The tagline on the home page of North Quarter Tavern’s website — “A chef-driven neighborhood tavern from the Citrus Restaurant team — might lead you to expect something a little grand, maybe even upscale than what you’ll find there. Heck, even the North Quarter designation sounds a bit highfalutin. Perhaps you envision something along the lines of Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern or Tavern on the Green, where the dining experience is more upscale and the tavern tag is used ironically.
But no, North Quarter Tavern is truly tavernlike. The floating-island bar is the central focus of the small space. There is no separate dining room; tables, both high and low, are set about the bar, the school-teacher style wooden chairs complementing the wooden stools around the bar top.
This is a bar, albeit a bar with above average fare.
Yes, you’ll find a burger on the menu, even a Reuben sandwich and a meatloaf entree, all classic pub fare. But you’ll also find hand-cut wagyu steak tartare, grilled Scottish salmon and smoked Duroc pork belly. (The menu is under the direction of the chef Matt Wall, who moved over from Citrus, just across the side street.)
My guests and I started with that tartare, a perfect little puck of chopped meat with the other essentials blended in. A plump egg yolk sat atop it, ready to be broken and blended into the meat. I’m not sure what purpose the tarragon smear on the wooden board the appetizer was presented on was supposed to have served, and the duck fat crostini weren’t the right bread to accompany the tartare, but the meat itself was very good quality and nicely seasoned (and not too runny, as too often tartares are).
We also shared the garden pizza, a misshapen but otherwise perfect platform with a dark singed crust loaded with mushrooms, roasted red and green peppers, onions and plenty of cheese. There was no scrimping on toppings.
I also couldn’t resist trying the poutine, the Canadian, um, delicacy of fries topped with gravy, meat and cheese curds. Here the gravy was fashioned out of duck drippings and ladled over the darkly fried fries. This is one of those things you know you shouldn’t eat but can’t stop yourself from having just one more.
One of my guests chose the beef short rib tacos for an entree, which was served deconstructed, with the meat, bean mash, salsa and guacamole served next to a stack of warm flour tortillas for the guest to assemble. So, basically, fajitas without the sizzle. The short rib meat was delightfully braised into tender richness, but I would have preferred to have the kitchen put the tacos together. Even Chipotle assembles the ingredients for you.
Another guest chose the grilled Scottish salmon, a beautiful fillet with a nice crisp on the outside and moist flakes of flesh inside. It was presented under a salad of arugula and frisee with a stalk of broccoli. (Besides the broccoli, we ordered a side dish of the Brussels sprouts with bacon and honey and left most of them uneaten.)
I had a special of the day called Sunday Gravy, even though it was a Friday. Sunday gravy is an Italian/American term for a meat and tomato ragout. There is no making of a roux such as would be the base for what most people know as gravy (like is served on the poutine). Why it’s called gravy is a matter of dispute — perhaps because it was something that got spooned over something else — but the Sunday part of the name is because that was the day that allowed the long, leisurely cooking time.
Knowing that, not sure why it’s featured on a menu of a tavern, even one with upscale food. Nevertheless, it was a hearty sauce with good chunks of pork, meatballs and sausage, served over tubes of rigatoni. Maybe it was called that because I was still eating the leftovers on Sunday.
Service was a little uneven. Training is perhaps still ongoing, but someone needs to at least tell the young woman who insists on asking the names of all the guests, even at tables that aren’t hers, to stop it. This isn’t the bar on “Cheers.”
Or maybe it wants to be. Picture that bar and put people at tables around the room eating food and you’d have a pretty good picture of North Quarter Tavern. But instead of the sub-level space in an old Boston neighborhood, NQT occupies a corner space in a newly opened apartment complex and has large windows and a few tables in front for outdoor dining.
I think it will do well here. The casual vibe will allow sister Citrus to take on a more refined tone, a dining genre that is lacking yet longed for in the downtown district. And as more apartments and condos go up and fill up in the surrounding blocks, the residents will gravitate to the sort of place that has good food and drink and friendly servers. Who may or may not know your name.
North Quarter Tavern is at 861 N. Orange Avenue, Orlando. It is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. A Sunday brunch and lunch hours are planned soon. The phone number is 407-757-0930.