March 25, 2019 | BITE: My Journal
Gotham Bar and Grill 35 Years Old: Impossible, You Don’t Look a Day Over 29.
Here’s the 2019 version of Portale’s celebrated seafood salad. Photo by Dana Stoddard.
I’m not sure what happened to my brain this week. My niece Dana and I arrived at Gotham Bar and Grill Monday for a birthday celebration dinner with Jerry and Dorothy Kretchmer to discover we were a week early. We decided to stay for dinner anyway. One of the first of the city’s Grand Cafés (and possibly the sole survivor of the era) the room looked wonderful -- the same only lighter. A gorgeous platinum blonde.
This was how Gotham Bar and Grill looked in 1983.
The original ceiling clouds were yellow last time I noticed. Now they are a rich banana cream pie. And photographs chosen by chef-owner Alfred Portale replace whatever was on the walls in 1984 -- I don’t remember. Dana and I shared the roasted squash salad -- a sparkling pileup of tender butternut chunks with frisée, cranberries and pumpkin seeds -- and the seafood appetizer.
I can’t possibly add up all the times I’ve chosen the squab – rare, please – for my entrée.
If you are old enough and a regular here, you may remember the historic ups and downs of the seafood salad. How tall it once was, with a plume that nearly reached your nose. Tonight, it’s a luscious gathering of lobster, scallops, shrimp, bits of octopus and calamari with avocado -- the seafood wonderfully fresh and exactly the right temperature, delicious but not overly Glennclosian.
This is the duck that my niece Dana and I shared on the evening we found ourselves a week early at Gotham.
I finished two yeasty, seeded rolls and the attentive little bread server tried to deliver a third, but I held back. Even so the two of us passed up dessert, knowing we’d be back next Monday evening to launch the Gael Greene week when the kitchen will do classic dishes from my earliest reviews. We’ll celebrate with dessert then.
GOTHAM BAR & GRILL
35th Anniversary Celebration
This is a photo of the chocolate cake at Gotham, vintage 2014.
This April Gotham Bar and Grill is celebrating 35 years on 12th Street with a special month long celebration. Starting Monday, April 1st, we celebrate the “Original Influencers” -- four extraordinary food writers who championed the restaurant over the years and have helped secure Gotham’s legacy.
The “Original Influencers”
Four weeks. Four menus.
Gael Greene (1985, New York Magazine)
Bryan Miller (’85 & ’89, NY Times)
Ruth Reichl (1996, NY Times)
Sam Sifton (2011, NY Times)
Each week we’ll offer a set four-course menu for $84 celebrating a notable food critic, their review of Gotham, and the dishes they loved.
A limited number of tickets are available via Tock on the Gotham website.
American Dreams, June 24, 1985
Jonathan Waxman suggested to Gotham partner Jerry Kretchmer than he hire Alfred Portale to save the day.
Gotham was in trouble, I reported. “Too early, too ardent raves boomeranged... demanding crowds clustered at the bar, clamoring for tables. At times anarchy ruled and the cook couldn’t deliver the dishes I’d praised.”
“A warning to readers cast a pall over the Gotham, but it also triggered a drastic overhaul,” I wrote... “And now happily the Gotham has found a new chef with talent worthy of its prizewinning architecture.” I came for lunch. “The best goat-cheese-and-lardon salad I’d eaten in New York,” I reported: “Warm lamb salad -- the meat rare with a savory caramelized edge. Deep-fried salsify and the kind of baby vegetables fussy chefs insist on these days…do all the dishes look beautiful? That’s because Alfred Portale was a design major at college for Larousse Gastronomique and did stints at the Troisgros Brothers and Michael Guérard in France.
“Except for a crayfish homage to Maximin (the Michelin-starred restauranteur Jacques Maximin) and a dessert or two, Portale listens to his own muse and it’s very American: Portions are generous. Flavors are intense. Textures are sure, clever, delicious too, as in crisp fried chips of shallot or oyster root and silken timbales, heady with saffron or mustard, studded with marrow…”
I summed it up with pleasure. “If you care about food and don’t mind being able to have a conversation without screaming in a grand café, you’ll want to give the new Gotham a try.”
The Olive Oil Cure, August 15, 1988
A portrait of the Gotham sole at my birthday dinner in 2012.
In 1988, Nathan Pritikin was the new matinee idol. The eight-week Cholesterol Cure was a universal religion. I struggled to perfect a no-fat bran muffin. My friends and I went to spas, lost a few pounds, and came home talking spa cuisine. I collected diet tricks from my favorite chefs. Here was the gospel from Portale:
“When Alfred Portale came to the kitchen of the Gotham Bar and Grill, fresh from the orbit of France’s brilliant chef Jacques Maximin, his idea of a sauce was buttered broth. Portale slithered through twenty pounds of butter a day. Then, gradually, he began to favor vinaigrettes and vegetable purées beaten into olive oil -- creamy emulsions without cream. Now he’s started to think about his own health, his family’s cholesterol history. And it’s easier than ever to diet at the Gotham.
