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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.

Gladstone Tavern
273 Main Street
Gladstone, Somerset County, New Jersey
(908) 234-9055

By The Artful Diner
Special to NJ.Com
September 29, 2008

Printable Copy of this Review

Not too long ago, a poster on one of the food/restaurant forums described the Gladstone Tavern as "A Chuck E. Cheese for the Porsche Cayenne crowd." Hyperbole? Of course... But like all literary embellishment, an element of truth is usually to be found at the core... And that is surely the case here.

On its website, the Gladstone Tavern characterizes itself as "Family Friendly." And this declaration is thoroughly reinforced via a $6.00 kiddie menu and the conspicuous presence of children... Lots of children... Children who are both seen AND heard.

And this often commoving state of affairs is inexplicably oxymoronic, as no one would ever accuse the Tavern of being a typical family eatery. Indeed... chef/proprietor Tom Carlin was the power behind the stove at New York's Gramercy Grill, Raoul's Brasserie, Malabar Café, and Gladstone's Rudolfo Ristorante; DAS Architects of Philadelphia -- also designers of the Pluckemin Inn, Rats, NYC's Wolfgang's Steakhouse, and Philly's legendary Le Bec-Fin -- is responsible for the strikingly contemporary interior; the bustling bar boasts a seductive selection of seasonally-changing specialty cocktails and, courtesy of a state-of-the-art preservation system, a first-rate selection of wines by the glass. In addition, the plenteous presentations of regional and classic American cuisine are hardly what you're likely to encounter at a local run-of-the-mill children's chophouse.

But on to the all-important question: Given the presence of children of every age, size, and behavioral disposition, equally animated adults, and often formidable decibel level, is a trip to the Gladstone Tavern worth the expense and the possible aggravation...? Which brings us inevitably to the cuisine.

Among the appetizers, the crab "tots" are a sine qua non. Four golden brown orbs make a dramatic entrance in a cocktail glass accompanied by artistic splashes of grain mustard, chipotle, and remoulade. Deliciously addictive... as are the deep-fried zucchini 'straws," which are presented in a paper-lined metal cylinder companioned by a ramekin of zesty horseradish ranch dressing.

Prince Edward Island mussels are pristinely plump and arrive swimming in a sea of white wine, garlic, and fresh herbs. For a variation on the theme, you might also consider the mountainous entrée version, which is served up with hot cherry peppers, tomato, and green onions. I also thought the "BLT" tart -- roasted summer tomatoes and tiara of bacon -- was quite good, although the crust was slightly on the soggy side, and the bed of arugula and the plate itself were exceedingly cold, undoubtedly a result of an extended exile in the fridge.

There are also a number of salad starters that alternate with the seasons. The hearts of palm salad served up during the winter months, for example, included morsels of red grapes, feathery frisée, almonds, and a lively Dijon dressing. An interesting combo and the blending of tastes and textures was just right. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the retro iceberg wedge. The lettuce and onions looked a bit on the tired side, the beefsteak tomatoes exhibited a pale color and Styrofoam-like consistency, and the so-so blue cheese dressing was rather stingily applied.

However, across the board, appetizers tend to acquit themselves rather well. Entrées, on the other hand, are more problematic. The aforementioned mountain of mussels, for instance, was right on the money. But the striped bass was merely passable. The fish itself was nicely grilled, but the tiara of grapefruit salsa seemed at odds with the natural flavors of the delicate flesh. And, yet another oddity, the accompanying purple potato salad was not only something of an eyesore, it was also sabotaged by a surfeit of vinegar.

The linguine with black trumpet mushrooms embellished with asparagus, tomatoes, Parmesan broth, and splash of white truffle oil also failed to set off any bells and whistles. It was incredibly bland and in desperate need of a significant sprinkling of Parmesan cheese to resurrect any possible pizzazz... Unfortunately, our waiter chose that moment to pull a disappearing act; thus, it took an inordinate length of time to make our request known.

At this juncture, I should note that my visits to the Gladstone Tavern were conducted with two separate parties six months apart. The first took place in the dead of winter, the second during the waning days of summer... And it was during this latter sojourn that I detected a decided downward spiral in the kitchen's main course presentations. I mean... if an establishment that calls itself a "tavern" and "family friendly" can't turn out a decent burger, something is radically amiss. And that was surely the case here.

The description, of course, sounded irresistible: 10-ounces of grilled house-ground beef on an onion roll with choice of toppings; in this case, sautéed onions, mushrooms, and Swiss cheese. The burger was ordered "medium" but arrived absolutely raw at the center; and the mound of house-cut fries, though undeniably delicious, were about as crisp as a wilted head of iceberg lettuce.

And the grilled petit filet, a nightly special, was another downer. The luscious slices of beef were both tender and flavorful, but they were perched on a mountain of soggy mesclun greens -- courtesy of a rather acidic chipotle vinaigrette. Mounds of unadorned black beans and grape tomato halves added absolutely nothing to the scenario, neither did the whole sliced avocado.

I'm certainly not one of those fussy food critics who thinks that every plate should be a work of art... but presentations should at least be pleasantly appealing. The filet, however, was not only famine for the eye but also, apart from the flavor of the meat itself, didn't do a great deal for the taste buds either. And the aforementioned burger and fries looked like they could have been thrown into their basket from across the room.

Desserts, which are made in house -- if they remain simple and straightforward -- can certainly be a high point. The individual apple pie with caramel sauce, warm peach crisp, and classic crème brûlée all have a great deal to recommend them. But the chocolate dipped banana cupcake, like the chocolate dipped cheesecake, is simply too much of a good thing. Both would have been satisfyingly rich of their own accord; but, when teamed with the chocolate, became positively cloying.

The thing that I've noticed about the Gladstone Tavern is that people really don't seem to come here to enjoy the food. They come in groups to party... They come with their children in tow because it's close to home and the price is right... They come to discuss their son's college options... They come because their neighbors tell them it's still the place to see and be seen... They drink, they laugh, they gyrate, they gesticulate, they fill their gullets... but the food appears to be entirely superfluous to their sundry plans and purposes.

The Bottom Line: For the most part, the cuisine at the Gladstone Tavern is good... although it is not, in my opinion, by any means exceptional. And it is certainly not good enough for me to put up with the hordes of unruly children and the eardrum-splitting noise that often fill its precincts during dinner. I freely confess that I prefer at least a modicum of peace and quiet while dining -- and I'm certain that I am not alone in this regard. If you do decide to pay a call, I would strongly suggest a midweek lunch when, hopefully, the atmosphere will be (comparatively) less chaotic.

Cuisine: Regional and Classic American
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Daily from 5:00 p.m.; Tavern Menu: Available all day Mon - Sat from 11:30 a.m. until closing and Sundays from 5:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; bustling bar scene
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.gladstonetavern.com

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