Wednesday
Apr162014

Gato

Gato, Bobby Flay’s latest restaurant, asks us to ponder whether a TV chef best known for throwdowns and gimmicks, for a line of spice rubs and a middle-brow empire of tourist traps, can still cook food that matters.

For now, the answer is emphatically yes. Gato is so good, in fact, that it invites you to forget his multiply cloned restaurants at various casinos, his half-dozen TV shows (that’s only the active ones—there have been many others), his cookbooks, and his burger palaces in eleven states.

Flay is omni-present on TV, but he was once a serious restaurant chef. With the critically admired Mesa Grill in 1991 and Bolo in 1993, he was on the way to the kind of restaurant empire that chefs like David Chang and the Torrisi gang have built in New York today.

He chose a different path, proliferating his brand outside New York, and augmenting it with a lineup of cookbooks, spice rubs, and especially TV shows, where his good looks and winning smile made him a natural. He never entirely took his eye off his kitchens: he was already a minor industry in 2003 when William Grimes upgraded Bolo to three stars.

But the New York restaurants gradually faded. Frank Bruni demoted Mesa Grill to one star in 2008. Bolo closed in 2008 to make way for condos, Mesa Grill in 2013 after losing its lease. His remaining New York City restaurant, Bar Americain, was well off the radar.

The loss of Bolo stuck in his craw, and there were persistent rumors he would re-open it. He was certainly patient: he told Eater.com that he looked at “hundreds and hundreds of spaces” over “five or six years.” After securing a liquor license under that name, Flay changed his mind and called it Gato, after a stray cat that walked by while he and his partners were scoping the storefront they eventually chose.

No one disputes that Flay has been enormously successful by many measures, but he apparently realizes that many people no longer take him seriously as a chef. Jeff Gordiner’s obligatory New York Times puff piece captured the chef’s dilemma:

Gato represents an obsessive midlife quest for Mr. Flay, and a test case for whether any celebrity chef can command both the mass-market spotlight and credibility as a culinary auteur. Can a guy who hosts “Worst Cooks in America,” oversees an expanding network of mall-ready burger joints, and currently has more brand presence at the Mohegan Sun casino than in Manhattan return to his roots and win hosannas for a serious restaurant in his hometown?

New York will soon find out. “I’m putting myself on the line,” he said.

At this point, if anything has a chance of beating Bobby Flay, it’s fame itself — the widespread impression that he is drawn more by the glare of the soundstage than the glow of the stove.

People think that I don’t cook,” he said. “And it’s just the furthest thing from the truth.

For now, at least, Flay is indeed “on the line.” Multiple bloggers (not just the famous ones) have spotted him at Gato, and he’s in the kitchen, not glad-handing at the tables. It is hard to believe he’ll be there often after the review cycle is over—his other commitments are too daunting for that—but for now, he is, and Gato is terrific.

The cuisine is vaguely pan-Mediterranean, not Spanish as Bolo was, but the food is in Flay’s immediately accessible, flavor-forward style. He does not challenge the diner, but what he does, he does well. By today’s standards, the restaurant is mid-priced. A section of the menu labeled “Bar” (but orderable at the tables as well) offers 13 little tapas-like snacks, any three for $17. Conventional appetizers are $14–18, vegetable side dishes $10, entrées $24–35.

There’s some ambivalence about the mission. The handsome half-timber dining room features exposed brick on the walls and ceiling, tile floors, wooden tables, and red accents on the banquettes and light fixtures. Nothing about it suggests the Mediterranean. Should Gato fail, it could become another branch of Bobby Flay Steak, and they wouldn’t have to change a thing.

Likewise the wine list, which fits on either side of a broadsheet: it’s more Spanish than anything else. And yet, California, Oregon, and France have prominent guest-starring roles, as if diners wouldn’t accept an all-Mediterranean list.

But give credit where it is due: a 2007 Rioja was fairly priced at $56. A sommelier served it in the right glassware, and at the correct temperature.

