I had only eaten once previously in the main dining room at Gramercy Tavern. It was with a friend and we had the tasting menu. I don't recall the specifics, but I remember feeling underwhelmed, especially for the price. I vaguely remember a squid ink pasta dish that was nowhere near as good as the one I had at Esca subsequently. However, I've been to the tavern side of the restaurant (different menus, no reservations at the tavern side) a few times and have enjoyed my visits. Most recently I've been going there for lunch, when they do a delicious and filling soup and sandwich for $14. So today when I went and was told I'd have to wait for a table in the tavern, I decided to give the main dining room another try.
I ordered a cauliflower soup to start and a lamb pappardelle entree. The cauliflower soup had quite a yellow color, which I assumed came from either curry or saffron, though I could not discern any strong flavor of either of those two things. It was poured into a bowl with a couple small pieces of lobster, a couple small pieces of cauliflower, and what tasted like tiny diced apple. I could not figure out what those things were doing there. While the soup itself was decent, I just thought the whole mess of a dish was a confusion of flavors. The lamb pappardelle was similarly confusing. There were little olives throughout the dish and random tastes of lemon that I did not comprehend. The sauce itself was a little thin, considering that I always thought pappardelle, like tagliatelle, was supposed to be served with a rich ragout type sauce because of its width.
I got out of there quickly without even looking at the dessert menu. For the price, I could have had two pastas, one side, and 3 flavors of gelato at Otto and been much more satisfied. I still think the tavern side is worth visiting, especially for the soup and sandwich or the cheese-stuffed meatball.
This leads me to wonder why Gramercy Tavern has such a good reputation. I've been disappointed twice by the main dining room. While I can see that the food is cooked at a high level, I've just never really liked any of the flavor combinations that I've been served. I do know that most of its reputation came from back when Tom Colicchio (guy on the show Top Chef) ran the kitchen. Perhaps it's just time to move on when the head chef does. I could easily imagine the same thing happening at Le Cirque (there's an HBO documentary about its reopening last year), where much of the praise came when Daniel Boulud was in the kitchen, even though they still charge ridiculous prices today.