When Is a Tavern Not a Tavern? 

When it's the Del Pietros' inventive latest, Tavern 43

When you think of a tavern, what images appear? Do you envision the well-heeled urban professionals of Clayton drinking martinis and cosmopolitans? And what food comes to mind when you imagine tavern fare?

It's kind of like when your grandfather opines, "Used to be a man was a man." It used to be that taverns were taverns, and you knew one when you saw it -- or smelled it. One such "real" tavern was Power's, that erstwhile beer-soaked watering hole in downtown Clayton whose space is now occupied by the more refined Kilkenny's Pub. The Del Pietro family's Culinart Group (owners of Kilkenny's, along with Portabella and Luciano's Trattoria, all in Clayton) must have struggled with naming their new venture when in October they shuttered Shiitake, their Asian-fusion restaurant. A month later, they turned it around with a new concept, Tavern 43, in the same location.

"We were looking for a concept that would be 'bistro' without calling it a bistro, because it's more French-implied," explains the tavern's executive chef Brian Doherty, who also cooked at Shiitake. "We wanted to keep everything American with a few quirky things."

That means putting chicken tenders and crab cakes on the same menu as seared foie gras and steak tartare. At first, the concept was to serve up traditional comfort food, but when the short ribs and potpies weren't selling as expected, changes were made. "I don't think people are coming into Clayton to look for comfort food," Doherty observes. Michael Del Pietro, general manager of Luciano's, chose the moniker and added the "43," a reference to the year of his parents' birth.

Still, is this a tavern? Eating at Tavern 43, with its Mission-style furniture, upscale look and modern-rock soundtrack throbbing gently in the background, feels like having dinner at a good friend's house while listening to his music.

It's Pottery Barn meets The River. The interior design, courtesy of Lea Doherty (Michael Del Pietro's sister, who's married to chef Brian), isn't as sharp as her high-tech work at Luciano's, mostly because the group had about a month to transform the place and did most of the work themselves. Gone are the dim charcoal-colored walls of Shiitake, replaced with brick-red and muted orange hues that convey a livelier mood. Georgia O'Keeffe prints, big and flowery, dot the walls throughout the bar and front dining area, while arts-and-crafts stained-glass replica light fixtures hang from the ceiling.

The bar itself was moved from the back to front and center, so that the liquor bottles and glasses, neatly arranged on glass shelves, beckon through the front windows like sparkling trinkets. Huge sheaths of dark burgundy taffeta hang from floor to ceiling, separating, in a very non-tavern-like manner, the front bar area from the dining room in back.

Lunch one afternoon consisted, of all things, of a tilapia fillet "encrusted" with cornmeal and served with a creamy mac 'n' cheese with diced tomatoes and grilled asparagus on the side. I don't know about you, but so far the term "tavern" wouldn't exactly be first on my list of descriptors. Still, the fish was fresh and fried superbly, a wonderful alternative to the expected burger or sandwich. Tavern 43 also serves up tasty burgers and sandwiches, priced from $7 to $9. "Big Plates" are also available (and probably necessary for those expense-account business lunches): a four-ounce sirloin, grilled gulf shrimp, grilled salmon, fried calamari, shrimp with a spicy buffalo-wing dipping sauce and a couple of pastas, with prices ranging from $7 to $12.

Doherty and his small staff obviously enjoy combining and employing different flavors and styles. But as mentioned, while full-throttle fusion cooking can be fun and exciting, this stuff can get out of hand when a kitchen morphs styles and tastes just to grab your attention. Case in point: a duck confit quesadilla, an appetizer special. Three tortilla wedges were filled with slow-cooked duck meat, red onions and mushrooms and positioned on a small bed of greens, with a white truffle, basil and garlic aioli standing in for guacamole. Tasty, to be sure, and oh, so Clayton. But why? All that labor-intensive confit just for quesadillas? And white truffles? What palate is going to distinguish that from any other fungi, especially when there's so much going on inside those two layers of tortilla?

In the same free spirit, but more successfully executed, was an entrée of pecan-encrusted rainbow trout. Some farm-raised trout tastes as if it was pulled from the Big Muddy, but these two fillets were wonderfully fresh-tasting, enhanced by the crushed pecan coating and sweetened with a pleasingly light horseradish-maple glaze. Topping off the plate were thin, crunchy strands of fried green onions. The bed of savory corn pudding, with braised Swiss chard woven throughout, was more bland than savory, but it didn't interfere with the fish.

Carrying on with the American food theme, a big, bone-in roasted chicken breast arrived atop a medley of perfectly cooked green beans, mushrooms and whole shallots. A healthy ladling of a dark, concentrated roasted garlic jus covered the plate, imparting a dark, earthy flavor to the entire dish. The rib eye was a tad steep at $25, but it was a thicker-than-normal cut of beef. Grilling it with a coating of Parmesan cheese was the right idea, and drizzling it with a horseradish-black pepper sauce made the dish even more pleasing.

I love the almost-sweet flavor of Yukon Gold potatoes, and the diced beauties served alongside the steak, along with the aforementioned grilled asparagus, proved the perfect accompaniment.

Service during both visits was spotty. Removing used knives after each course is no sin -- indeed, it's expected -- but we shouldn't have had to request replacements each time. Our knife-nabbing server was pleasant enough, though, and helpful in describing the array of entrées and the various mélanges of ingredients.

There's an extensive wine list -- 62 bottles priced from $22 to $95 (a '98 Sterling 3 Palm merlot occupies the top spot) -- helpfully (if casually) categorized under headings such as "Juicy Reds," "Robust Reds," "Easy Sipping [Whites]" and "Mellow Whites." A glass will run you anywhere from $6 to $11. Mostly Anheuser-Busch products and a lone Sierra Nevada microbrew are available on tap (though there's a large selection of bottled imports and microbrews).

The two house-made desserts we sampled were largely disappointing. The chocolate gooey cake was more like grainy chocolate mush. The apple pie contained good chunks of fresh apple, enhanced by the pronounced flavor of mace, but the crust was doughy and devoid of any flakiness. The little scoops of homemade ice cream accompanying each dessert -- a mild cinnamon with the pie and a rich chocolate malt with the cake -- were the best part.

Casual and laid-back? Yes. Banal tavern food? No. Cheap eats? No. Just think of Tavern 43 as an American bistro, and perhaps from then on you'll have a whole new mental picture of a tavern.

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