Andrew Meek’s Gramercy Tap1/23/2013
Andrew Meek makes a short list of people responsible for turning the local culinary scene into a source of civic pride. At the turn of millennium, Meek and John Ross’ Sage brought the public a level of service and fine dining that had only been available at private clubs. That restaurant earned Meek the area’s first James Beard Award best chef nomination in at least a dozen years. He bought Ross out. (The latter is now owner of successful Chicago cafés The Bristol and Balena). Then he opened Torocco, in Johnston, just before the economy went to hell.
Both Torocco and Sage closed, and Meek went to work as chef for Full Court Press’ Sbrocco. Late last year he left Sbrocco to work on the Gramercy Tap, a new concept at the Hotel Kirkwood with Carter and Mike Hutchison. The latter have also experienced some highs and lows in the restaurant business. Their Star Bar has been a big hit since day one, but excellent restaurants in the Kirkwood (Zen, Cuatro, Azalea and Kirkwood Lounge) failed to maintain consistent momentum. They made Meek a full partner and remodeled the already handsome Azalea space.
Walls have been painted, formerly brown furniture has been stained black, giant pillars were covered in drapery, and a new vestibule entrance was built. Most memorably, glass table lamps have been hung from the ceiling as overhead lighting, and marvelous giant oak tables were commissioned for a mezzanine room that is usually reserved for private parties.
“We wanted to give Andrew his own distinguishing look,” explained Carter Hutchison.
Other distinguishing features are throwbacks to Sage. Chef Eber Arroch runs the line for Meek as he did at Sage. Bartenders and waitresses have also followed him from Sage and Sbrocco. So did some signature dishes, notably his seared scallops with cauliflower puree and cider syrup, wild mushroom ravioli and his caramelized chicken liver frisée salad, which had been retired with Sage.
With the exception of five chef’s specialties, Gramercy’s menu toed a refreshingly inexpensive line with first courses at $5-11, soups and salads at $4-10, sandwiches at $8-13, including a generous side dish, desserts at $6 -7 and entrees under $15. Standouts in the first category included: steamed Prince Edward Island mussels with a buttery garlic Chardonnay sauce and marvelously crispy hand-cut fries; Arctic char tartare with a limey fennel salad; and smoked sea bass. The latter plate produced subtle smokiness and flaky fish, paired perfectly with baby pearl onions and fig syrup. Smoked deviled eggs with micro greens and roasted blue cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in house-made bacon also supplied generous servings. Clam chowder was Iowa School, with crisp pork belly dominating the mollusk flavor. A tri tip-pot roast gave multiple textures with crispy edges and tender meat, potatoes and carrots.
Meek has been as sharp as anyone discovering superb Iowa food producers. He was the first chef in town to use Malloy game birds and produce from Sunstead Farms. His latest food find is lamb from The Meadows, a free range farm in Wiota. He thinks it’s as good as that of Jameson Farms in Pennsylvania, the darling of national food media. I tried a lamb burger, made with a relish of Feta, cucumbers and tomatoes, and lamb chops. The latter were an epiphany, three perfectly rare, meaty rib chops seared nicely and plated with spinach and polenta. Skate wing was so flaky and tender it barely needed chewing and paired with seafood polenta, roast tomatoes, grilled artichoke concasse and shellfish nage.
Side Dishes Jay Wang’s (Wasabi Chi) Wasabi Tao opened in the former Cuatro space of the Hotel Kirkwood… Rock Bottom Brewing added chicken and waffles to its fare, plus a new double IPA and chipotle pineapple margaritas to complement it. CV