Sometimes, it feels like 100 percent,” says chef/owner Tom Carlin, asked how many of his customers are regulars. Since Carlin transformed the vacant Chatfield’s into Gladstone Tavern 11 years ago, it has clearly proven to be one of the most popular restaurants in the area.
One reason is the food. Ranging from good to occasionally exceptional, the dishes showcase the know-how Carlin has acquired during his long career. A Rutgers grad who grew up in South Orange, Carlin, 56, learned from many noted mentors, including Jonathan Waxman at Jam’s, Alfred Portale at Gotham Bar & Grill, Barry Wine at Quilted Giraffe, and Tom Colicchio at Mondrian.
From Waxman, Carlin learned the less coiffed California style, the forerunner of today’s farm-to-table ethos. As Carlin notes, “In New Jersey, farms are producing only a short time of year. Where I can, I use local produce. More important to me is that we make everything from scratch and avoid shortcuts.”
A fine example was spring’s scintillating baby-artichoke salad with raw sunchokes, thinly shaved Chioggia (candy cane) beets, arugula, slivers of Castelvetrano olives and salty feta. A lemony vinaigrette, bright with fresh mint leaves, heightened the flavors.
Other reasons the Tavern has so many return customers include the exceptional iron-skillet half chicken and the duck taco slathered in a rich, velvety, mole-like sauce, piled onto corn tortillas.
The decor deserves credit as well. With its cathedral ceiling and large stone fireplace, it has the understated elegance of an English club, yet the vibe is convivial, even family friendly.
The handsomely appointed bar is often crowded, but never gets really noisy. Cocktails are expertly prepared, fortified by juices and, in some cases, house-made bitters. A gin-based Far East Negroni was spiked with cardamom for an esoteric, dry and smoky drink. The recently added Chuck Berry mojito makes a proper tribute to the late star, packing a pungent, roll-over-Beethovenian ode to joy.
Few other dishes exhibited much daring, perhaps a nod to the clientele. “They’re less interested in being challenged,” Carlin says, “but they do enjoy a twist on the basics.”
Some of those twists work. Pan-roasted cod was crisp outside, moist inside. Plain yogurt, made in house, lent much-needed tang to a special—an otherwise-bland orange hummus billed as spicy.
Less successful was cauliflower in the Caesar salad. Yes, we’re all tired of kale, but raw cauliflower is no remedy. Grilled salmon paillard was dull, the vegetables with it nearly burned. Wild-mushroom flatbread had a soggy crust and little flavor but plain ricotta.
The vegan panna cotta is the standout dessert. It’s made with mango, coconut milk and sugar, thickened with agar and xanthan gum. Who knew you could whip the brine from a can of chick peas into a beautiful meringue? (French chef Joel Roessel devised the technique in 2014.) Carlin flavors it with sugar, raspberry powder (for color) and a drop of almond extract. Another must-try is the hot tea, brewed not from bags, but from leaves presented in French presses.
The tavern’s warm vibe does not end with its customers. Carlin, whose children work or have worked at the tavern, is appreciated for his community-minded events, notably an annual Bring Your Dog to Dinner benefit for St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Centers, and Thanksgiving dinner served by Carlin and his wife, Jennifer, and their five children to formerly homeless veterans in the area.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, salads, $9.50-$24; entrées, $23-$30; desserts, $3-$8
Ambience:Comfortable country club
Wine list:Craft beers; seasonal cocktails; solid, mid-price wine list