In Greek mythology, King Tantalus was punished in Hades with eternal hunger and thirst. In New York City, Tantalus is not an ancient Greek king reaching unsuccessfully for food and water, but an outstanding dining experience on the Upper East Side. Excellence in this case, however, is not synonymous with extravagance. Diners can taste exquisite continental cuisine, and enjoy classical music, with friendly service at moderate prices. Eating out need not be reserved for special occasions here.
Tantalus opened its doors a year ago as a wine and cheese restaurant, but recently the bill of fare has been expanded to include a well-rounded lunch, dinner and weekend brunch menu. Including three desserts and a special of the day, there are 18 selections for lunch or dinner and 13 for Saturday or Sunday brunch. A wide selection of imported cheeses is still available.
Orders are prepared according to the new style of French cooking, so that flavor is not diluted and lost through evaporation. The finest ingredients are quickly and simply prepared to please the eye as well as the mouth.
For weekend brunch seekers, there are numerous tasty treats. Zucchini, eggplant, green and sweet peppers, and prosciutto cheese are tucked inside the vegetable and cheese omelette, a popular item on the menu. Eleven other omelettes, come with bread, butter, and an excellent Columbian coffee for $2.25. Also, at that price is delightful French toast, prepared with two-day-old French bread that has been dredged in an egg-rich batter. It is served hot, buttered, and spread with imported raspberry preserves. A Bloody Mary, Screwdriver, Mimosa, or the house wine is an additional $1.50.
Claude Faure, part owner and chef, is a staunch advocate of properly presented, well-prepared food in an attractive atmosphere. Butcher block tables are situated on two levels: The carpeted upper deck overlooks the more spacious main dining area, with tiled floors.
A huge picture window facing Third Avenue, contributes to the bright, airiness of the room. The window bears the restaurant’s logo of Tantalus successfully retrieving the fruit that eluded him in mythology’s lower regions. Large oil paintings hang from exposed brick and painted cinder block walls. Lush green foliage dots the immaculate room.
Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings from 8 pm to midnight, students from Juilliard, Manhattan, and the Mannes schools perform selections from the classics and at other times, prerecorded classical music, completes an environment dedicated to simple, uncontrived elegance in dining.
The lunch and dinner menu vary only slightly in price, all selections being the same on both lists. Vegetable, pea, or onion soup is a popular lunch item, especially in cooler weather. It is impossible to imagine a finer onion soup. Too frequently, at other restaurants some aspect of this French classic is disappointing. The Tantalus version is sheer joy. The broth is slightly creamy and there is no crusty melted topping — instead, two cheeses are blended to the soup. Each spoonful nets the eager diner with bits of chopped onion and melted cheese in a nicely seasoned and salted bouillon. Mr. Faure will answer diners’ questions on the preparation of various dishes but never any on the onion soup. One taste is sufficient reason to understand why he carefully guards the secret.
The ham, mushroom, or spinach quiche ($4), served with salad, is also a favorite at lunch time. Both the Country and Green Pepper Pate ($2.75) are excellent, the latter being spicy from the peppercorn, but not hot. No pork is used in the preparation of either. They are served on a bed of romaine lettuce with sliced raw onions, black olives, and Dijon mustard, and are accompanied by bread and butter.
Your choice of vinaigrette or blue cheese dressing (both made on the premises) is served on a fresh lettuce and tomato salad that comes with all entrees. A ROUTES recommendation is the Eggplant parmigiana with meat sauce ($4.75). A large portion of eggplant is prepared with a finely seasoned tomato sauce generously laced with ground meat, and crowned with an ample amount of melted cheese.
Dessert is no less magnificent than the rest of the menu. The Chocolate Mousse Cake ($2.25) is a caloric catastrophe, but well worth it. A light, creamy chocolate mousse layer is sandwiched between devil’s food and chocolate fudge cake. A thin icing of semi-sweet chocolate tops off the dessert that is light enough and good enough after a big meal to be worth the extra calories.
Almost 100 wines and champagnes are available at prices ranging from $6.50 to $17.50 per bottle (wine), and $20 to $60 (champagne). Most of the wines and champagnes are between $1.50 and $1.75 per glass. If you are in a quandary and unsure of the wine that will best complement your meal, Mr. Faure will be happy to assist you.
Tantalus is open seven days a week, from noon to midnight. Whenever you stop in, you can be assured of prompt, cheerful service. Reservations are not required and American Express or Diner’s Club cards are accepted. Menu selections range from $1.75 for soup to a maximum of $5.50 for Beef Bourguignon. Tantalus is located at 1651 3rd Avenue, between 92nd and 93rd Streets. For more information: (212) 831-0514