Eating Between the Lines
City Tavern Cookbook: 200 Years of Classic Recipes From America's First Gourmet Restaurantby Walter Staib
Running Press, 224 pp., $22.95
Gourmet American food seems like a modern concept and a hard one to stake original claim to. We may be tempted to credit contemporary chefs with creating the genre of American Gourmet, but, in fact, today's top menus, filled with everything from wild game to rustic berries and oysters offered any which way are sometimes inadvertent recastings of classic -- even Colonial -- American food. The City Tavern Cookbook is proof of this. It's filled with 18th-century recipes rescued by chef Walter Staib for use today in his historically housed restaurant. As Staib tells us, the original City Tavern, its feasts endorsed by the likes of Paul Revere and the First Continental Congress, was really "America's First Gourmet Restaurant," beating the likes of Tavern on the Green by 100 or so years.
The original City Tavern is preserved now as an active landmark in Philadelphia's Independence National Historic Park, refurbished for business in 1994 by Staib, who took great pains to elevate the food to its original design and high standards. In a nod to authenticity, he produced a menu that includes goods passed through Philadelphia's once-thriving port, like spices and fruits from foreign lands and numerous foods of the sea. The original menu included fruit desserts, game birds and sausages, and, of course, chowders like oyster stew. You'll find these same dishes on the Tavern's menu today and in Staib's impressive cookbook.
"City Tavern," Staib boasts, "is indeed more than a restaurant. It is a piece of history; a living culinary museum." This, and the fact that City Tavern is under the auspices of Independence Park, which oversees the Liberty Bell and the like, might explain the restaurant's atmospheric excess, and, I'm afraid, its underwhelming food.
My greatest worry, upon visiting City Tavern, was that Staib's attempt to reproduce a Colonial setting would "Disneyfy" this historic space. It did. Imagine 18-year-olds in awkward waitress bonnets, a cardboard likeness of George Washington greeting guests at the door, a harpsichord bleating out the Cats theme song, tearing at your musical sensibilities, and a sale case of Tavern gift items. Everything about the setting was certainly arranged with painstaking care, but the time translation fell short. The reproduction china was obviously reproduced; the pewter goblets made water taste like fresh pipe; and the food occasionally read like tourist fare (memorializing the names Washington, Jefferson, and Adams in bread, beer, and dessert). Gratefully, the spacious dining rooms were left well enough alone, filled only with beautiful captain's chairs, simple tables, and old city maps. A candle lighted each table perfectly.
Staib's menu is filled with gamy options, like venison and duck, and makes frequent use of seafood, including oyster and lobster. Meat is certainly the restaurant's strength. Duck sausage ($6.95), served over sweet and sour cabbage, is tame, but very good. Sauteed pork medallions ($12.95) are uninviting alone, but they offset a side of bitter greens and an even more bitter oatmeal stout sauce. Tenderloin tips on egg noodles ($14.95), a cousin of the stroganoff, includes the generous addition of fresh morel mushrooms. The meat sauces are muscular and honest. A sour cream mustard sauce left me wanting for nothing but perhaps some finesse. It's laudable when a restaurant does meat well, but to truly elevate the meal, it must cook vegetables with the same care. Even if Colonialists preferred soft vegetables, there is no reason why they should barely hold their shape and taste like the pot they're cooked in. A side vegetable medley included carrots, broccoli, and others, distinguished only by their differently grayed coloring. My oyster and corn chowder ($3.95) surrounded the same, sad vegetative lot with bits of ham, crude broth, and oysters so unobtrusive I hardly noticed them. The meal, in its entirety, wasn't bad.
But given that today's top restaurants are better at offering Tavern-like tastes, I wonder if City Tavern's authentic fare isn't doing our Colonial heritage a disservice. A disservice in execution, perhaps, but not in ideas. City Tavern Cookbook, containing an entire menu of restaurant's recipes, is a creditable record of historic tastes. Madeira, dried fruits, and game meats show up here, as they do at the restaurant. Many recipes strike that quintessentially American note, like chestnut stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, and apple walnut cake. A sauce for game hen starts with apricots macerated in sherry. This fruit-wine pairing is typical of Colonial fare and, in the case of the game hens, terrific. Brussels sprouts with onion, bacon, and fennel are wonderful. Fennel and brussels sprouts are perfectly paired here, so much so, in fact, that the bacon and onion are needless accessories. Unfortunately, the most tempting recipes require a cook's significant commitment, many requiring overnight preparation: meats need to marinate, beans must soak. And many of these same recipes start where another leaves off. They rely on basic sauces, like the demi-glace, which most readers would balk at making. But in general, the recipes offer an affordable, possibly more successful, taste of Americana than does the Tavern itself. So if you're going to make the trip North, stop by the Liberty Bell (caution, parking's a bear) and the Rocky Balboa steps, then head to South Philly for some deservedly notable city food.