If there’s a restaurant that says New York-literally-it’s Gotham Bar and Grill, now celebrating a quarter century as a power luncher’s mecca, a tourist’s top nosh, a sweet setting for a first or 50th date. Few dining spots in this jaded town abide for half that time, but this East 12th Street eatery remains an icon, its chef bestowed with multiple James Beard Foundation medals, its recipes clipped from every major food magazine in the country.
Three times Gotham has been reviewed by the Times, and three times it’s earned three stars; the first reviewer, Bryan Miller, in 1985 called it “one of the most exciting ‘new’ restaurants in town.” (Apparently he felt that new wasn’t quite accurate, as Gotham had been open for a year.) Miller praised “a gifted young chef,” Alfred Portale, who had taken over the underground kitchens of what was, at the outset, a scattered “New York” concept place with so-so food. Under Portale, Gotham lived up to its superhero name, and not just because the restaurant had one of the biggest dining rooms in town. With Portale at the stoves- and some 24 years later he’s still there, now partner and executive chef-the restaurant established culinary customs this city still hasn’t shaken: It renounced French for American, snooty for sleek, stiff suits for chic jeans, and paired steak not with a baked potato but with a custardy marrow-mustard flan.
Sound standard? At the time this approach was gutsy, and so was each mouthful.
“We’re known for very big flavors, bold flavors,” says Portale, referencing his employ of a few outstanding ingredients you might not have heard of, like Meyer lemon oil in the 1980s or Grenada seasoning peppers today. Gotham broke ground with its now-famous yellowfin tuna tartar tower wearing a crown of greens and a skirt of cucumber slices, a teetering mountain of roast chicken topped with snowdrifts of matchstick fries (not for nothing did Molly O’Neill write in her 1993 review that Gotham Bar and Grill was “the home of tall food,” a high-flying trend in the over-the-top ’80s) or gooey molten chocolate cake-the city’s first taste of that flourless flourish long since covered by, well, everybody.
Sure, these dishes were rooted in tradition- Portale trained under the well-known chef Jacques Maximin-but they forsook fussy for fun, liberating the new dining classes from the snooty tyranny of the French maitre d’.
“We were one of the very first to do serious food, serious service, no pretension,” explains Portale in Gotham’s underground kitchen one recent evening while reviewing early recipes for the restaurant’s 25th anniversary tasting menu, which brings that tartar back for lunch. “A year in France,” he adds, “taught me what to do in the kitchen-and what not to do in the dining room.”
No restaurant keeps three stars serving the same food for 25 years. That’s one of the reasons Adam Longworth, a confident 27-year-old (who helped Portale update the famous Striped Bass in Philadelphia) serves as co-chef de cuisine with Jacinto Guadarrama, who began his Gotham career as a busser in 1985. Longworth, who joins a long list of top toques to work under Portale, including Tom Valente, David Walzog, Bill Telepan, Wylie Dufresne and Tom Colicchio, came on four years ago to help earn Gotham’s next three stars. With Portale’s help, Longworth pruned many classics off the menu. The molten chocolate cake and the grilled New York steak remain, of course, but Longworth admits every omission was a struggle: “It was like I’d killed a family member.”
Now some of the family is bring resurrected. Tonight, as his kitchen crew cooks for the dinner rush, Portale is revisiting old recipes with Guadarrama. At a small staging table next to the mixer of pink beet foam (for the housemade foie gras and game terrine) and the sous vide tank (for the masala-spiced chicken), they relive their yesteryear hits like a couple of old bandmates listening to songs they recorded back when they first got signed.
Flavors of 2009 surround them: The four-person pastry team candies coriander seed for double lemon pudding; line cooks expertly shuck oysters by the dozen; runners in purple button-downs and lavender-striped ties bob and weave, check tickets and hoist massive trays of pork tenderloin with cheddar grits, cabbage and glazed mango to shoulder height as they mount the stairs.
But all that disappears as Portale and Guadarrama take a culinary trip down memory lane. There’s 1992’s silky cauliflower soup, poured around a single seared scallop set atop braised leeks and finished with a kiss of Osetra caviar and a few drops of lemon olive oil. (“I think I worked the dish around the olive oil,” recalls Portale.) There’s a creamy mushroom pasta from the ’80s, its sauce rich with a mix of wild mushrooms that the kitchen used to augment with dried morels before the real deal were readily available.
And then there’s the seared halibut with a port reduction, deep red and sticky sweet-sour. “I love this sauce,” he says, dragging a finger through the swirl on the plate. “It’s an oldie.”
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell