February 10, 2004
“Happiness,” said a wise person, “begins with a good meal.” And so our evening began.
That wise person, my dinner companion, was right, and I knew right away I was destined for happiness that evening. The night was a night of firsts for me: my first martini, my first cigar… the bartender knowingly talked me through it all.
“We get a lot of first timers in here, don’t worry,” he assured me with a somewhat sinister laugh. He handed me the “wild” martini list with titles such as “Touch the Sky,” “School of Fish,” and “Chicago 1951.” ($8 each.)
I laughed nervously, trying to remember what transpired in Chicago in 1951. I stammered, “Vodka martini, straight up, with a twist, shaken, not stirred.” Or something to that effect. It was a big step for me.
I eyed the humidor. The bartender was right there, gracefully slipping the cigar list under my nose — Davidoff 2000, a three-tobacco blend with a medium body and herbaceous flavors ($15); Grand Cru 1, a full bodied, medium flavored cigar with a lingering coffee finish ($15); or the Aniversario 2, “one of the few five-blended cigars in the world; it has a unique full flavor with many layers but a medium body that does not overpower” ($25).
OK, in all honesty, that’s as close as I got to my first cigar — reading the list and poking around inside the humidor. I would have gone for it, but it was time to eat.
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The restaurant and its decor seem to merge into a single harmonious whole. The art glass partitions, large view windows, dark cherrywood tables, refined bistro chairs, hand-blown glass lamp coverings, and beautifully set booths and tables… all combined to make for an elegant yet relaxed atmosphere.
The service was also extraordinary. I have never experienced such a high waiter/eater ratio. All told, we had no fewer than five different people attending to our table in some function or other. We had bread waiters, water waiters, crumb waiters, dessert waiters, martini waiters, and our regular waiter waiter. Five waiters, no waiting.
For dinner, we started with the Roasted Polenta “Pyramids” with Balsamic Veal Jus and Wild Mushrooms ($9.50), and the Fritto Misto of Rock Shrimp, Onions, and Olives with Mustard Seed Vignette ($8.50 — a “must have”).
The list of equally exquisite appetizers also includes Rare Tuna with Lemon and “Virginal” Olive Oil Braised Artichokes and Arugula ($10.50), Smoky Whole Braised Tomato with Fresh Mozzarella and Basil Broth ($8.50), plus another handful (and mouthful) more.
By mouthful, of course, I mean the lovingly descriptive menu entries, not to be confused with entrees, which is where we are now.
For us, the choice was clear and exciting — Fennel Seared Ahi Tuna with Tealla Bread Pudding and Tapenade ($18.50) and the Grilled Salmon on Confit of Marrow Beans with Spinach and Veal Glace Dressing ($18).
There are also many delicious pasta choices such as Fussili with Charred Tomato Sauce, Arugula and Basil ($10.50), the Tagliatelle with Wild Mushrooms, North Beach Pancetta and Spinach Pesto ($15.75), or the Eggplant “Lasagnette” with Tomato Pepper Sauce and Goat Cheese ($13.75).
This is as good a time as any to mention Ajax Tavern’s extensive — let me repeat that — extensive wine list. Whether your evening requires a 1994 Rutherford Hill Merlot ($18) or a celebratory Dom Perignon 1985 Rose ($275), or any of the 100-plus choices in between, you’re covered at the Tavern.
There comes a point in every evening when the promise of dessert looms pleasantly. It didn’t get to loom very long for us, as we were very quickly face to face with 68 Degree Brix Creme Brulee ($6.50). We also felt obliged to try the Blueberry Mango Crisp with Lavender Zavaglione ($8.50), so we could tell you firsthand that both of them are delightful.
Also in dessert land is the Vanilla Cheesecake with Oven Roasted Blackberries ($7.75) and Fallen Chocolate Soufflee with Caramel Ice Cream for $8.
An Ajax Tavern lunch offers many of the same fine selections as the dinners, for a few dollars less. Some additions include a Warm Spinach, Frisee, Asparagus and Pancetta Salad with Sherry Cambozola Vinaigrette appetizer for $8.25, Seafood Pastina Risotto with Saffron, Fresh Herbs and Carrot Juice Brodetto ($14.50), Rocky Range Chicken Breast, Slow Roasted on Wild Mushrooms, Carrots, and House Dressing ($16.50), and the Tavern Cheeseburger with Caramelized Onions and Seasoned Tomato for $8.50.
Although they can’t take reservations for the deck, due to the uncertainty of high country weather, the deck does offer spectacular views of Ajax and all that goes on there. It was another lifetime ago when the Little Nell Bar stood on this very spot.
People say they miss it. My last memory of it was the blow-out party they had before it was torn down and a big hotel built in its place.
But there are similarities between the Tavern and the old Nell bar, however far-reaching that may seem. There’s still the same sense of enthusiasm from the people who work there, a sense of the genuine, if you will. The clientele was animated, loud and zealous. There were children and grandparents, locals and visitors, all enjoying themselves. The circle continues.