If I can cook it, you can cook it And I'll travel the world to bring it back home to you.

Review of NYC’s Tavern on the Green "Mad Men Menu" and their Chef, Jeremiah Tower’s, 3 Recipes for cooking Chicken


         Long before food took over my life, I was a fairly normal individual who enjoyed dinner out as much as the next guy but who hardly would sit down and write about it.  I was also extremely fortunate in that I had a job which required a massive amount of travel and therefore a massive number of dinners out.  On one of those trips, I found myself in San Francisco or more precisely at Stars, Chef Jeremiah Tower’s wildly successful restaurant, which he had opened in 1984.  Chef Tower had an Architectural degree from Harvard but literally, on a stopover in San Francisco, his Architectural career took a back seat to his love of cooking.  He was an alumnus of Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, arguably the restaurant that single-handedly changed the way America cooked and what it ate. Stars was his brilliant second act.  How brilliant was it?  Well, I still remember what I ate there…a pork chop.  How it was cooked and what made it so exceptional is completely lost on me now, but I still remember it as one of the best things I ever ate anywhere on earth, thirty years later.


Stars Interior San Francisco

Chef Tower expanded the Stars brand with restaurants in Singapore, Manila, as well as closer to home in the Napa Valley and in Palo Alto CA.  In 1998, he sold Stars to a Singapore concern. Within two years, its new owners shuttered the place.  Chef Tower moved first to Manila, then to New York City, Italy and finally to Mexico where he restored old houses, scuba dove and wrote travel articles.  That was until last year when he was ‘recalled’ to come to New York and re-work the kitchen of a New York City Landmark, the newly renovated “Tavern on the Green”.        

The restaurant started its life as a ‘sheepfold’ or shelter for the sheep who grazed in the nearby Sheep’s Meadow.  The building, at Central Park and 66th St. was designed by Calvert Vaux, the architect who, with Frederick Law Olmstead, co-designed Central Park itself.   From 1934 on, the place has been a restaurant, a favorite of tourists and locals alike, who dined on its terrace, under its elms and in its greenhouse-like interiors. After a series of owners, the restauranteur and showman Warner LeRoy took over in 1974. After a $10,000,000 renovation doubling the seating to 800, Tavern on the Green reopened in 1976.  The place was a huge money-maker, raking in $38,000,000 in sales from 500,000 visitors in 2007 alone. The restaurant was second only to Tao Restaurant in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas in revenue.  After her father’s death in 2001, Jennifer Oz LeRoy took over. But not all was right: the restaurant was cited for “pervasive” sexual and racial discrimination in 2008 and ordered to pay $2.2 million in claims. In 2009, it declared bankruptcy.  The place then became a visitors information center and seller of T shirts.  
Chef Tower at his new digs

After much courting by the likes of Donald Trump, the restaurant became the property of the Emerald Green Group of Philadelphia. The interiors were completely done over in a style described as “old New York”.  A Executive Chef, Katy Sparks, was brought into create a menu based on “Fresh American Fare”.  She soon resigned but not before the restaurant received a “Satisfactory” and no stars from reviewer Pete Wells in the New York Times. But Wells didn’t stop there: he mentioned that other reviewers had been “lukewarm to bad”.  That’s where Jeremiah Tower comes in because he was brought out of retirement to rescue the restaurant.  Whether he has done so, is a matter of some conjecture. Since the restaurant is all of 4 blocks from home, it’s been high on my radar.  Finally, Tavern on the Green made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.        

“Mad Men” is a fantastically successful TV show based on the exploits of Madison Avenue Advertising types in the 1960s.  Their most marked characteristic is a penchant for 3 Martini lunches, adulterous affairs and some rather questionable business ethics.  The show is heading into its last season and to celebrate any number of current and former Madison Avenue haunts created lunch menus for $19.69. (Alternatively there was a “Liquid Lunch” menu of two cocktails for $19.69.)  When I spied Tavern on the Green on the list, I quickly made a reservation on Open Table.  The available times ended at 11:45 so I arrived at the appointed hour.  There were perhaps three other tables in the vast ‘greenhouse’ room.  Service has been one of the major reviewer complaints.  But when there are just three tables, waiters, busboys, sommeliers, and hostesses bend over backwards to do their jobs.  
         I was handed both the regular Menu and the Mad Men Menu. The regular menu has first courses ranging from $14.00 to $21.00. Mains start at $18.00 for a Cheeseburger and run all the up to $52.00 for a Filet Mignon.  The sides are all $9.00 which includes “Classic New York Deli Coleslaw” at that price.  Given that classic New York Coleslaw comes for free with almost any deli sandwich in the city, this must be some coleslaw. But I resisted.  Instead I resolutely stuck with the $19.69 deal adding a glass of Rosé, reasonably priced at $12.00.    
And what did my lunch consist of?  To start, a poached salmon salad laid atop a wafer thin slice of pear, a couple of pieces of diced avocado and green goddess dressing.   It was really quite good and very pretty to look at.   The main course and, like the starter, there was only one offered, was Chicken Maryland atop mashed potatoes and a vegetable melange.  The color of the chicken suffered here but it was perfectly edible and the vegetables and mashed potatoes were welcome and very good.  There’s no dessert although a dessert menu was proferred.  So how was it?  I confess, I was more bowled over by the price than anything else.  You can barely get out of a Coffee Shop

here for $19.69.  But had I been tucking into “Hard Boiled Duck Eggs with Pickapeppa and Remoulade Sauces”, the lowest priced first course at $14., or the Grilled Chicken, Portabella Mushroom Potato Gratin with Roasted Autumn Vegetables and Shaved Vegetable Salad for $26.00, I might not have felt the same way at all.  And as to that Pork Chop, the closest thing to it is on the Dinner Menu.  It’s a Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Marcarpone Polenta, Pea Tendrils and Whole Grain Mustard Sauce.  And the most memorable thing about it might just be its $34.00 price tag. 
Jeremiah Tower remains one of my heroes.  A while ago I bought his “Jeremiah Tower Cooks: 250 Recipes from an American Master” (Stewart Tabori and Chang 2002). It’s one of only three cookbooks from the Chef. To me what distinguishes the book the most is that there is not one single photograph of any one of the recipes. The book is illustrated instead with still life paintings from Donald Sultan.  In the book, however there are several recipes for Chicken. Much to my delight, I was able to find an on-line copy of Julia Child’s Cooking with Master Chefs called “Chicken with Jeremiah Tower”.  In this lovely little film you can watch as Chef Tower grills, poaches and roasts three different sized chickens.  And as an added bonus, the lovely and much-missed Julia Child narrates.  As we say on Chewing the Fat, Enjoy!
Click here to view:  http://video.pbs.org/video/2256986755/

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