A New York Classic That Does Its History Proud
Visiting New York’s classic restaurants–the legendary spots that have built their reputation on a signature location and years of happy locals–always makes me a tinge uneasy. Has the ship already sailed? Have too many tasting menus and too much fussy nouvelle cuisine poisoned me to the simple beauty of checkerboard tiles and paper tablecloths? I fear seeing the aged, hallowed establishments left behind by the tides of change, clutching a reputation earned many moons ago and now catering only to tourists who don’t know any better. Minetta Tavern was one of the mysterious restaurants whose name went hand in hand with New York long before I moved here. It wasn’t fine dining–customers would praise a $30 “Black Label Burger,” and I’d heard other raves over a supposedly massive steak. There was no rock star chef or spot on the top fifty restaurants list, yet it maintained a mythic reputation and remained a challenging table to book.
I secured a coveted Saturday night reservation some three weeks in advance and, arriving early, poked around MacDougal Street’s comedy clubs and bountiful cafés. Punctual to the minute, I stepped under the tavern’s seemingly ancient neon sign and through the worn wooden door into the familiar embrace of a French bistro. The long, proud bar was there. The walls awash with black and white photos scrawled with handwritten captions. The smell of frites and occasional clattering as servers and busboys stuffed themselves between cramped yet cozy tables and booths. The ambience has been imitated and appropriated and stretched through the far reaches of this country to the point of being a novelty.
For that matter, Minetta Tavern, in its current manifestation, has only been around since 2009. The tavern itself, however, first opened in 1937 as a Northern Italian restaurant and boasted patrons like Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound among a host of boxers and starlets during its storied history. Original owner Eddie Silieri (nicknamed “Eddie Minetta” as he became synonymous with the place) named the restaurant after Minetta Creek, which used to run through the area. Minetta Tavern changed hands twice since Silieri, with both subsequent owners keeping the menu and every inch of the establishment in tact. Skyrocketing rent prices in the West Village forced the third owner to sell in 2008, and the restaurant landed in the lap of Keith McNally, a thirty-year veteran of New York City’s restaurant scene whose trendy French brasserie Balthazar remains critically acclaimed some eighteen years after opening.
Though McNally renovated the space and transitioned the menu from family-style Italian into French bistro fare, he maintained key elements like the bar and the original wood paneling as he reconstructed Minetta Tavern in the image of its 1930s debut. The dimensions of the dining room remain small, the layout misshapen, but there’s a concentration and quaintness to the action that makes eating in the restaurant feel special. Tourists haul their bags through the door and stuff them along the banquettes, but the crowd is certainly a mix. Smartly dressed young couples pounce on open barstools while business-types mingle alongside West Village locals who look like they might remember Eddie Minetta personally. Servers show a bit of old-school pomp but waste little time taking orders and offering their recommendations (“of course you’re getting the vanilla ice cream with the soufflé, right sir?”).
Executive chef William Brasile, a veteran of New York restaurants Le Cirque, Lespinasse, and Morimoto offers a disarming, one-page menu of bistro classics like moules and steak frites alongside more expressive offerings like truffled pork sausage with salt pond oysters and a “Pasta Za Za” with pancetta, parmesan, and a fried egg. Five grillades options that include three steaks, a heritage pork shank, and a veal “porterhouse” chop are complemented with four kinds of potatoes and a selection of five other sides. Brasile clearly aims for a small number of approachable but expertly executed dishes, and Minetta Tavern’s beverage selection is no different. Six classic cocktails–like the Jasper’s Rum Punch and Brooklyn–join a list of ten house cocktails, including the notable Pistachio De La Rosa, at $16 a piece. The wine selection is similarly vast, with a majority of glasses under $20 and plenty of bottles under $100.
