Tavro 13 is a long way from Philadelphia. You take I-95 to the Commodore Barry Bridge, follow 322 to Kings Highway, and park outside a onetime inn that predates the Revolutionary War. And then the real journey begins.
The porch trim has been painted black and the rocking chairs bright red, but from the sleepy sidewalk, the Old Swedes Inn still looks like a place where you would have found a hitching post not that long ago. But now you step inside—where black and red turn into shock and awe. Tight dresses style the hostesses like black widow spiders walking on two legs, or maybe nightclub vodka reps. Cherry leather banquettes pop against blackout wainscoting—as vivid as lipstick on a lounge singer. Here’s a rococo sofa, red-rose velvet framed in blinding gold leaf. There’s a brand-spanking-new sandstone fireplace as big as a bus shelter.
The restaurant could be a location shoot for a Boyz II Men comeback video featuring David Hasselhoff. Though my wife opted for a simpler description: “New Jersey.”
Either way, it’s where you’ll have to go to find out how chef Terence Feury is following up his vivifying three-and-a-half-year run at Fork in Old City.
Feury is an unlikely score for Gloucester County, to which he was lured with an ownership stake by the restaurant’s developer, Gus Tzitzifas. And Tzitzifas himself, for that matter, wouldn’t seem to be exactly what Swedesboro’s used to—at least, judging from the brashness with which he’s pimped out his Colonial-era crib.
Yet a pair of meals in early spring made it hard to avoid the thought that geography is destiny, and that risks await any chef who ventures this deep into a culinary no-man’s-land.
Feury is cooking as compellingly as ever. A crisp-skinned fillet of black bass made that clear. Sauced with shrimp jus and topped with blood orange suprêmes, with a bergamot hollandaise to provide a second-level spin on the citrus theme, the fish was exquisitely cooked and emblematic of the focused flavors that distinguished the chef’s work at Fork. And by no means did that dish lack company. A sea scallop entrée glistened with ginger butter, the fat accentuating the ginger’s fruity fragrance and attenuating its heat, but not so drastically as to deprive the accompanying sweet parsnip puree of a slightly spicy dance partner.
Other than king salmon dotted with an electric-green (but flavorless) chive puree and an intense mushroom ragout that had apparently pulled a Shawshank from its rightful place beside my New York strip, fish dishes were the surest bets here. Feury did equally right by a halibut’s flesh (plating the fillet with roasted garlic, smashed potatoes and mussel jus) and its bones, which joined black bass heads in the early stages of a saffron-tinted and tomato-y fish soup that could have fooled the authenticity police in Marseille.
But the meats didn’t lag far behind. Even though the aforementioned NY strip was almost impossibly dry despite its sous-vide treatment, there was also applewood-smoked duck breast, perfectly tender, served with parsnips sous-
vided in olive oil but still crunchy. Better still was a lamb belly, slathered with a thick harissa of dried ancho chilies spicy enough to fight the accompanying sticky-sweet dates to a draw.
Unfortunately there were also a couple real duds: duck tortellini whose fillings were mealy, swimming in a consommé of hospital-grade blandness; a capon breast whose quasi-raw texture highlighted the deplorable effects of sous-vide on poultry (even if it paved the way for a couple cubes of confit capon leg, seared to achieve a crispy-juicy texture reminiscent of stupendously awesome fat-soaked croutons).
Even so, those flops were exceptions to a rule borne out by pleasures like gnocchi with oxtail and horseradish crème fraîche, or polenta mounded with pork-belly-inflected tomato jam. Feury can cook (especially sauces), and he proves it yet again in Swedesboro.
But challenges face any culinary pioneer who rolls into a one-horse town—especially in the service department. A recommendation to pair white wine with steak, based on a fuzzy theory having to do with grill-char marks, made me scratch my head. The nearly half-hour it took for the first slate of ho-hum cocktails to arrive one slow weekday evening made me grit my teeth. One of my servers was earnest, adorable, and completely out of his depth. The other was just sort of tuned out. Both were apparently competing to see who could hard-sell the most bottled water.
Gloucester County’s demographic divide (it posted the fastest growth rate in Jersey in the ’00s, injecting a city-commuter contingent into its rural insularity) mandates a dual mission for any restaurant without a drive-thru. And while Feury pulls it off nicely in the kitchen, dishing up a mix of whimsical experiments and safe harbors, things can get bumpy out in red-and-black land—whether in the form of live country-rock in the lounge crashing up against Miles Davis in the dining room, or an atmosphere that defines contemporary cornball.
Honestly, the good folks of Swedesboro have reason to be grateful that Tzitzifas snagged Feury for his audacious addition to their town. But this Philadelphian regrets that the chef’s been spirited away somewhere a little too distant, and dissonant, to merit following.