It seems to me that there are few restaurants in New York City more polarizing than Minetta Tavern – even amongst people I know and respect some of them love it, some of them hate it, and some refuse to go because of the ‘scene.’ Described as “Parisian steakhouse meets classic New York City tavern” and owned and operated by the same folks behind Balthazar I knew it was only a matter of time before curiosity got the best of me and as it turned out, on this trip it was not only curiosity but convenience that led me to the doors of the classic spot on MacDougal Street.
Sparring you the details of what happens when one of my overcrowded trips undergoes a last second change in plans, suffice it to say that after lunch at EMP I had nowhere to be but LaGuardia Airport at 4am the next morning for my 5:45am flight home and deciding it senseless to deal with the logistics of early morning travel and risk being late I decided to carry my bags with me for the day and stay out all night – a plan not exactly practical anywhere but a place like Manhattan – but a plan perfect for a midnight dinner at a place where dinner reservations any earlier aren’t exactly easy to come by unless you are someone special.
Shopping, galleries, a movie, and plenty of walking separating me from lunch my arrival to Minetta Tavern was just prior to 11:30pm and yet even at such a time on a Tuesday I reached the door to find a small line. Making my way to the hostess stand I inquired if a party of one could be accommodated and with a quick once-over and a smile from the hostess she would “see what she could do” – or, to be blunt – she would ask two men at the bar to slide left thus creating a space only slightly larger than my shoulder width. Asking if the accommodations would suffice and assuring her that they should my bags were collected and transported to another room as I cozied up to the bar.
Seated for mere moments – and admiring the ample collection of booze in front of me, the eye candy in a red dress to the right of me, and the wall of New York memorabilia to my left while trying to ignore the two…we’ll call them ‘bros’…who had been moved to create my seat – I was soon greeted by Frank and on asking me whether I was there for food or drink I said ‘probably both’ to which he retorted “good choice” before handing me a stack of three menus. Noting now that Frank was not only a server but also a bartender, cashier, and busboy throughout the evening I will simply say that the young man more than earns whatever he is paid plus his tips because during the two hours I was there I don’t think I ever saw him stop moving or working while still managing to be efficient, friendly, and conversational.
Having a relatively good idea of what I was going to order before I even entered the restaurant but with my mind changed slightly by the list of daily specials it would not be long before Frank would return and after inquiring about the portion of the duck special (“huge, big enough for two”) I decided the better part of valor was to sample a greater variety and placed my order for four courses plus a cocktail, The Sucker Punch – a terrible film but an excellent drink consisting of sweet and savory in a pleasant balance featuring light rum, ginger syrup, pineapple, and fresh squeezed lemon juice.
With the restaurant packed and loud as Dean and Frank sang overhead I sipped my cocktail slowly while dodging drinks being passed to and from the bartenders to the patrons behind me and with the hour just past midnight and seemingly even more people pressing at my back the first course of the evening arrived in the form of the $18 nightly special “Pate de Foie with Huckleberry Compote” along with a plate of grilled Levain from Blathazar and on a trip filled with a number of great foie gras dishes this was amongst the top three. Large in portion – approximately 3-4oz of creamy liver – and served with a gelee of huckleberry atop and the aforementioned compote encircling the salted terrine plus just a bit of (unnecessary) greenery, presumably for texture, this was precisely the sort of dish I’d expect to see in a French Brasserie…and as an added bonus, more warm bread arrived before I even had to ask.
With the knowledge that I likely could have easily ordered the duck here and been perfectly happy with my two favorite foods back-to-back, a large part of the reason I originally made the decision to visit Minetta Tavern was my second course, a still-sizzling bowl of Brandade de Morue, and without exaggerating I can say it was worth the trip; the best brandade I’ve ever had. Starting out smooth and creamy with the potatoes rendered to a Robuchonesque consistency and a light drizzle of olive oil carrying briny forth the brininess of the fish, where this dish stepped ahead of the competition was first in the buttery crostini facilitating its delivery and then in the addition of chives and winter truffles; non-traditional for sure, but an aromatic note it would be hard to deny makes almost any dish better.
With two large portions of slightly updated (and considerably heavy) French classics beneath my belt Frank stopped in to check on with me after dropping off a Black Label Burger on each side and told me my main course would be up next. Joking with him and asking what percentage of people come in and order that burger he chuckled and said “I think you’re the only person at the bar who didn’t order it.” …And less than five minutes later when “Pasta Za Za” I remained happy that I had not. Described on the menu in simple terms as “fresh pasta with pancetta, sage, parmesan, and a fried egg” and consisting of little more than this plus a bit of butter and a lot of black pepper there really is not much I can say about the dish than what you would guess from the ingredients – each in nice balance with the silky fettuccini and all melded together with the ruptured egg yolk to form a sort of rustic DIY carbonara; It was simple and it was delicious.
With my cocktail now gone and the pasta near finished Frank returned to offer me another drink and deferring I inquired about coffee – an “Ethiopian one” roasted by Stumptown that was smooth and nutty but clearly not a priority in the bar setting (IE, it took more time to prepare than a soufflé and a refill ended up leaving with me because it arrived nearly twenty minutes after the first cup was consumed.)
Having already mentioned my dessert above, many of you will realize that Minetta Tavern lists their soufflé as being “for two” and offered in both Chocolate and Gran Marnier I opted for the former – a cocoa cloud that I guess could have been enough for a pair, but I was happy to polish off myself. Like everything else I experienced on the Minetta menu there was really nothing ‘special’ about this soufflé – no edible paint, no glitter, no ice cream or sauce, just a dusting of powdered sugar over a lovely rise and barely set center rife with dark chocolate notes that would rival even Payard’s infamous flourless chocolate cookie.
With the hour now pushing 1am on 2/29 and my plane due to leave in less than five hours Frank stopped by, the bar finally slowing down, and commending my appetite asked if I’d like anything else. Requesting only the tab and that my coffee be transferred to a “to-go” cup I received both, plus an apology for the long delay on my coffee, and thanking Frank for the great service I collected my bag and made my way to the street – still bustling – outside. Full and happy but also glad to be somewhere not so crowded and loud as I walked towards the subway en route for 125th and the M60 I can say without hesitation that Minetta Tavern was exactly what I expected from the numerous reports and while I can understand those who love it and those who do not I absolutely fall in the former group and recommend those who haven’t been at least give it a chance as the food and service both justify the ‘hassle.’