“If you’re counting calories as well as fleeing from fat, an appetizer -- seafood salad, warm skate with capers and grilled red onion, or marinated mackerel -- plus garden salad and berries is dinner. (Ask for half the usual amount of vinaigrette on everything -- or get vinaigrette on the side, dip your fork, and sprinkle.
“If you’re avoiding fat -- perhaps limiting yourself to six ounces of animal protein a day -- two of you might split Portale’s halibut in cilantro vinaigrette or the gossamer grilled salmon à la Grecque (with vegetables cooked in olive oil with garlic, tomato, and coriander). But don’t let their buttery sauces keep you from yellowfin tuna or black bass or even roast chicken….”
‘I will do just about anything for anyone,’ Portale promises.”
Click here to read Eating Healthy.
Standing on Tip Toe : Tall Orders, March 20, 1995
The original seafood salad recreated in its full plumage and couturier dress, 2013.
In 1995 Portale’s obsession with the sculptural look of the plate had inspired other chefs to think tall. That led to my report, “Tall Orders.” Click here to read it.
“A teetering tower of chicken parts and deep-fried wonton, sky-high feather dusters of hothouse lettuces. Spikes of fried epazote, thickets of thyme, chive knitting needles that tickle the ceiling. A flying buttress and striped columns of chocolate. The tallest seafood salad in history. Fancy American food -- already aggressively muscular -- seems to be growing ever taller. I do appreciate a sprightly salad, but must it leap up and tap dance? Do we need a demolition permit to tackle dessert? Am I imagining I hear the ghost of Escoffier groaning? Or was that a giggle? Is this serious? Or fun? Or downright silly? Yes. Yes. And yes.
The original seafood salad took on more horizontal leanings in 2013.
“There are two distinct academies. The Mies van der Rohe of savory skyscrapers, the revered master, is Gotham Bar and Grill’s Alfred Portale. The onetime jewelry designer began reaching for tall as an apprentice in Michel Guérard’s kitchen in verdant southwest France – ‘We would pick herbs just before lunch. Those greens literally stood up. They were so full of life.’
“Early at Gotham, Portale watched his seafood salad, like Pinocchio’s nose, just grow and grow. Then his smoked salmon on a potato galette began to tick him off. Its toss of greens “kept falling all over.” So he deep-fried a few potato chips to fence them in: ‘I want to control the look of the plate. The design has to be careful and clear so the crew can reproduce it.’
The dessert chef expressed himself with sorbet in 2009.
“The edible-stockade movement advanced. Soon he was swirling noodles into towering typhoons to elevate his tuna. In his briefcase, Portale has a tape measure, “the same way some people carry a pocket knife.” Portale broods about untalented imitators: “Any young cook with a squeeze bottle and a circle mold is capable of silly food.”
The Yuzu dessert in 2012 reminded me of Carol Channing in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
“Ah, but what an adventure. Whether the red snapper will topple en route to the table sends a frisson of danger through the room -- not a substitute for, say, sex with a stranger, but every little ecstasy counts. Take up the challenge: See how many squiggles of shrimp and squid you can remove without toppling the leaning Pisa of seafood. Or delicately deconstruct the tower of venison. Or bring back the feel of your toddler high-chair days -- smash it to pieces with a blow of the fork. Long live Howard Roark.”
Gotham: Grill Crazy, October 11, 1993
Gotham sashimi has a rosy glow in a photograph from 2009.
“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, 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 car windows were designed for their safaris to Bouley -- while we happy tribes invade far-off Zip Codes, stalking the perfect dumpling.
The bar draws regulars as a place to meet before dinner or for solo dining.
“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.
When Portale created the bar menu he designed wooden boards to make bar dining more comfortable.
“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, sometimes 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.
Sea urchin and caviar flavor a saucey seafood fettucine in 2014.
“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.
The Mona Lisa image on a building by my guy, Steven Richter, hangs at the end of the stairs to the lower level.
“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.
A giant seared scallop and cauliflower from 2014.
Gotham scallops at my birthday dinner in 2012.
“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.” Click here to read Gotham: Grill Crazy.
12 East 12th Street between 5th and University Place. 212-620-4020. Lunch Monday - Friday noon to 2:15 pm. Dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 pm - 9:45 pm. Friday 5:30 pm - 10 pm. Saturday 5 pm - 10:30 pm. Sunday 5 pm - 9:45 pm.
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