October 11, 1993 | Vintage Insatiable

Gotham: Grill Crazy

     I can't quite believe they're Martians. I suspect they're simply geographically repressed. They want to know my favorite restaurant, and when I say, "the Gotham," they stare blankly. "The Gotham Bar and Grill," I say, "at 12 East 12th Street." Noses wrinkle. Jaws tense. It's not as if I've said, "under the abandoned el in the South Bronx," or "two doors down from the sewage plant on Avenue C." But that's the way it is on our island, chockablock with the odd and exotic and homey. For some mouths, Mortimer’s is the center of the universe. Or Le Cirque. Or the Grill at the Four Seasons. There's a certain phylum of New Yorker that cannot travel below Saks. Blinded windows were designed for their safaris to Bouley-- while we happy tribes invade far-off Zip Codes, stalking the perfect dumpling.

     I'm so busy keeping my own mouth current that I don't get to the Gotham that often. But now that chef Alfred Portale is racing back and forth from his new One Fifth, it's the perfect moment to see how a longtime favorite endures.

     As always, the excursion starts on a high. The sidewalk's nighttime murk opens to a buzz of theater, three levels creating runways for people-watching; strivers, achievers, politicians, their chroniclers, the neighborhood. A bar for flirtations, some times poutful waits (one flaw here), and B-minus nuts (is the mix top-heavy with peanuts, or is everyone like me, devouring the almonds and cashews?). The infants and toddlers who were welcome at six are gone now. And the soaring space feels fresh, with its classic forms and witty garden ornaments, its brilliant lighting, and its floating parachutes to muffle the sound.

     The years have worn the clever stenciled floor (watch out, it can be slippery), but the room's subtle grays, greens, and terra-cotta, the pediments and globes, still work. So does the service, growing slick to match the intensifying sophistication of Portale's cooking. He's a teacher. Gotham alumni tend ranges around town, to unanimous praise. So on a night when the chef's off feeding the flock at One Fifth, four blocks downtown, the kitchen still shines. Even the wine inventory, once limited and predictable, has deepened under manager Scott Carney's watch. His grapey obsession has earned him the coveted title of grand Master Sommelier, one of 21 in this country. When only an Haut Brion or Corton Charlemagne will do, you'll find a bottle among the more reasonably priced Cabs and Chardonnays.

     Eight years ago, when Portale, unknown and unsung, took charge here, the Gotham was sinking fast after a too splashy launch. Its owners, two real-estate developers and two museum-exhibit producers, had leaped in thinking life could be a nonstop dinner party. A year later, they were debating whether or not to surrender. But Portale amazed everyone. And as his ego grew, so did his salads-- curly fronds and sea creatures spiraling toward the heavens.

     Tonight most of the starters sport feathery lettuce headdresses. The table looks like the annual Indian Nations Pow Wow at Taos. Pappardelle ribbons swirl high like a futuristic tower, with herb-twig antennas. And sundaes scrape the sky with pastry turrets. Edible architecture. Halibut balanced on halibut with savory vegetable mortar and herb tassels flying. Sure, we giggle, but it is almost always…so very good.

     Portale is not one of the wunderkinds reinventing the chicken. Go elsewhere for pork cheeks, beet-tinted mashed potatoes ringing the plate, or birds wrapped in Indian pancakes. He's too pure for that, too hooked on the classic, too focused on the perfection of the product itself. That’s why you could eat at the Gotham every night of the week and never get zonked by sensory overload. He's not Picasso or Van Gogh seeing the world as it has never been seen before; he's a grand portrait painter, glorifying what is.

     Splendid lamb-chop bones, crossed like swords. Sushi-grade venison. Tonight's spectacular squab, its texture sublime beside whole cloves of roasted garlic, crispy bits of pancetta, crimini mushrooms, and ratatouille.

     Let other geniuses play with miso, lemon grass, and Thai fish sauce. Portale's food can be Italian, as befits his heritage; French, reflecting his training; occasionally Portuguese or vaguely Indian, and expression of his curiosity. Every day a new pasta -- rigatoni with meaty lamb shank and baby peas, or farfalle with baby artichokes, roasted red pepper, and grated aged goat cheese in a garlicky vinaigrette. Always risotto, changing with the market, studded with turnip in winter or, right now, with nuggets of chanterelle, savory, and Swiss chard, crisp quail on top, and battered sage leaves.

     At lunch: wonderful salads and soft-shell crabs in a fence around potato salad and arugula, with lime-ginger vinaigrette. Swordfish rare at heart and caramelized along the edges with spinach and bacon bits in a puddle of broth (à la carte dishes $12.50 to $19). A zesty, clear corn-and-sausage chowder with cilantro pesto, and roasted cod with tapenade vinaigrette, braised endive, and spinach on the $19.93 prix fixe.

     At night (entrées climb, regrettably, to $32), seared yellowfin tuna, the signature wild striped bass (a shade too cooked), spectacular bouillabaisse. And on the new fall menu: rack of venison with braised salsify and pumpkin purée,  pheasant choucroute in cider with smoked sausages, and foie gras steamed in cabbage. Plus, once the season begins, divers' scallops topped with sea urchin and sevruga caviar on a bed of roasted endive. Certain favorites always remain. Habitués insist.

     From time to time, Portale obsesses, adjusting and rearranging. He works the line, checking each plate, and the kitchen slows. An attack of the dread Bouley virus. Not everyone wants time to get soused between courses. Maybe at Troisgros on vacations, but this is the bright lights, baby. And, of course, little flaws seem more shocking here: a slightly dry burger, a less-than-world-class steak. The Road Food Warrior likes to see how many tendrils he can pull from the mythic seafood-salad minaret without compromising its tangy equilibrium. He is dismayed on a recent outing when it falls with the loss of a single shrimp.

     Dessert chefs come and go, but there is always a midnight chocolate cake, always a lemon something (such as sablés with lemon verbena and blueberry ice cream); intense, satiny sorbet; rich-as-Croesus ice cream (burnt orange, positively baroque) and superplump profiteroles with a rivers of deep, dark chocolate. At the moment, the obligatory outrageous sundae layers vanilla ice cream and banana with chocolate sorbet and cookie crunch.

     "I think the cookie pushes it over the edge," a friend chides. I disagree. "For me, that's what makes it. 'Too much' is quite perfect."

     I must admit, I've become much too close to the Gotham family. Perhaps it would be more proper to celebrate their triumphs with a cerebral cool. Sorry, I can't help loving it.

     See that man laughing? That's Portale, one of the best-paid chefs in town, building his empire, running off to Dads' Night at Dalton. "They asked for a financial statement," he says. "I asked, 'Mine or hers?'

     "Merci, Bocuse. When the Lion of Lyons  emerged from his kitchen two decades ago to hit the jet stream, he made a blue-collar job into a Missoni-sweater profession.

12 East 12th Street  620-4020

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