There was a discussion recently on the local food boards regarding the practice of restaurants charging for bread. Some viewed the trend merely as an unfortunate byproduct of a weak economy. Others declared the practice nothing short of heresy. I'm willing to bet that neither camp will mind dropping $3 for the bread and butter appetizer at the Greenhouse Tavern.
By all outward appearances, the bread and butter starter is just that — some grilled slices of bread and a dollop of pale butter. But standing in for the tried-and-true spread is goat's-milk butter, a creamy, faintly tart substance that — when smeared on crusty bread and consumed — causes time to slow. Like so many things at the Greenhouse, the dish elevates the everyday to an unforgettable food experience.
Too much of the buzz surrounding East Fourth Street's newest hotspot has focused on the "green" rather than the "tavern." While it's noble that the restaurant implemented numerous environmentally friendly practices, few diners select an eatery because it installed high-efficiency water heaters. No, diners return to restaurants from which they depart fat and happy. Chefs Jonathon Sawyer and Jonathan Seeholzer fully comprehend the notion of satisfaction. To them and their ilk, little can top a leisurely meal filled with good bread, saucy plates and jugs of rustic wine. When you pair that understanding with a mastery of cooking technique, you craft a restaurant that consistently under-promises and over-delivers.
Time and again, what appears on the menu to be a pedestrian place-filler turns out to be a revelation. Radishes ($3) are transformed from ubiquitous salad stuffers to addictive bar snacks, thanks to a smidgen of butter, salt and grated horseradish. Good prosciutto ($5) can be found on half the menus in town, but only this one wraps it around warm logs of fried gnocchi. I've eaten more chicken wings ($11) than I care to admit, but damned if I've ever tasted them like this. Crisp, salty, juicy, and tossed with garlic and peppers, the duck-fat-fried wings are anything but pedestrian.
With Greenhouse, Sawyer promised to do for French-inspired fare what he did for Italian at the wildly popular Bar Cento — namely, reinterpret the cuisine through the use of local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients. Through that lens, a hackneyed goat-cheese salad becomes a salad ($11) made not with goat's-milk cheese but with Ohio goat meat. A bundle of lush, earthy goat confit (its "baa" subdued by the braise) is paired with a springy herb salad of mint, cilantro and watercress.
The only real "twist" in the quintessentially French steak frites ($19) is the well-trimmed flank of Ohio beef in the center of the plate. The expertly grilled steak is lean, flavorful and tender, making it a delicious foil for Sawyer's inexplicably crisp fries. On its own, the fine-grained steak tartare ($9) seems to be lacking the requisite salty kick. But when spread on thin toasts and topped with the onion and cornichon relish, the dish nears perfection.
One of the few dishes to not fully live up to its potential is the roast chicken ($18). Sure, the Ohio-bred bird arrives copper-colored in all the right places, but the meat below had evidently shed its moisture along with its feathers. Conversely, a dish that shatters any possible preconception is the steamed clams with foie gras ($13). I've never pondered a clam-and-foie pairing, but this dish is proof that some higher power obviously had. We devoured the clams just to get to the mind-blowing sauce below.
Being green may be great for the environment, but it can sometimes lead to diner disappointment. On one visit, we sucked back some of the finest oysters in recent memory — and we chased them with nips of devilishly good horseradish vodka. But when Sawyer could no longer secure a quality sustainable variety, he 86ed them.
Sawyer, who can be seen flitting about in a long apron and short pants, is a consummate tinkerer. He brews his own vinegars, curdles his own cheese, picks and pickles his own ramps, and one day, will grow his own herbs and veggies in a rooftop greenhouse. Like any ambitious project, this one is unfolding in stages. A streetside patio was recently launched, and lunch service soon followed. Look for breakfast and brunch down the road. And though the rooftop is still a work in progress, the kick-ass kitchen dining room has finally hit its stride. The subterranean space places a few lucky diners just feet from the fire, where they can eat, drink and ogle the chefs as they crank out plate after plate of earth-friendly French-inspired fare.