LATHAM — Kiernan’s Craft Tavern is a fine dining restaurant masquerading as a tavern.
The clues are there in the knife cuts; the eclectic assemblage of dishes crafted with interesting ingredients that create elevated flavors; and the meticulous plating.
Although I’d heard the bar attracts a robust crowd, the restaurant was fairly quiet the weeknight Virginia and I visited. To those who stayed home, I say: Your loss.
The large, open space hasn’t changed much through the various iterations it’s housed over the years: bar to the right, exposed kitchen in the back, wide-open dining room.
Kiernan’s decor manages to be both rustic, with repurposed barn doors and reclaimed wood, and industrial, with forged light fixtures and funky metal wall art. Cushy, cozy and private booths line both walls around wood tables in the dining area.
As for outdoor seating, Kiernan’s does its best to minimize the strip-mall aesthetic by using greenery, seasonal decor and sheer drapery to move the focus off the parking lot.
Kiernan’s has wings and pizza, but don’t stop there, please. Try jalapeño fritters ($10) for a first course, or seared scallops with grapefruit and fennel cured in spicy Peruvian tiger’s milk ($16). You can get a lobster roll ($21) or Tavern burger ($14). Their wood-fired oven turns out oblong pizzas; they might be topped with sweet potato and sage, walnuts, balsamic glaze and Gruyère ($15).
The entrees are sumptuous, crafted with lush ingredients such as truffle oil, créme fraîche, lardons or beef short ribs. Buttermilk-soaked fried chicken with coleslaw and greens is $17. The 12-ounce New York strip with confit potatoes and bordelaise sauce is $32. Meals are served with cornbread and butter.
The restaurant features 12 beers on tap and more than 30 more in bottles and cans that change on a rotating basis. The wine list is deep, with more than 50 premium wines, many by the glass and many I like, from New York Rieslings to French rosé blends like Whispering Angel, and plenty of big fat California reds to go with that strip steak. The terrific Kistler Chardonnay would stand up to a substantial first course and the Plumpjack and Duckhorn Merlots from California are great wines that are well-priced. Or get a cabernet; the Stuhmuller is a good buy.
We shared an order of empanadas ($10), flaky pockets filled with finely shredded beef seasoned with mint and cumin and hot pepper. The crust is tasty and flaky; the neat fork marks around the half-moon edges show how carefully they were made. Using short ribs ensures moisture and richness in the filling, and the Mexican Cotija cheese shredded over the top shows attention to authenticity. We both loved them.
Cold vegetables meticulously and beautifully diced into pico de gallo and just a bit of sour cream helped cut the heat of the empanada filling, something Virginia appreciated.
Making shrimp and grits has been on my mind lately, and Kiernan’s interpretation gave me plenty to ponder. Their Lowcountry shrimp and grits ($23) features lots of jumbo shrimp over fluffy white grits, ham and tomato sauce.
Let’s break that down. The grits, while not creamy, were silky and light, and just gritty enough; the shrimp generous in size and number. House-cured sliced tasso ham with a smoky kick is sliced and interspersed with the shrimp. The ham, a specialty of Louisiana cuisine, is made from pork shoulder, not leg, so it’s a bit fatty with big flavor and a bite from black pepper. It’s traditionally used in Cajun and Creole cooking, flavorful enough to use as seasoning in a dish. It is remarkable here.
Their shrimp, while perfectly cooked if perhaps a bit imperfectly shelled, is delicious, but it’s just like all shrimp: mild enough to be seasoned in hundreds of ways. Grits have more texture than flavor. Adding tasso ham to the dish, however, improved things exponentially.
The tomato sauce was clearly Cajun seasoned and it was a good dish, but throwing in the smoky, salty ham made the shrimp sweeter, the sauce pop. Points to Kiernan’s for raising the bar.
Virginia had a Cobb salad ($22) with seafood, beautifully presented and meticulously prepared. The shrimp were cooked just enough, the crabmeat delicately sweet and flaky, the scallops fork-tender. Aside from a few large pieces of lettuce, the salad was assembled with convenience of the diner in mind. Requisite sliced hard-boiled egg, crumbles of bleu cheese and neatly presented creamy avocado were all bite-size or fork-tender. Lanky strands of shredded veggies over all added glamour.
“It’s tossed with the dressing,” Virginia commented. “There’s no pool at the bottom,” she said, moving aside some baby greens. Kiernan’s makes delicate Champagne vinaigrette, tasty enough but not so strong to take the focus off the ingredients.
For dessert, we shared a slice of flourless chocolate cake with chocolate mousse. Try a Luxardo cherry garnishing the plate; it’s the best maraschino cherry you’ll ever have. The cake is flawless, the mousse is “rich and creamy,” as Virginia said, adding “it’s nice and thick.” I loved the créme Anglaise base spread across the plate.
The server was very attentive and was obviously trying hard to make our experience as pleasant as possible. The plates were cleared and courses arrived at just the right times, and our leftovers were packed in containers I’ll use again.
The tab for our food, before tip, came to $68.04, a price I’d pay again to enjoy the remarkable food.
Make no mistake: It might have tavern in the name, but Kiernan’s is about the craft of cooking. This was one of the best dining experiences of the year. Bravo.