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A New York Classic Gets Another Green Makeover
June 11, 2015 -- Business entertaining in New York once meant hosting lavish, formal lunches or dinners at places with names like Café Chauveron, Le Pavillon, Lutece and La Côte Basque. Those places have been gone for a long time and at least one of their surviving contemporaries, the iconic Four Season in the Seagram Building, is searching for a new home.

But now we come to the Tavern on the Green, another fixture on the Big Apple entertainment scene. In operation since 1934, it has always had a mixed reputation for its cuisine, but has always been popular with tourists, visiting businesspeople and, in all fairness, some of my fellow New Yorkers. For many years, it ranked as one of the top restaurants in the United States whether measured by the number of meals served annually or the dollar value earned.

Lacking a solid culinary reputation, Tavern on the Green's longevity is undoubtedly due to its location. The "green" in the name is Central Park and the restaurant is well-situated at West 67th Street. I've always loved going to the Tavern in that magnificent park setting, especially for outdoor business receptions. But the food? Almost always disappointing. In fact, maybe 20 years ago, I remember being invited to a Christmas Eve dinner where the skimpy prix fixe menu was expensive and mediocre. I once even hosted a year-end dinner for my magazine staff. The dining was passable, but nothing to elicit rave reviews.

Closed for nearly four years for renovations, Tavern on the Green reopened last year with a new look, a new menu and new aspirations for its dining reputation. Unfortunately, the new-look Tavern was no culinary triumph, either, and both food critics and the clientele were less than enthused. The wan reception has led to two changes in the identity of the head chef. Katy Sparks, the first executive chef, was dropped after the initial negative reviews. Jeremiah Tower, one of the creators of the "California cuisine" movement, departed about six weeks ago. The kitchen is now in the hands of John Stevenson, whose culinary stops have mostly been at high-volume restaurants and event spaces.

Despite all of this baggage, I was impelled a few Fridays ago to join a friend for lunch at the Tavern. And I resolved to keep an open mind and an impartial palate.

Before we get to the menu, however, some sensory input since the restaurant has undergone some major physical alterations. The newly renovated interior gets high marks indeed. We dined in the 300-seat courtyard, half of which is enclosed in glass, giving the guests the feeling that they are eating al fresco. There is also a large inside Bar Room with a fireplace, seating 150 people; the 140-seat Central Park Room with sizeable open kitchen; a South Wing offering 120 seats, and a "Green to Go" window with 110 seats nearby. Several weeks ago, a 110-seat outdoor beer garden was opened. It features beers on tap, German specialties such as bratwurst and familiar fare like hamburgers.

Our seating was comfortable. There was no feeling of crowding, although we were aware of various foreign languages being spoken nearby. Our waiter, youthful and helpful, seemed to belie earlier reports that the service levels leave something to be desired. And, of course, just about everyone is awestruck by the formidable park views that lie just beyond your table.

Our lunch got under way with the Rustic Panzanella Salad, which included heirloom tomato, cucumbers and olives bathed in red wine vinaigrette. This dish won my companion's hearty approval. I ordered the Scottish Organic Salmon Crudo with dill, grapefruit, red onion and sesame croutons. I was impressed and the flavors were excellent. Other appetizers include the Tavern's Truffle Caesar Salad with baby gem lettuce, basil, garlic croutons and olive oil; Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio with horseradish crème fraiche, balsamic shallots and crispy leeks; and Potato and Leek Soup with dill, trout roe and brioche croutons.

Not so impressive, however, were the prices. Appetizers run $16-$22 each. Judging from other reviews, I'm not alone in this assessment.

For the main course, my friend chose Orecchiette and Broccoli Rabe presented with hot Italian sausage, garlic and olive oil ($22). He enjoyed the broccoli rabe, but he thought that the pasta was nothing special. Being Friday, I was still in the mood for fish, so I had the New York Bagel and Lox, with tomato, red onions, dill and cream cheese ($18). This choice sat well with me, as I wanted something light on what was a particularly hot day, but I doubt that on some future occasion I would voluntarily opt again for two salmon dishes.

Other typical entrée include the Grilled Chicken Paillard, with lemon caper brown butter, potato puree, sun-dried tomato and arugula ($26); Cauliflower Entrecote with roasted Brussels sprouts and heirloom cherry tomatoes ($22), and the Prince Edward Island Steamed Mussels with white wine, garlic, shallots and Dijon mustard ($22). In all honesty, the entrée prices do not seem out of line; in fact, they sound downright reasonable.

For dessert, we shared the Chef's Selection of Ice Creams and Sorbets. I thought the mango sorbet was exceptional. Other desserts include a strawberry-rhubarb shortcake with lemon madeleine and vanilla bean whipped ganache and the mandatory New York Cheesecake with apricot compote and rhubarb-Riesling sauce. All desserts are priced at $12. A cheese plate is $16.

Should the diner elect to imbibe, wines begin at $10 per glass and Champagne comes in at $29. Various coffees and teas are generally priced at $4 per cup while the cappuccinos, espressos and lattes are $5.

To answer the obvious question: Yes, I would go back to try a more extensive meal, probably dinner.

And as for recent rumors of a name change to Tavern on the Park, we were told that the Tavern would remain on the Green "in perpetuity."

Research assistance by Violet Baron

This column is Copyright © 2015 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.