Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Life, Life, Love

Tavro Thirteen

DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Gallery: Tavro Thirteen
Tavro Thirteen Video: Tavro Thirteen
About the restaurant
1301 Kings Hwy
Swedesboro, NJ 08085
Neighborhood: Swedesboro Parking: Free valet parking weekend evenings, and free parking lot.
Handicap access: Wheelchair accessible.
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.; Sunday, until 9 p.m. Brunch Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Bar menu Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to close; Saturday, beginning 3 p.m.; Sund
Prices: $$$
Payment notes: All major cards.
Payment methods:
Accepts cash
American Express
Cuisine type: American
Meals Served: Brunch - Sun. Lunch - Mon., Tue., Wed., Thu., Fri. Dinner - Mon. thru Sun.
Style: Terence Feury’s bold career move has brought one of Philly’s best chefs to deep South Jersey, and the Swedesboro crowds have been reasonably receptive to his modern American cooking. What may prove a greater challenge to surmount is the red leather-on-black contemporary revamp for an historic inn that frames Tavro’s genuine qualities, from the sophisticated cooking to the excellent bar and well-meaning service, in garish relief.
Specialties: Raw oysters; scallop crudo; lamb belly; plancha-seared calamari; cavatelli with broccoli; squash agnolotti with lobster and truffle; smoked duck; cod with brandade; black bass; leg of lamb; rack of pork; swordfish with squash; rosemary panna cotta; house-made gelati (salted caramel; peanut butter).
Alcohol: A well-rounded, quality drink selection. Polished takes on classic cocktails anchor the long and lively bar (try the Jack Rose, or the Dark ‘n’ Stormy on draft with house-made ginger beer. There are a dozen craft beers on tap (Schneider Aventinus) with a few good bottle options, too (Bear Republic). Themodest wine cellar has 11 decent choices by the glass (Clos Julien chardonnay; Chad pinot noir) and an eclectic list of worthy bottles (Jermann, L’Ecole 41, Pacina, Poggio Antico.)

'I don't love moving. Really, I don't," says Terence Feury. "I want to be somewhere for the long haul."

I believe it when Feury says this, because a working chef of his skill - easily among the region's best - deserves a permanent home where his passion for hands-on cooking and exceptional seafood can thrive with the chance to be an owner-chef.

The evidence of recent history, though, hedges against that desire: a half-dozen restaurants in 14 years, from Striped Bass, where he debuted locally in 1999, to Fork, where he earned three bells in 2009.

And now Tavro Thirteen in - Swedesboro?

More coverage
  • Review: One bell for Red Owl Tavern
  • Review: Two bells for Citron and Rose
  • Review: No bells for The Saint James
  • The only-in-Philly snobs no doubt sniffed at the notion that Feury would leave cosmopolitan Old City for the tract-housing paradise of deep South Jersey. True, the poor guy isn't even allowed to cook striped bass in the Garden State, where the sale of wild striper is illegal. But a gorgeous black bass with blood oranges and celery root, or a braised lamb belly with harissa, or a delicate bowl of squash agnolotti with lobster and truffles is presumably just as worthy of the drive no matter what state it's in.

    Right? After my meals at Tavro Thirteen - very good, but not as exceptional as I've come to expect from a Feury project - I'm not entirely certain.

    One can't be entirely surprised that Feury saw the possibilities for a new lease on his career in the country. After a long courtship, Tavro's developer, Gus Tzitzifas, finally lured him to partnership after a tour of the Old Swedes Inn's gutted Colonial bones.

    It makes more sense when I learn that Feury wandered through the 1771 building before the Tzitzifas family's self-guided decoration job was complete.

    The roaring faux fireplace is nice. But with its jarring lipstick-red-leather furniture-against-black-paneling contemporary look, the dining room looks like the Sky Miles lounge of Black Widow Airlines. The hostesses in body-hugging black numbers traced with red hourglasses heighten the cartoonish effect.