Despite the Michelin star and the hoops required to score a table at the restaurant, the list of specials is plopped on the table with an effortless flick of the wrist. It was there I found my first two dishes of the evening. I began with a platter of scallop crudo served on the half shell in five pieces. Glistening in a thin layer of olive oil, the scallops were plump, sweet, and a nice testament to the simple quality of the seafood on show in the restaurant. A special of grilled Spanish octopus atop a light tomato sauce with lemon and cilantro showed a similar quality–and possessed a nice char and pleasant chew. However, the sauce possessed a tinge of bitterness that, for the $22 price tag and small portion size, just didn’t satisfy.
From the regular menu’s hors d’oeuvres section, a veal carpaccio quickly soothed my disappointment with the octopus. Thinly sliced and red hued, the veal came tucked under a blanket of shaved Burgundy truffle, artichoke, and “red cow” Parmigiano Reggiano with two picture perfect breadsticks. Moist with a drizzle of olive oil, the swatches of baby beef melted on the tongue, allowing for the wonderful, powerful accompaniments to really shine. With a nice whole grain earthiness from the breadsticks to round off the dish, the carpaccio shows both the quality of Minetta Tavern’s meat and the deft touch to pair it with similarly extravagant–but supremely balanced–flavors.
Generally impressed with my appetizers, the wealth of my excitement was saved for the most prime cut on the restaurant’s menu: a massive côte de boeuf dry-aged on site for 45 days in a custom-built room. Weighing in at 36 oz. (that’s more than the Breslin and the Clocktower for those of you keeping track), the hulking haunch of beef is served with marrow bones and–for the sake of your cardiologist–a small gem lettuce salad. A perfect medium rare, the impressively thick slices of steak possessed bands of shining fat that burst in the mouth. The meat itself was impossibly juicy, excellently seasoned with just a bit of salt and pepper, and popped with the unmistakable funk and pungency only dry aging can provide. I can’t remember the last time I consumed so much meat with so much gusto–even the bone marrow had a sort of molten richness to it that nearly made my eyes roll into the back of my head in bliss.
For sides, I sampled the restaurant’s punched potatoes, a golden brown roasted variety that had a nice bit of crunch and a hearty sprinkling of fresh rosemary. Though I’ve had my share of overly rich, stomach-coating steakhouse mac ‘n’ cheese dishes, Minetta’s macaroni gratin used small elbow noodles and a truly crunchy, bubbling Gruyere crust to great effect. It was certainly rich but didn’t beat around the bush with lobster or truffle oil or balsamic mushrooms. Both sides were superb in their simplicity and gave the palate a well-earned break from the two pounds of beef on the table. Further, the little gem salad–easy to forget among all the more decadent offerings–was delivered on a small plate about halfway through the entrée, introducing a new, refreshing set of flavors at a time where they had less competition.
Though I spied an impressive looking vanilla cake in the corner, my meal ended as, I’m told, all meals at Minetta Tavern should: their chocolate soufflé. Though it’s sometimes recommended à la mode, I “modestly” opted to enjoy the dessert by itself. Towering out of its ramekin and topped with a hearty snow of powdered sugar like the most majestic mountain of my dreams, the soufflé delivered on every comforting element one associates with chocolate. Warm, gooey, and impossibly light, it–like everything else that’s great at the restaurant–is a simple thing done oh so right. It’s a dessert that made me rethink all the pretty tarts and sorbets that grace my table, and, though I’ll always choose savory over sweet, I might just have given up one of my slices of steak for another serving.
For all the hallowed, historic buildings that have been bought and stripped of their soul, McNally’s revived Minetta Tavern honors its nearly eight decades of history while still drawing some of the city’s biggest crowds. His French bistro fare is careful not to deviate much from classic flavors–and in its excellence reminds you just exactly why they’re considered “classics.” For as much as the pictures on the walls and ancient paneling nod to the past, Minetta Tavern oozes the energy and exuberance of a newcomer. McNally and Brasile are carving out a reputation that might just eclipse Eddie Minetta’s some day, yet, while he might miss his Italian menu, I think even old Eddie would forgive it quickly for a bite of that steak.
Date Visited: 11/14/15