I’ve been paid well more than a dollar a word to write reviews of high end audio equipment, of music, of psychology books, and yes, of food. (I gave it all up because the politics of each was becoming onerous) That said, I will stake it all on what I’m about to write here and now: If you set aside comparisons with any specific ethnic cuisine you might favor (let’s not compare Kim Chi and Kasha Knishes) and if you have a sophisticated palate, if, at The Grand Tavern, you don’t find one of the best — if not the best — most creative, most inventive, and most delicious meals in Monmouth County, let me know and I’ll consider splitting your bill. (I’m rather certain my proverbially hard earned money is safe in the bank.)
If you’ve never seen lions and tigers anywhere outside of a zoo, you’d describe them as nervous animals that pace back and forth in their cages. But then, if you saw them in the wild doing what they were meant to do, they’d garner a great deal more respect, perhaps even a measure of awe. And so it is with Ashley Coyte and Paul Holzheimer of The Grand Tavern. Unleashed from the carefully crafted commercial restraints of the Smith venues (Porta, Pascal and Sabine et al.) the newly unfettered pair are bidding to be king and queen of the local culinary jungle, and they do deserve to be so crowned. The Grand Tavern is not a BYO (they do boast an adequate wine and cocktail list) and though the fare is fairly priced, cuisine of this quality doesn’t come cheap. Therefore, if cheap is how you skate, take your skates elsewhere because this lion/tiger two person punch is worth every penny.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: The plain vanilla box of a building with the word GRAND painted on the exterior in letters large enough to be seen from the international space station is off-putting as all hell; one of my dinner companions wondered aloud if we were about to dine at a plumbing supply store. But don’t judge this book by its outsized outre' cover. The inner ambience is both warm and whimsical (Do take note of the winged pigs that greet you and the deer’s head on the wall— his name is Kevin, we were told upon inquiry). That said, it belies the quality of cuisine that deserves fine crystal on finer linen. The food, however, is indeed interestingly served on varying vintage china from around the world.
To begin the meal, we shared four small plates, followed by four entrees and a dessert. The ‘smalls’ were each outstanding. The Chicken Pate was paired perfectly with a local honey that wasn’t the usual cloyingly sweet glop, and married well with the mildly earthy Pate. Try the House Ricotta and you’ll find another happy marriage mixing the earthy acidic taste of the marinated mushroom with the creamy sweetness of the Ricotta. That said, my personal favorites of the four were the Crab Cake ( a special, I think) and the Lobster Agnolotti. If you were expecting your typical, breaded, oversized hockey puck for a crab cake, you’ll be happily surprised. This version was all very fresh crab and Shiso bread crumbs (a hint of mint) in a cream sauce, and a cashew butter with a soupçon of seaweed and bacon for crunch and contrast. But best, I’d suggest, was the Lobster bathed In a Sauce Americain. It’s been noted with irony by other food critics that Sauce Americain, though treacherously difficult to get right, may indeed be the best of the French sauces. Here, Chef Paul does get it spot on with the right whisper of Tarragon. The lobster meat itself was as tender and flavorful as any I’ve had in Bar Harbor. (Why the hell so much of the seafood served at shore restaurants truly sucks is beyond me.) Suffice it to say that by the time those plates were cleared, they were as spanking clean as if our 85 pound Bouvier had given each a good going over.
The four mains we shared were the Chorizo Crusted Tile Fish, the Roast Half Chicken, the Scallops, and the Schnitzel. Again, each in their own way was outstanding. The roast chicken, in particular, flavored with the North African spice Chermoula and resting atop a Broccoli Rabe whose garlic paired well with the spice without overwhelming, was very good. So were the Scallops, their sweetness nicely contrasted with a bit of chile and lemon balm. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Weiner Schnitzel at the Asbury Festhalle and Biergarten, compared to this version, it’s not much more than comfort food; the Grand’s Schnitzel is, from the breading on down to the moist mouthful of veal, well more refined.
Dessert? A piping hot, fluffy pancake slathered with vanilla butter and berries, all bathing in real Maple Syrup. The reason you won’t see a picture of it as you do all else is that our photographer friend was so taken by the aroma of the dish that he forgot to take one, and dove headlong into eating it. ‘Nuff said.
Service was amiable and efficient without fuss or pretense, and finished dishes were deftly whisked from table with a quiet magic that left me wondering if they’d simply disappeared. The Grand Tavern has an Al Fresco dining area that looked inviting, and may well serve to ease what I suspect will be a tsunami of diners who are in the know during the summer. For reasons unknown, however, the proprietors don’t plan on taking reservations, so as the summer progresses, be prepared to wait for a table at the bar.
I’ve grown to hate the word ‘awesome’ as it is presently used in common parlance. To me, a star-filled sky at night is awesome. At any time of day, the Grand Canyon is awesome. But when I order a Western Omelette for breakfast at a local diner and the waiter says, “Awsome!” that is simply not awesome. The cuisine at The Grand Tavern, however, definitely is.