    Tzitzifas himself is an inspiring figure, a self-made entrepreneur who arrived from Greece as a child and worked his way up from diner jobs to launch an accounting firm, own a golf course (Patriots Glen), build his own diner (the Marlton Diner), and now this fine-dining gambit. And he's invested the resources ($1.8 million) to be taken very seriously.

    But designing a restaurant is different from decorating the McMansion. Professional help would have been worthwhile.

    Feury's challenge - to bring a universal sense of taste - has thus become even harder than the simple prejudice of its geography, which, despite growing affluence, has yet to produce a regional dining draw. With a solid kitchen behind him, well-meaning service that tries hard, and a smart bar overseen by manager Tom Pittakas built on well-made cocktails, craft beers, and better-than-average wines, Tavro Thirteen has genuine qualities to grow from.

    Feury at his best, especially with top-notch seafood, is worth the visit, whether for pristine Fire River oysters with Champagne mignonette, scallop ceviche enlivened with lime and chiles, or tender calamari marinated in serrano chile oil and seared on the plancha with pureed almonds and preserved lemon.

    A swordfish over squash puree with pumpkin seeds was meltingly moist. Seared cod topped with parsley and potato chips provided the perfect flake-and-crunch contrast to the funky pairing of soft, potatoey salt cod brandade.

    But his kitchen was not uniformly as strong in its concepts as usual. The chestnut soup was so stunningly thick, brown and rich, it would have been more enjoyable in a demitasse than a bowl. Mackerel cooked in cardamom leaves is intriguing, but the steam technique neutered the oily fish's trademark swagger, letting the tart coconut yogurt overpower the dish. A heavy hand with the lemon aioli took away from the cod. The bar menu's fancy chicken wings - deboned, cooked sous-vide, stuffed with ground capon farce - were not worth the fuss.

    There are moments when Feury's menu seems to have gone conservative for the suburban crowd. But with the quality of ingredients, his sharp takes on king salmon (with mushroom ragu, gnocchi and chive puree) and bone-in shell steak (with celery root-potato puree and fresh horseradish) were too good to be boring.

    Even so, I'm glad his gamy braised lamb belly appetizer has been a surprise hit. It's maybe emboldened him to serve other full-flavored meats: like the richly braised lamb shank, pulled off the bone and formed in a puck beneath spiced orange chutney; a juicy slow-roasted Berkshire pork rack rubbed in clove over buttered cabbage; and a deeply apple-smoked duck breast with roasted carrots, parsnips, and salsify.

    Dessert is the menu's weakest link, though the fine house-churned gelati (peanut butter, salted caramel) and rosemary panna cotta with saffron-poached pears are good bets. The small but excellent cheese selection (Pleasant Ridge, Bleu de Basque, Robiola) may be an even better choice.

    Still, there is nothing on this menu that master Feury can't tune up to his usual excellence over time. But fine dining restaurants are the sum of their parts, lipstick-red leather and all. And whether Tavro Thirteen is, in fact, Feury's long-awaited home for the long haul remains to be seen.


    Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Indian Hut in Exton. Contact him at claban@phillynews.com, 215-854-2682 or follow him on Twitter: @CraigLaBan.

    Inquirer Restaurant Critic
    We encourage respectful comments but reserve the right to delete anything that doesn't contribute to an engaging dialogue.
    Help us moderate this thread by flagging comments that violate our guidelines.

    Comment policy:

    Philly.com comments are intended to be civil, friendly conversations. Please treat other participants with respect and in a way that you would want to be treated. You are responsible for what you say. And please, stay on topic. If you see an objectionable post, please report it to us using the "Report Abuse" option.

    Please note that comments are monitored by Philly.com staff. We reserve the right at all times to remove any information or materials that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable. Personal attacks, especially on other participants, are not permitted. We reserve the right to permanently block any user who violates these terms and conditions.

    Additionally comments that are long, have multiple paragraph breaks, include code, or include hyperlinks may not be posted.

    Read 0 comments
    comments powered by Disqus
    Latest Videos:
    Also on Philly.com
    letter icon Newsletter