******* (seven out of ten)
Most chefs work by a code that may be best summed up as follows: ‘you can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time’ (forgive me Abraham Lincoln); however, for the past 25 years, Alfred Portale, chef at the New York gastro institution Gotham Bar & Grill, has built a stellar reputation defying that adage, a reputation that shines all the brighter today. In fact, in a year that has brought about the demise of some of Manhattan’s most revered restaurants – immediately coming to mind are Café Des Artistes, Chanterelle, and the Rainbow Room (which, combined, operated for 205 years) – Gotham Bar & Grill seems to be thriving, as it always has, amongst its Greenwich Village environs at 12 E.12th.
Situated directly across from StripHouse, Gotham B&G is the opposite of ‘tucked away,’ its vaulted ceilings and exposed piping lay above hanging ceiling lights whose billowy drapes, suspended overhead, look like airborne pillows, adding a wonderful drama and what effectually is a feeling of trendiness to the dining room.
What the lights also do is distract from the space’s sheer size. When Gotham opened in the mid-80’s, it had by far one of the largest dining spaces in the city and even today, with the ‘big box’ restaurants popping up monthly, the dining room is still not what one would consider tiny, rather, it remains as grand as ever and the seats continue to be filled. Which raises the question: How do they do it? How does a restaurant with a lease and overhead like this survive for as long as it has? The answer, like a page torn from Madonna’s playbook, is: reinvention.
Unlike some bitter stalwarts of the industry, Gotham Bar & Grill has not seen fit to sit idly by as the scene around it changed, while the restaurant’s atmosphere did not. While some diners in this city are happy to return to the confines of their neighborhood restaurants, pleased that nothing has changed since their last visit, the same cannot be said for trips to Gotham, much to its diners’ delight. Its dining room is updated on a consistent basis, altering its color scheme, lighting and art (it is one of the few restaurants I know of that contracts its own curator). Like most restaurants, Gotham’s menu changes from time to time as well, however, not before undergoing some stringent taste testing so to appease those long-time patrons and all while adhering to a definitive, singular rule: diversity.
It, of course, is incredibly difficult to be everything to be everybody, especially in the restaurant business, and attempts to do so are typically exercises in futility (or stupidity), and yet, the menu at Gotham Bar & Grill – and its resulting success – suggests that Mr. Portale knows something the rest of us do not. Here’s a glimpse at what he’s currently offering on a single menu, each with a distinctive influence but all with classic French execution:
Sushi / Asian:
Yellowfin Tuna Tartare – japanese cucumber, shiso leaf and sweet miso asian ginger vinaigrette
White Tuna Sashimi – soy beans, smoked honshimeji mushrooms and pickled red pearl onions ponzu broth
Miso Marinated Black Cod – bok choy, shiitake mushrooms and sticky rice soy lemongrass ginger sauce
Ricotta stuffed, housemade raviolis
Pan Roasted Branzino – chorizo piperade, manila clams, baby octopus and saffron rouille bouillabaisse broth
Curry Spiced Muscovy Duck Breast – seared foie gras, basmati rice, toasted cashew and apricot chutney garam masala duck sauce
Wild Game And Foie Gras Terrine – baby beets, sicilian pistachios and purslane fennel and raisin toast
Seared Foie Gras – tangerine marmalade, roasted cranberry, pain d’épices, maple sugar consommé
While understandably it’s important to ensure that a menu have at least one or two items that can appeal to a majority of patrons, most often such middle-of-the-road options become just that, mediocre, and when done to excess (as is typically the fashion), such menus tend to become unwieldy and, consequently, so does the cooking. However, offering a limited number of dishes that are refined to the point where exhaustion meets delectability is a sign of both comfort in one’s ability and confidence. After doing just that for some 25 years now, Portale ranks high amongst this city’s best chefs, and rightly so.
Finally, another striking element of the restaurant is that, for a destination that boasts numerous James Beard awards, it is lacking the pretense that (sometimes) accompanies that distinction. I was wearing my standard jeans, button down and blazer, but I spotted one or two sweatshirts – though the snob in me scoffed a bit in their direction – and only a smattering here and there of neck ties. This is egalitarian, come-one-come-all dining at its finest, and this revelation led Christine to dub it ‘cozy chic.’
The menu at Gotham Bar & Grill is divided into three parts (not counting the $125 Chef’s tasting menu), each aptly named, First, Second, and Third, and range in size accordingly. When presented with menus like this – much like Italian menus with their antipasti, pasta, primi and secondi offerings – I’m quick to ask for guidance from the server, both in how the ordering process should go and, more importantly, what I shouldn’t dare miss. When I think back on all the restaurants I’ve been to and have ordered blindly, without conferring with the waiter, I’m both saddened and disappointed in myself. Most people have tastes that they hone in on when given a menu, straying away from things a bit out of their range, but in this city one must embrace the change in the norm and the best way to understand how to do that is with a simple question to the server, “What must I try here?”
I also like to get the waiter’s name. I find it bizarre that some diners can be either so involved in the dining experience or themselves that they have no clue who is assisting them, as if dishes magically appear and disappear thanks to some phantom one needn’t take the time to know. At Gotham, our server, Robert, suggested a number of dishes: the special ricotta filled raviolis, the seared foie gras, the risotto, halibut, chicken or lamb.
