There’s something in the air at Keith McNally’s restaurants. It’s something other than the heavenly salty haze that lingers as plates topped with hills of perfectly golden frites are carried over head through the dining room. It goes beyond the buzzing energy of the crowds—the expected combo platter of glamorous editors, bed-headed writers, bohemian beauties and assorted skinny-jeaned hipsters assembled in a convivial melee three deep at the bar. And it’s more than the burnished, detail-driven, been-here-forever décor—a carefully curated combination of distressed elements: subway tiling, black wainscoting, button-tufted red leather banquettes and black and white tiled flooring.
What I am speaking of is perhaps a combination of all of these elements: food, scene and décor, plus a last piece, a kind of McNally umami factor—a lusty, effortless cool that pervades every restaurant McNally has put his name on from the days of Pravda and Balthazar to the more recent Morandi and now, his latest restaurant, the lovingly restored Minetta Tavern.
The back story, if you haven’t already heard it, goes like this: when the Tavern lost its lease last May due to an obscene rent increase (rumors put it at $50,000 a year), McNally swept in to rescue and restore it to its former grandeur. Honoring its history—it served as a favorite watering hole for literary luminaries like e.e. cummings, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—and its distinctive interiors, McNally bought not only the restaurant, but also everything inside of it. So you’ll still find painted murals of Village sights and scenes on the walls, along with the storied photo gallery, and the wooden bar, which dates back to opening day in 1937. It’s a meticulously re-created New York tavern that feels steeped in history, untarnished by the present.
While the food is good (more on that shortly), the overall effect of the “McNally Umami Factor” is this: you’ll spend the first ten to twenty minutes (or potentially your entire meal) twisting and turning your head to see who has walked in the door. Craig and I barely noticed our own dinner companions (Kiri and Steven) until it was time to get down to ordering. We were too busy checking out the room and the people filling it. In the corner booth was Matthew Broderick, up in the bar room was Alfred Portale. And our heads spun around and around every time another couple was ushered into the dining room. Bottom line is you should allot a good thirty minutes to mild gawking. Once that’s out of the way, you can get down to socializing with your friends and to the eating and drinking part of your evening.
If you begin at the bar, you’ll be pleased to find a selection of fine cocktails, beers, hard ciders and wines served with a clever little bar menu that includes warm cheesy gougeres ($6), saucison en brioche ($8)—a sort of riff on the pig in a blanket, served in the form of a slice of buttery toasted brioche punctured through its center with a coin-sized slice of meaty saucison with a schmear of grainy mustard, along with La Quercia prosciutto ($8) and a chips and onion dip ($6) suited for a football game.
Move to a table in the front or back room, both of which have a rather Waverly Inn vibe, and you’ll find a concise, Tavern-appropriate menu, overseen by chefs and partners Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson (Balthazar and Pastis).
Rather than show off with some fancy culinary footwork, the kitchen is happy to serve well-priced food in that classic crowd-pleasing McNally paradigm: straight forward, perhaps even pedestrian food in other hands, but in theirs (for the most part) immensely satisfying.
Their menu is well-conceived: concise in length and pretty classic French-Continental in style, offering ten entrees—grilled dorade romesco ($22), two different burgers (ordinary, $16, and Pat LaFrieda’s Black Label, $26), an equal number of apps—oxtail and foie gras terrine, $14, a trio of tartares ($18), and a petite omelette with mushrooms and truffle oil ($12)—and a section from the grill of dry-aged cote de boeuf ($90 for two), and the like.
About the time we had moved on from eyeing Mr. McNally himself having dinner in the circular banquette to our left, and Ferris Bueller in the corner to our right, our appetizers had arrived (service is efficient and friendly and food is timed on the quick side).
There’s no reason to ever eat fried calamari again when you might have Minetta’s stuffed calamari ($12)—a rather Iberian take on the dish—warm grilled tubes of tender squid stuffed to capacity with well-seasoned whipped salt cod and set in a mix of fleshy, briny olives and slippery ribbons of piquillo peppers. Rather than go with the more ordinary mesclun greens ($16), we opted for a salad with a bit more personality: the Salad Pissenlit ($12)—wild dandelion greens, tossed with chopped egg in a brilliant anchovy vinaigrette not afraid to taste of anchovy.
The roast chicken ($26) may not seem like anything that special—it’s just a half a golden skinned chicken cut up into leg, thigh and breast meat, over some mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach, but all the elements are textbook examples of superior cooking. It’s impossible to leave even the slightest scrap of moist meat on its bones. Our plate looked like the dogs had gotten to it.
Fillet of trout Meuniere is also wonderful, served like fish is in New Orleans, crowned with a cascade of the sweetest lumps of crabmeat, in a brown butter sauce with a few crusty croutons sprinkled over the top for texture ($24).
The Pasta Za Za ($17) was inspired by chef Nasr’s sister who was staying at a pension in Italy run by a woman named Za Za. When her flight back to the States was cancelled, she returned to chez Za Za for an unexpected additional night. Za Za didn’t have much to work with for dinner so she cobbled together what ever was left in the pantry, which included dry pasta, egg’s from her farm's chickens, pancetta and sage. And so Pasta Za Za was born, a delicious combination of dried pasta, butter, parmesan and sage, topped with a fried egg. But in practice, the kitchen sadly overcooked the fried egg so the yolk was hard, and could not run over the pasta. A pasta like this needs the yolk for moisture and flavor, without it, it was a bit dry. Hopefully from now on, the cooks are paying more attention.
We were also let down by the Tavern Steak ($21), a nice juicy slab called Petite Tender (it’s the Teres Major muscle of the cow for all you meat geeks) that looked great and smelled even better (a juicy, just-off-the-grill steak and a pile of piping hot fries makes an irresistible perfume), but it was overly salted and unevenly cooked. It was ordered medium and was indeed medium in some parts, but was bordering on raw in others. Oh well. I ate the fries, soaked in the steak’s juices, which were heavenly nonetheless.
If you need a reason to come to Minetta other than the buzz, let it be for the desserts, in particular the Tarte Tropezienne ($9), which is about as far from a tarte as AIG is from a blue ribbon at a popularity contest. Rather, it's a mile-high layer cake indigenous to St. Tropez fashioned from rounds of moist and fluffy brioche and layers of sweet pastry cream. You’ll no doubt spy it on the dessert cart in the corner, where it rests next to a gorgeous, berry-adorned Balthazar seasonal fruit galette ($9), on display for you to drool over until it’s finally time for dessert. Skip the tough hazelnut crepes ($9) and instead make room for a trio of pot de crème in coffee, vanilla and chocolate classic nursery desserts that are better than any pudding I’ve had in recent memory.
Does the food at Minetta Tavern good? Yes. Is it great? No. But, to be honest, I don’t think that’s really the McNally formula. He’s hitting the high middle ground, the solid territory of repeat customers, and he hits it with so much enviable style and attention to detail that the food is almost secondary, but it’s not. People still go to Balthazar and Pastis because he turns out an amazingly consistent product, a good product, one they can count on, just as they can count on a celebrity having lunch in the corner. And they (myself included) will continue returning to Minetta for the same reasons, and maybe for one more: the bathroom eavesdropping. Let me share.
On my way out, I made a pit stop in the ladies room (for some reason, the bathrooms are heated up like saunas) and both stalls were occupied—two pairs of pointy-toed heels were visible under the wooden doors. The girls in the stalls were having a conversation, and I was their captive audience:
Stall A: Well, you were faking it, right?
Stall B: Yes, but still he should know. I mean guys should know that kind of thing.
Stall A: How is he supposed to know? You were faking it. He thinks you like it.
Stall B: There’s no way he thinks I like it.
Stall A: Why not? You’re faking it.
Stall B: Well, what am I supposed to do? Say, “OUCH! Turn me over?”
Oh, dear. Yes, there’s something in the air, indeed.