It seems like every few weeks, someone is telling me about a great place in Westchester, or I'm reading a positive NY Times review of a great place in Westchester. But it seems so damned far away. Maybe it's because you have to cross one of those crappy bridges to get there. 287 is no picnic on weekends, and for the love of all things holy, why would anyone subject themselves to the GWB and those horrible pot-holed roads that stem from it.
But every now and again, a trip to Westchester is a good thing. Especially if your destination is a place like The Cookery (auto-play warning!), Growlers Beer Bistro (disclosure: I know one of the partners), or Tarry Market. I'm a bit hesitant to include MP Taverna on this list, but I will.
A reader brought MP Taverna to my attention a few months ago, and I finally had enough energy to get over to Irvington, especially after I realized that this is one of Michael Psilakis's restaurants. Now, I am under no illusion that Psilakis ever sets foot in the place, but, since there is money behind it, I figure they can do a pretty good job.
This lunch started off a little rocky. We sat at the bar, which was alread set up with place settings, and were given menus by the hostess. There was a guy standing at the service end of the bar, casually talking to his buddy, who was on the customer side of the bar. We assumed, wrongly, it turns out, that this was the bartender. After not being so much as acknowledged for many many minutes, we started to get annoyed. A customer who was sitting at the bar a bit closer to him finally got his attention, and he was obviously caught off guard. "Oh, what can I get you? You need something?" The woman said "Yes, my husband wants a drink." "Uh boy," I thought. "If this guy is the bartender, he's an asshat."
Shortly after this transaction, a server walked over to us on the customer side of the bar and asked if anyone had helped us yet. The answer was obviously no, and he took our drink orders. That guy at the end of the bar seemed to disappear, and a woman came to the bar and started making drinks. Thankfully, she remained there to serve us.
I have no idea what this guy's role is, but I have to assume he's a manager or partner. Here's a tip: get yourself away from the bar if you're not going to be working. And definitely don't chat with your friends from behind the bar if you're not going to work. It's hard to believe that this isn't clear to anyone even remotely related to service industry.
At any rate, our cocktails arrived, and we were quite pleased. The cocktails here tend to be quite boozy, and the gin-based drink that I received was no exception. Gin, muddled cucumber, sage, a bit of lemon, and St. Germaine. The "Floral Breaze" on their menu. Not sure what a "breaze" is, but I certainly hope this is my ignorance vs. a typo.
Bread was served, but we had to ask for olive oil, which was on every table. The bread was pretty damned fantastic. The missus doesn't eat a lot of bread, which generally means that I get all of the bread. And I eat all of the bread. And I ate all of this bread. I'm not sure my doctor approves of a loaf of bread amuse-bouche.
If there's octopus on the menu, I'll order it. And there's octopus on the menu at MP Taverna, in the form of an appetizer. This was a fantastic octopus dish. Olive oil, herbs, chick peas, vinegar, red onion. This was a great dish. Given the price-point ($11?) and size, I preferred it to the also very good octopus at Varka in Ramsey, which is $11 at lunch, but a drop-dropping, "WTF?"-inducing $26 at dinner. MP Taverna's octopus is still $11 at dinner (per the online menus). Give me less food for less money, and generally I'm happy. A buffet guy I am not.
Speaking of prices: annoyingly, the prices at MP Taverna are not rounded to the dollar. This peeves the heck out of me.
We also had the meatballs. Three meatballs in a deep, rich sauce, filled with olives and garlic. The olives are crazy assertive, and the meatballs crazy tender. Frankly this could be an entree, given the flavors and size. Some of that bread to sop up that sauce and you've got yourself a very satisfying meal.
Entrées came out way too soon. We weren't done with our appetizers. *sigh*
My entrée of "dumplings" wasn't as much to my liking as I would have hoped. I was sort of hoping for a ravioli type deal, but instead these were more like gnocchi or gnudi. My bad. Described as having spicy lamb sausage, sun dried tomato, pines nuts, spinach, and feta, I was also sort of expecting a lighter dish, with lots of sausage. Instead, the dish consisted of a deep, rich sauce, and not very much sausage. It was tasty, if not a bit/a lot over-sauced, but not what I was expecting. And for fuck's sake I had a loaf of bread to start, so I was very fully anywho.
The lamb burger (ordered with raw onion and gouda), also, was not what we were expecting. However, it was quite good and enjoyable. I generally make lamb burgers with very little filling or spice: tender lamb, cooked m/r, with just enough spice/herb to compliment the lamb. That's my thing. The lamb burger at at MP Taverna was certainly full of flavor, with help from herbs and garlic and probably some spices. A bit tough, and more like a meatball/meatloaf in consistency. A tasty meatball/meatloaf, make no mistake. It was ordered without a bun, and I suspect that this texture would have worked better on a bun than on a plate.
Did I mention that the pickled vegetables in the little ramekin were awesome? And the feta spread good, too? No throw-aways, here.
The highlight of the lamb burger was the "smashed fries." These are potato spears that appear to be baked, smashed, and dropped in a deep fryer for plating. This yields potatoes that they are flatter than your typical steak fries/potato spears, and way more crunchy. Not only is the skin crunchy, but so is the flesh. The extra surface area gives the large grains of salt somewhere to cling. These things are outrageously good. I'll be smashing my spear more often.
The bar doesn't have hooks for bags, but the stools do have little shelves near the bottom. There is lots of leg room, which is nice. I have no idea why people design bars where you can't pull your stool in without jamming your knees. Not a problem here, though.
Hopefully the next meal doesn't start off so rocky. It's very, very difficult to recover from that first, negative impression. The fact that I didn't hate the place speaks to how much I think they can actually do a good job. For all of my complaining, I get the impression that this place is still pretty damned good.
MP Taverna : 1 Bridge Street : Irvington, NY : 914.231.7854