Shell Game

Ninety years ago, a seafood restaurant at 8th and Walnut called the Morledge Fish & Oyster Restaurant had a separate dining room for ladies so they didn’t have to eat an aphrodisiac like oysters with strange men looking on.

My friend Jennifer — who found The Buffet at the Ameristar Casino (see review) to be without any sex appeal whatsoever — prefers to eat oysters with lots of strange men around. That’s why her new favorite hangout is the dining room and tiled bar at City Tavern (101 West 22nd Street), particularly since chef Tim Doolittle has taken over the kitchen.

“The food is much better now,” says Jennifer, who had been a fan of Doolittle’s cuisine at the Stolen Grill. “The menu even looks better.”

Doolittle put his mark on the four-month-old restaurant immediately after City Tavern’s owner, Dan Clothier, installed him as the head toque in the kitchen. Doolittle replaced Dennis Kaniger, the high-profile chef who had created the original menu for the newest Crossroads district restaurant.

“Dennis’ menu was too vast, too many diverse choices,” says Clothier, who worked with Kaniger for months before the restaurant opened in September. Clothier claimed “philosophical differences” led to Kaniger’s departure, but hadn’t he noticed those differences in the many, many months before City Tavern actually opened its doors?

“That may be my fault,” Clothier admits. “Dennis is a great artist. I had given him a general direction and the price point where we wanted the menu to be, but we ended up with a more complicated menu than I thought we should have and higher price points.

Kaniger split the City Tavern menu into ten categories, ranging from small plates and sandwiches to the ill-fated list of “accompaniments” — à la carte sauces and relishes. Clothier says his instructions to Doolittle weren’t to make radical decisions but to “streamline the menu.” Now it’s divided into three sections: small plates, soups and salads, and entrées. The latter category includes steaks, chops and a bacon cheeseburger with french fries or cole slaw rather than offered for a couple of bucks extra as side items.

After a rocky start, business is picking up. “We’re in this for the long haul,” Clothier says. “We have a great location, a great chef and we’re going to be persuasive, patient and tenacious until we get everything right.”

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