I can’t recall rooting for a new restaurant more than I am for Tavro Thirteen. Opened last October in what chef/co-owner Terence Feury rightly calls “an underserved area”—sleepy Swedesboro, off Turnpike Exit 2 in Gloucester County—it rejuvenates the Colonial-era structure that had long housed the wheezy Old Swedes Inn. Moreover, Tavro Thirteen returns Feury to his home state after becoming one of Philadelphia’s most celebrated chefs at Striped Bass and Fork.
Tavro (Greek for bull) was named by Feury’s partner, developer Gus Tzitzifas, whose holdings include the Marlton Diner. At a cost of more than $1 million, Tzitzifas restored the exterior of the 1771 building and, with his wife, Ellie, transformed the interior. Decor rarely affects my enjoyment of a meal, but the wacky, clashing, in-your-face eclecticism threatened to do just that.
Fortunately, the dining experience won out. Excellent house-made breads and charcuterie, interesting craft beers, well-made classic cocktails and a tightly focused, smartly chosen wine list quickly overcame the visual distractions.
Early in his career, Feury, who grew up in Middletown, worked at Le Bernardin in New York. That restaurant’s renowned finesse with seafood shows in dishes such as Feury’s marvelously moist, flavorful swordfish. On the phone after my visits, he explained that he buys his fish whole for better freshness and flavor and butchers them himself. He sears the swordfish 30 seconds per side, daubs it with olive oil, Meyer lemon zest and thyme and cooks it sous vide. On the plate, he drizzles it with nutty pumpkinseed vinaigrette and serves it, on my visit, with velvety butternut squash purée and tender, mild, raw sunflower shoots.
Pastas, too, are skillfully made in-house, as a special of meltingly creamy gnudi with Swiss chard amply displayed. Equally good was a starter of eggy tagliatelle with guanciale, leeks and pecorino topped with a poached egg. On the other hand, plugs of dense, sticky gnocchi almost dethroned an otherwise sterling king salmon with wild mushroom ragù and chive purée.
Unfortunately, the food and the decor do share one unfortunate trait—a tendency to overdo it. Even in the dishes praised above, my guests and I often experienced palate fatigue after a few bites. Excessive richness bedevils even a dish that sounds balanced, like fresh cod on salt cod brandade with Swiss chard and frothy lemon aioli. The bracing bite of the chard and acidic counterpoint of the aioli failed to show up against the over-rich brandade. Similarly, two dishes succumbed to over-sweetness: a starter of crispy lamb belly with poached quince and honey-onion confit, and an entrée galantine of Lancaster capon with chestnuts, apples and caramelized onions. Not even a dollop of harissa on the lamb pulled it back from the brink.
For now, where you find balance and subtlety is in Feury’s desserts, such as a chiffon-light lemon-olive oil cake with Meyer lemon curd on the side, or a triumphant sweet-savory experiment, rosemary panna cotta with pistachios and pears.
Noise is well under control—even on weekends, when every room is packed and bands are holding forth in the lounge. It seems I needn’t worry about Tavro Thirteen making it. If Feury refines his game, the place could become one of Jersey’s best.
Cuisine Type:American - Modern