As if reciting a mantra, Paul Holzheimer distills his cooking at the Grand Tavern in Neptune into four words: “Beef, butter, fat, cream.” That’s a meditation I could get behind.
Holzheimer says he drew inspiration from the “comfortable and unpretentious” Montreal gastropubs Joe Beef and Maison Publique and Manhattan’s the Spotted Pig: “We wanted it to be a neighborhood bar and restaurant that just so happens to have great food and great drinks.”
Holzheimer and his fiancée, Ashley Coyte, co-own Grand Tavern. He’s the chef; she’s the manager. They met at culinary school and worked together in Asbury Park at Porta and Pascal & Sabine before opening Grand Tavern in 2016.
They gutted the space (formerly Sudsy Mug Saloon) and reconfigured it around a grand U-shaped white-oak bar. Dark and inviting, the room is festooned with vintage china, old books on shelves and taxidermy that hits the sweet spot between hipster chic and creepy grandma.
Bar manager Erin Lamb’s impressive seasonal cocktail list features classics and playful creations. I dug her Parts Unknown (its name a nod to the late Anthony Bourdain), which combines smoky mezcal, Pimm’s No. 1, lemon and dry vermouth steeped in Earl Grey tea leaves.
While the cocktails I sampled were uniformly stellar, the food was not always consistent. I loved the house-made ricotta toast, whipped with heavy cream, served with grilled ciabatta and a caponata sweetened with plump marinated raisins. I’m still thinking fondly of the light and delicate cappelletti—house-made fresh pasta crowns stuffed with that ricotta and plated in a luscious sauce of San Marzano tomatoes slow-cooked with olive oil, onions, butter and basil. Pasta perfection.
Less successful were breaded, deep-fried pork nuggets made from braised, shredded shoulder and served with house-made ranch dressing. They looked like cafeteria fish sticks with tartar sauce, but weren’t nearly as good.
Turning to mains, one of the more ambitious dishes I tasted was a lamb porchetta terrine. Porchetta is traditionally a pork roast. In this case, lamb shoulder, braised in red wine and stock, is shredded, pressed overnight in a terrine, then sliced. The lamb’s earthy richness was nicely balanced by two types of brightness: a topping of local chervil as well as traditional porchetta flavorings of fennel, parsley and citrus; and an accompaniment of lemony puréed potatoes enriched with cream.
Seared pork tenderloin, on the other hand, was misbegotten. The meat arrived in four large chunks atop undercooked root vegetables in a smoked ham beurre blanc. Not only was the presentation ragged, the pork itself was raw.
A hanger steak in a rich, red wine reduction, ordered medium, was served very rare. The saving grace was the accompanying potato pavé, adapted from chef Thomas Keller’s celebrated recipe. Holzheimer layers thinly sliced potatoes in a terrine with cream, butter and garlic. Forget the too-rare steak; I could have devoured an entire dish of just the potatoes.
Fresh dayboat scallops from Local 130 in Asbury Park were a seafood highlight on the generally meat-centric menu. Pan-seared and simmered in a creole butter made with onion, thyme, potatoes, fish stock and corn, they were crisp on top and succulent beneath, the sauce a perfect distillation of summer.
Grand Tavern has earned itself a loyal following, largely on the strength of its bar program, one of the best in the area. While the savory courses may be uneven, the kitchen does nail dessert. Maybe because there’s just one: a Dutch baby, a puffy type of pancake anointed with strawberry syrup and whipped cream that melts into the warm, eggy substance as it hits the table. It didn’t look like a typical Dutch baby (served inverted, its signature bowl shape ends up flattened). I’m not sure if it was breakfast or dessert, but it made me and my guests very happy.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Tapas/Small Plates
Price Details:Appetizers, $12-$16; entrées, $16-$34; dessert, $12
Ambience:Rustic, inviting gastropub
Service:Informed, friendly, attentive
Wine list:Excellent cocktails, classic and new; local beers on tap; 22 wines by the glass, reasonably priced bottle list, largely from family-owned wineries