Return to the Tonic

As someone who's passed the half-century mark, I know that this culture reveres neither old people nor old buildings. It's refreshing, therefore, to see something venerable treated with respect. The bar at the late Chelsea Tavern could have gone the way of all renovations. Instead, it's delightful to enter the lovingly maintained the Tonic through a room that seems better suited to rotund Edwardian gentlemen cavorting with ladies of light virtue than to business suits and Ally McBeal miniskirts. Dark woods abound from the massive long bar to the coffered wainscoting, tiled floors and tin ceilings are not design clichés but authentic artifacts, and the lanterns over the bar seem early Edison. The antiquity of the tavern shouldn't confuse the visitor, though, because a few steps away the main dining room is as up-to-date as next week's hot Web site.

I was introduced to this spot by my new agent, a woman who loves food and style as much as I do. The light, airy room was abloom with treelike boughs of cherry blossoms and huge bouquets of peonies and lilies. Conversation was animated, yet the tables were spaced so that eavesdropping remained optional. Much of the meal faded into a blur of discussion about book proposals, but my mound of hand-chopped salmon with chives and other goodies ($9) made me take notice. What knocked my socks off was a zingy wasabi- infused roe that I'm still trying to figure out. Its small heat explosions amplified the rich sweetness of the bites of fish.

I returned one evening to sample again— this time a tuna variation on the tartare theme with the same density of flavor. My guest enjoyed a codfish cake special ($15.50) that combined the flaky white fish with morels and ramps, the onionlike veggie of the moment, for a sybarite's version of the fish cakes of my youth. The soft-shell crabs were wildly expensive at $31, but after nibbling on the crispy bits, my friend allowed that she might even come back and pay for them herself. My slightly underdone foie gras ($18) was not quite up to their splendid standard, but the velvet sauternes I was offered with it (albeit at $10 more on the bill) mellowed my mood for dessert. Cavaillon melon floating island with a blood peach sorbet ($9) was a refreshing light froth, while the cheesecake sampler proved a pastry chef's tour de force of three miniatures: dense New York­style, tangy mascarpone, and light fromage blanc. A citrusy lemon verbena infusion ($2.50) in a teapot was the stylish close to the meal.

At Tonic, tuna tartare is always tonic, with wasabi-spiked roe in the main room or asparagus in the tavern.
Michael Kenneth Lopez
At Tonic, tuna tartare is always tonic, with wasabi-spiked roe in the main room or asparagus in the tavern.

Details

The Tonic
108 West 18th Street, 929-9755.

Main dining room Mon≠Fri 12pm to 2pm, Mon≠Thu 5:30pm to 10:30pm, Fri≠Sat 5:30pm to 11pm

Tavern Mon≠Fri 12pm to 12am

Brunch in the tavern Sat & Sun 11:30am to 3pm, regular menu till 1am Sat and 9pm Sun. All major credit cards. Wheelchair access.

The tavern proper, with an abbreviated all-day menu offering more moderate prices, beckoned in the quiet hours of the midafternoon when an unrepentant smoker came along for late lunch. A bowl of intense duck consommé, filled with chunks of meat and veggie brunoise ($8), set the tone; a well-battered fillet of sole accompanied by thick-cut fries and a tart, crisp slaw took fish and chips to another level; and a half-portion of tuna tartare (topped with asparagus, sans roe) ($11) completed my bliss. I'll take friends to the dining room, but I've found a solo hangout in the tavern. We antiques have to stick together.

 
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