For an appetizer Christine went with something that was right in my wheelhouse and she knew it, an autumnal risotto with squash, smoked bacon, duck confit, brussel sprouts and turnips. What a combination! I seriously couldn’t believe she ordered this, as, aside from the vegetables, this sounded quite hearty and packed with meat. Risotto in its own right is usually prepared in such a way (usually with cream) that to consider either adding anything else to it or enjoying a dish after it is quite the challenge. Christine, however, charged on, most likely knowing that I would be helping myself from time to time. The square chunks of bacon and smokiness of the duck made for an incredibly appetizing and, as expected, filling dish, while the vegetables harmonized nicely with the risotto, creating a silky texture devoid of any semblance of the mushy-ness sometime prevalent with the pasta.
I followed another of Robert’s suggestions and went with the special appetizer for the evening: ravioli filled with Sardinian goat’s milk ricotta, carrots, leeks and dehydrated mushrooms. The way Robert explained this dish, how the ricotta was so smooth and decadent that it barely needed the accoutrement, his eyes gently rolling towards the ceiling as if describing the first time he got drunk, had me sold. It lived up to its billing. This pasta should go by another name than ravioli, as the dish consisted of two, saucer-sized, ricotta-filled cushions, lying subtly beneath a very light, almost broth-like cream sauce. The now-expanding dehydrated mushrooms, soft leeks and carrots added, seemingly, more for color than anything else, as their delicate flavors were barely evident after the first bite into the creamy goodness inside the pasta. I’m not much for goat’s milk cheeses but this certainly will forever be the exception, it was both velvety and ethereal, I enjoyed it immensely.
After those two starters, Chris and I knew we’d acted wisely in following Robert’s suggestions for entrées as well. For the main course, Christine chose the roasted organic chicken with heirloom beans, some root vegetables, cavolo nero (a type of kale) and, to top it off, truffles. As I’ve explained before, much like foie gras, adding truffles to dishes is the rich man’s way of adding bacon to, well, anything. However, this trend has been comparable to bacon in other ways too, as chefs more and more often leverage the inherent prestige their patrons associate with truffles to compensate for the dish’s otherwise lack of flavor. Good chefs, however, like Mr. Portale, know when it’s a perfect accompaniment, and with this roasted chicken it was precisely that. As with most well-executed roast chickens in the city, Gotham’s version was succulent and moist, rife with its natural juices and accented nicely by the fall flavors propping it up; a nice dish for a cold winter’s night.
I on the other hand opted for the rack of lamb. Lamb is difficult meat to do well, it’s very easy to over- or undercook and without the proper seasoning or technique one could be left with plain, mutton-like lamb that has a taste comparable to blood: metallic from the iron content. Luckily, that was not the case. The three shanks came teepee-d against one another, resting atop a bed of swiss chard and puréed potato, several roasted cipollini onions scattered at various sides.
For a very long time as a child I ate the ingredients on my plate one at a time, in fact, I was so anal about the process that I hated when food touched at all. If a stray corn kernel wandered into the mashed potatoes, that bit was dead to me; my mother went so far as to suggest that she start serving dinners on those compartmentalized paper plates often found at BBQs and picnics. Somewhere along the line though, I got used to combining flavors, and that quickly led to enjoyment, bringing me to where I am today: a seeker-outer of seemingly incongruous food profiles that, when combined, somehow make beautiful music together. This was the case with the lamb. Its well-seasoned and seared crust giving way to a wonderfully tender and medium rare center, that, once cut into large bites, could collect a bit of onion, a dripping of the wilted swiss chard and finally a dip into the potato, creating a complete bite and, for that matter, dish.
What? Do you think we didn’t get dessert? Of course we did. I’ll be honest, though, the two we tried were relatively standard in nature, but nonetheless delicious and well executed. Christine chose a lemon pudding, which resembled and tasted a bit more like lemon ice chips, with kaffir lime sorbet and a mandarin orange granite. Eating the dessert made for a comparable expression to that of getting snapped with a wet rat tail in a locker room, in almost grapefruit-like fashion the sourness of the lemon dominated most everything else on the dish, and while I found it somewhat refreshing (and imagined my reaction to it on a warm July evening) I could see how others may be dissuaded from choosing it again.
For me, though I saw numerous other options that sounded a bit more complex, I chose something I expected to taste exactly as it did: the Gotham chocolate cake. It came in a narrow sliver with a dusting of cocoa and a scoop caramel ice cream, the cake was warm and moist to the point where I could have confused it – in the best possible way – for mousse. It was how I wanted to end the meal and I got what I was looking for, nothing more nothing less.
The question that haunts many chefs and owners the world over – but especially here in New York – is: is it better to be good or loved? Thanks to much effort, diligence and a watchful eye on reinvention, Gotham Bar & Grill is both.
It has been a long 13 years since the New York Times has formally reviewed Gotham Bar & Grill, and while I have no doubt that it would retain its three star rating, I believe a revisit is in order for simple reasons: to remind us New Yorkers just how great we have it. As I mentioned, Chef Portale and his staff have received numerous accolades over the years, however, what stops the restaurant short of becoming a four star gem is, in fact, what makes it so appealing, that of course being its mass appeal. A long time ago Gotham Bar & Grill could have easily chosen to go the way of those higher ranked restaurants, but to the exclusion of so many of its beloved patrons, most certainly causing more harm than good. So for now, and hopefully for many years to come, Gotham Bar & Grill will remain the refined, comfortable restaurant with the simple name that has won over the hearts and stomachs of so many visitors and regulars alike, to become one of New York’s most popular destinations.
******* (seven out of ten)