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The Gill Tavern is a very good restaurant in its own right, a solid mix of modern upscale and simple pub-like fare. Founded by the owner of The People's Pint, a Greenfield brewpub that has good food, great beer, and (at least the last time I went there, which has now been a few years) absolutely horrific service that prevented me from enjoying the good food and beer, The Gill Tavern has been successful since the beginning, and since it really is unique in Franklin County, I suspect they will continue to be for a long time.
This review, however, is not about the restaurant's ordinary operations, but rather about a Guest Chef event they now hold yearly. Julian Proujansky, an old schoolmate of mine, and Heather Bortnem, have come to The Gill Tavern for the last three years to display their talents. Both are highly successful in New York City: Julian is the Chef de Cuisine at Omar's La Ranita, which has received significant acclaim, and formerly worked at the famed Eleven Madison Park, recipient of three Michelin stars; Heather is head baker at Commerce Restaurant, famous in its own right, and a truly impressive title for someone so young.
This year's dinner was an interesting look into the current state of haute cuisine, with a combination of primarily simple ingredients and sophisticated concepts, it was all in all a very successful meal. Five courses were served, consisting of canapes, a salad, an appetizer, entree, and finally dessert. My only complaint had nothing to do with the food, which was that we were seated family style, and since I am not a huge fan of strangers, that was less than entirely comfortable for me.
The canapes were spectacular, four small bites that offered different textures, flavors and visuals: chick pea "fritters;" roast carrots with za'atar; black rice crisps with English peas; and deviled quail egg. The fritters were small logs of mashed chickpeas lightly fried and topped with a mild sauce; it tasted like a mild falafel, which works for me since I absolutely love falafel. My only criticism was that the exterior was not very crisp, so there was not a ton of textural contrast, but that is kind of nitpicky. The black rice crisps with English peas were my favorite, with a chip-like vessel of the rice holding the peas and a sauce. I wish I had been taking notes, because I would love to describe the flavors that this presented, but honestly there was so much going on in that one bite that I am struggling to really remember individual aspects. Suffice it to say I would eat an entire meal of just that preparation. Nearly as successful were the deviled quail eggs, topped with truffle; not featured on the menu that was e-mailed out to those with reservations, this was a great little surprise, an absurdly good, fancy version of one of my favorite party snacks from childhood. Quail eggs are super flavorful to begin with, and adding in the truffle flavor really did bring it to a whole new level; if only quail eggs were not so tiny! Lastly, the roast carrots were good, with a slight Middle Eastern flare to them from the za'atar. This was a fine couple of bites, maybe a little different from how I have seen carrots prepared before in a restaurant, and quite tasty, but there was nothing insanely creative about it.
The salad was my least favorite dish of the night, though I think that was simply because of my own personal tastes and not anything to do with the quality. There was, quite simply, just too much sweet involved for me; the candied pistachios were delicious, as were the pomegranate balls (made with pomegranate juice and agar agar; cool preparation that threw us all for a bit of a loop), and even the crisps of goat cheese, but all had a sweetness to them, as did the dressing, which added up to just a lot of sweetness. For people who are not as bothered by that, it was probably great, but for me, I could have done with more tang and salt and less sweet.
The appetizer course was probably my favorite, a rabbit torchon with pickled ramps, fava beans, and what we decided must be shaved asparagus. The torchon was deceptively brilliant, with huge rabbit flavor (not too gamy, but you knew you were eating rabbit), perfectly acidic and crisp ramps that were picked and pickled by Julian's mother up in Leyden, and a nice crunch from the asparagus, though they did not add a ton of flavor. There were also rye crackers, which I did not love, though with the combination of everything on one, they were pretty tasty. I wish ramps could be farmed properly, because they are incredibly delicious, and these were perfectly pickled.
The entree course was almost a deconstructed ravioli, with "stained glass pasta" topping braised lamb, almonds, chickpeas and a soft cheese that tasted like a whipped Boursin to me (my step-dad disagreed and we never did remember to ask what it actually was) in a sauce that was primarily jus with a little red wine. The pasta was delicate, delicious, and beautiful, the lamb essentially pulled, the chickpeas actually tasty (despite my love of falafel, I hate whole chickpeas), and the cheese beyond delicious. The only failure in this to me was the addition of the almonds, which seemed a little superfluous, and were not necessary for texture since the chickpeas were still rather crisp. Again, I'm being nitpicky, because they were not a negative for me, simply unnecessary in my opinion. The lamb was truly delicious, and reminded me again how much I wish mutton were popular in the USA, since I love that flavor and, as long as it is cooked long enough to eliminate the toughness, it is simply a stronger lamb.
Dessert was perfect for me, a strawberry (not blackberry like the pre-sent menu; that would have been sad if I had remembered, since I love blackberries more than almost anything else) mousse on a shortbread like crust. I was worried about how sweet it was going to be, but it was just perfect, mildly sweet, full of strawberry flavor. It was delicate looking, but had good body to the mousse; not quite the ethereal lightness that I think most people associate with a proper mousse, but that is good in my opinion, as I like the food I am eating to have some texture.
I was worried that by going to this dinner I would end up surrounded by old elementary school classmates, and I was only half wrong, but the food was so good that even if I had been 100% right it would have been worth it. The food was original, delicious, at least partially locally sourced (always a positive), and it was nice to see someone from my past doing so very well, and clearly having fun. I hope to have the chance to go again next year, and I am so glad I finally made it to one of these.