When I moved from Philadelphia to the Swedesboro area in 2010, one thing I knew I was giving up was a vibrant, local restaurant scene as one can only expect to find in a large urban city. Granted I scored a huge dream kitchen for myself as part of the deal, so I wasn’t about to complain very much. Still, one of the definite drawbacks of living in a rural part of New Jersey is that local dining options are largely limited to old fashioned diners, Chinese/Japanese “fusion” spots, red gravy Italian, sports bars and national chains.
That’s why the news that Chef Terence Feury – of great fame and praise from his years at Fork in Philadelphia – was coming to Swedesboro to open a new restaurant was such a big shock, and something I was looking forward to with great anticipation. Philly-quality dining in little old Swedesboro? Could it be? Well, after finally getting the chance to try the new Tavro 13 last night, the answer is most definitely yes! Tavro 13 has transformed the Old Swedes Inn into a modern restaurant and bar, serving delicious American food with an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients. Of course, whether Swedesboro and the surrounding area is really ready to fully embrace this style of dining is going to be the question…
I personally had never been to the Old Swedes Inn, which did look charming from the outside the many times I’d driven by it. My sweetie David reported not having good dining experiences there in the past (namely a Christmas luncheon for his office that had been a disaster) so we never bothered…if looking for somewhere to eat nearby we were more likely to hang out at Rode’s for a casual meal at the bar, or Botto’s Italian Line for something fancier. Gus Tzitzifas (owner of the Marlton Diner) and his wife Effie apparently fell in love with the Swedes Inn after dining there in 2006 and worked over four years to buy the place, and then to bring in Chef Feury to design a menu and lead the kitchen.
The interior retains some of the notable features of the former Old Swedes Inn – namely their huge fireplace in the main dining room and some tile flooring – but otherwise it has seen a dramatic renovation. Colorful, surreal murals (not entirely finished yet) decorate some walls and add to the vibrant atmosphere. The seating is all primary red, set against black-painted walls and a white ceiling. When we arrived for our 7:30 Saturday night reservation, the place was quite busy (and noisy), but not uncomfortably so. We were immediately seated and quickly greeted by our server Christopher, who was friendly and very knowledgeable about the menu, from the sources of various ingredients to the methods used by the kitchen in their preparation.
Tavro 13′s dinner menu itself is fairly short: about 10 small plate choices and 8 entrees. There was only one special for the night, a lobster soup. Of course, the menu is also designed to change regularly with the seasons and availability of different ingredients, which is exciting to see in this area and a welcome change of pace. One thing I noticed was a distinct lack of any vegetarian entrees – I’m sure the kitchen would and could provide such an option for diners if requested, but I think it would be nice to see at least one actual vegetarian entree on the menu.
Sweetie and I were both in the mood for seafood so first matter of business was picking a wine for our meal. Tavro 13 has an interesting and nicely-priced wine menu featuring bottles from around the world, many in the $29-45 range. (One quibble: no offerings from some of our excellent local wineries? I’d love to see at least one or two selections from Auburn Road Winery or Heritage Station Vineyards on the list.) We ended up selecting the Bibi Graetz “Casamatta Bianco”, a lovely and just slightly sweet blend of vermentino, trebbiano and muscat for $29. For starters, we chose the lamb belly, which came highly recommended by our server, and the sardines. Both were outstanding. The lamb belly had an incredibly dense flavor, served with braised quince and harissa. The serving size was perfect for such a rich cut of meat, enough to savor it without the fattiness of the belly beginning to weigh you down. We also thoroughly enjoyed the sardines, elegantly plated and served with a complementary small glass of aquavit that paired perfectly with the fish.
My first choice of entree was a Black Sea Bass, but they had run out of it after a large party earlier in the evening. So I went with my second choice, the Swordfish served with Tatsoi, Squash Puree, and a Pumpkin Seed Vinaigrette. I’m glad I ended up choosing this dish as it was easily the best swordfish I’ve ever had in a restaurant. Swordfish has a tendency to be dry and tough, but this was exceedingly tender and moist and just wonderfully matched with the squash puree and vinaigrette. Christopher told us (after I raved about the dish) that the swordfish is first prepared sous vide, which explains the wonderful resulting texture. I would gladly order this dish again and recommend it without hesitation.
David had the King Salmon with Wild Mushroom Ragout, Gnocchi and Chive Puree. I knew he would order this dish as he loves gnocchi and it too was a great selection. The salmon is from New Zealand and had excellent texture and taste, once again. The wild mushrooms added a nice touch of earthiness to the dish from what I tasted and I know David was quite happy with his selection.
Tavro 13 offered several tempting-sounding dessert options for the evening, which our server Christopher described in detail. He recommended the two desserts which had sounded the most interesting to us as well: a flourless chocolate cake with vanilla gelato and caramel sauce, and a lemon olive oil cake. I know flourless chocolate cakes may seem a bit overdone these days, but this was easily one of the best I can remember enjoying. So rich and decadent – everything a chocolate lover could want! The lemon cake was in contrast light, tart and refreshing. Swapping bites of these two desserts was perfect and a great way to end our meal along with some espresso and the last of our wine.
Altogether we had an excellent meal and fabulous experience at Tavro 13. Our total bill for the evening was $144 before tip – perfectly in line with what I would expect to pay for such a quality meal. We both agreed we will be back for dinner again, and I’m eager to visit the restaurant for lunch to try the bar menu and some of Tavro 13′s specialty cocktails.
I really hope Tavro 13 will be a success in Swedesboro, and perhaps lead the way for other Philadelphia chefs and restauranteurs to come to South Jersey to open up the local dining scene. It might be a hard battle to fight, however, especially in overcoming the typical restaurant expectations in the area. I’ve seen complaints online from other diners about “small portions” at Tavro 13, but I thought all courses were perfectly sized for the richness of the dishes and the quality of the ingredients. We left completely satisfied and full by our meal, and honestly could have just shared a single dessert but we wanted to try as much from the menu as we could.
The prices for drinks, entrees and appetizers at Tavro 13 are quite comparable with similar “fine dining” restaurants in the area. True, you’re not going to get a heaping plate of overcooked (and over-sauced) pasta with your entree, or a pound of inferior-grade meat on your plate…but if you want that kind of meal, there are plenty of places nearby that you can go to for that. Tavro 13 is a different kind of experience entirely, and exactly the kind of restaurant that will compel me to get out of my own kitchen on occasion to savor exceptional quality cooking…and to not have to drive all the way to Philadelphia for that is a blessing! So I encourage everyone in the area to give Tavro 13 a try, and to go there with an open mind and hungry for a delicious and unique dining experience.