The girl at the entrance asked, "do you have reservations?"
Only one other time, for a Valentine's Day dinner in New York, have I ever been asked if I had reservations. Not even at the swanky Moonstruck, in Asbury Park, were we ever asked. We simply had a drink out on the porch while waiting for a table to open up.
But, during our recent visit to the newly-opened David Todd's City Tavern, myself and Amanda, my partner-in-food, were asked that very question. For a moment, I worried we'd be turned away. Thankfully, a table would be opening up soon, so we were invited to relax in the bar. It was kind of hard to relax, however, considering how packed it was.
Such was the general vibe of the evening at David Todd's. There has been a buzz since the "upscale casual" restaurant opened on Dec. 1, and it has apparently not let up. There were plenty of well-dressed, well-heeled individuals enjoying beers and brandy, martinis and more. Some enjoyed their meals bar-side, laughing and munching away in dresses and untucked business suits. With my unshaven face and blue jeans, I suddenly felt a lack of reservation was the least of our worries, and subconsciously began to straighten my back and properly enunciate my words.
Those fears soon left, as well. While you're not going to want to pop in here in your Sunday-football best, we never got the impression anyone was looking down their nose at us through monocles, declaring, "well, I never!"
Still, there is definitely an air of class to the former site of Valentino's, from the clean presentation, muted colors, to the general hum of the patrons, everything seems well-balanced and, well, classy.
To the food. What exactly does "upscale casual" mean? It's a question I have had since owners Dave Prusin and Todd Redmond first coined the phrase several months ago, while the restaurant was still a construction zone. They had explained it as high-class without so much the high-price, or the high-minded attitudes.
Indeed, prices at David Todd's can be compared to other higher end eating establishments without being exorbitant. Appetizers, from the "duck confit tacos" and "trio of sliders"–featuring sirloin, lamb and tuna steak–were $11 and $12. You can get little burgers for something like $2 or $3 each at some more casual dining establishments, so expectations were high for these slightly more expensive "sliders."
Going back to those appetizers we ordered, generally, Amanda and I were satisfied, not just in taste but in presentation. This is not a place where food is simply a means to an end–it's supposed to be an experience. The duck confit tacos were especially tasty, with a generous amount of shredded duck meat as the base for two soft tacos filled with crisp lettuce. These were presented simply and enjoyed thoroughly.
A greater attention to presentation was given to the trio of sliders, which featured three different kinds of sauces, and salts, to enhance the experience. Again, these were very enjoyable (the lamb being the best of them all). However, as often can be the case with these sliders that have for some reason become so popular as of late, the buns were just a little too big. That balance one seeks in burger to bread ratios can get lost, as it did a little bit here. Also, while the sirloin burger was nice, it was not unique enough to warrant the price tag for the whole package. I can get hamburger sliders at The Famished Frog, at The Office and at a number of other casual eateries, for less. Give me those lamb and tuna sliders or, even better, give me the option to order three of one of them, whichever one I prefer the most.
Between the apps and entrees, Todd Redmond came out and talked with a few diners, including myself. One hopes this will continue as the restaurant goes from the new kid in town to an established dining destination, as that, along with the salts, the sauces, the careful attention to detail, is as a part of the experience at a place like as the food.
So, back to the food. For Amanda, it was the filet mignon (the priciest entree on the menu, at $35. She does have expensive taste), rare. For me, the Skate Wing with Anchovy Caper Butter ($22). What the heck is skate wing? Besides being fish, I wasn't sure but, just as early as the first time I'd heard the term "upscale casual," I had heard about the skate wing. Even the waitress said, with emphasis, how much she recommended the skate wing.
I was not disappointed. To call it a revelation would be cheesy, and hackneyed food writing, but, man, was it awesome. Perfectly cooked and perfectly paired with the anchovy caper butter, the delicate fish had the flavor and consistently of excellent crabmeat. Unlike food that is simply sustenance, I subconsciously ate slower, savoring every bite, and I was actually a little sad when it was over.
Amanda's filet mignon started off as she expected, a good piece of meat but nothing remarkable. Yet, as she continued eating, it grew on her, to the point that she, too, was sad to see the meal come to an end. I got a few bites of it, and loved the softness, the tenderness and the overall balance of flavor one of the premiere cuts of beef can offered when prepared by the right chefs.
While not much of a dessert person myself, Amanda could not resist ordering the "Chocolate Burger Tasting," a trio of treats fashioned like burgers, made from dark, semi-sweet and milk chocolates. It sounded gimmicky at first, but the portions were just enough to cleanse and please the palette, with a presentation that again lets patrons know that a great amount of attention has been given to practically everything.
With a couple of beers on top of the aforementioned foods, the bill went a little north of $100 for the two of us, much more than most dinners we enjoy on most occasions (but, still, less than that meal at Moonstruck). While I likely won't be indulging in as many appetizers or as many beers the next time we go back, we will definitely be going back to try the other creative dishes on the menu we could not order this time around.
That's the sign of a successful operation: always leave them wanting more. David Todd's City Tavern has succeeded in doing just that.