good soapbox, and Mike has good gospel. I don’t know the answer. I know that to keep your head on straight you have to believe that small is beautiful. Spending more time doing things than talking about them is decidedly small. There’s great grace to that, and often grace seems as hard to come by as good eggs.

Photos: Ellen Silverman Photography

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Tamar Adler is a New York based writer. She was the founding head chef of Farm 255 in Athens, GA, and a former cook at Chez Panisse. Before she started cooking, or writing about cooking, she was an editor at Harper's Magazine. Her first book, An Endless Meal, will be published by Scribner in September 2011. Read more >

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  1. Bill McCann

    I have been walking to work for ten years, and should have accumulated enough carbon credits to justify a trip to NY. Your article on Gramercy made me want to get on a plane right now and do just that. What a beautiful story! You are right about the shortage of grace that we are all experiencing. Gravity seems to be the order of the day, but not today. Thanks to you for the writing, and Chef Michael for the inspiration.

    Bill McCann

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