We started with a trio of bar snacks ($17). The kitchen confused our order, sending out two we had ordered and one that we hadn’t. The server apologized and sent out our original third item separately.

 
 

We had the artichoke heart with quail egg and sea urchin (top left); chorizo crepinette with apricot mostarda and pickled brussels sprouts (top right); eleven-layer potato with caramelized shallots and fried sage (bottom left); and white anchovies with sour orange (bottom right). There wasn’t a dud among the bunch; they’re terrific starters that I’d happily try again.

 

Scrambled Eggs ($14; above left) might be Flay’s most inspired dish here, and that’s saying something. He mixes them with almond romesco, boucheron cheese and tomato confit, and serves them with toast.

There are two pizzas on offer. The kitchen comped the pizza with lamb sausage, tomato jam, mozzaralla and mint (normally $17; above right). If pizza were the only item served, this could very well be the restaurant’s signature item.

 

Vegetable Paella ($27; above left) is an experiment that could easily be a flop; here, it’s brilliant. Kale, wild mushrooms, and crisp artichokes are arrayed in concentric circles with a fried egg in the middle. The server stirs it all up, and you’ve got instant magic.

Charred Beef ($35; above right) is the most expensive entrée, but well worth it. The preparation of the beef is masterful, with a charred crust and ruby red interior. Bleu cheese impart a flavor somewhat like dry aging; there’s also brown butter, red wine sauce, broccoli rabe and faro beans.

The service here is better than it has to be. Silverware and plates were replaced after every course (never a given with shared plates). Runners appeared repeatedly to wipe the table clean. The restaurant was almost full on a Wednesday evening, but the kitchen kept pace, and had the timing just about right.

Flay may insist that he’s in the kitchen for good, but no one could seriously believe that. Will the menu change periodically? Will the quality of the food remain so high after his attentions are diverted? History suggests it will not. If you go to Gato at all, you should go now.

Gato (324 Lafayette Street between Houston & Bleecker Streets, Noho)

Food: Vaguely pan-Mediterranean with a pan-Everything wine list
Service: Surprisingly polished for a place this populist
Ambiance: A large and bustling but generic post-Industrial dining room

Rating: Critic’s Pick

Sunday
Apr132014

The Chori Burger at Jeepney

I don’t often chase food porn: there’s far too much of it, and I have far too little time. I made an exception for the Chori Burger at Jeepney, featured last week in The Times by foodcurated’s Liza de Guia.

Jeepney claims to be the world’s only Filipino gastropub. Exactly what passes for a gastropub these days is anyone’s guess, but it’s Filipino, beyond a doubt, a casual place that looks like a dive bar with a serious kitchen. You can feast on fertilized duck eggs, pig snouts, beef blood, and head-on prawns, along with less adventurous fare, like pork shoulder, lamb shank, and roasted chicken.

But it was the burger ($17) that brought me here:

The chef, Miguel Trinidad, creates a patty with beef and longanisa, a cured pork sausage. He tops it with banana ketchup (a condiment that finds its way into many dishes here). Both sides of the challah bun are drizzled with a kewpie aioli (soy sauce, garlic, and other spices).

In the Times video, the chef explains that the burger is not traditional in the Philippines, but Americans imported it during the occupation, and it’s now found in many places there, though usually with a White Castle-sized patty. In this interpretation, the burger has the heft that New Yorkers expect.

The server leaves you with three napkins, and you’ll need them, but it’s well worth it for this spicy, messy masterpiece. Finish it off with satisfying fries made from kamote, the Filipino equivalent of the sweet potato.

I assume the burger is fairly new, as Pete Wells did not mention it in an improbable two-star review a year ago. I don’t know when or if I’ll make it back to try more of the menu. For burger hounds, that alone is enough to make Jeepney a destination.

Jeepney (201 First Avenue between 12th & 13th Streets, East Village)

Sunday
Apr132014

Nerai

In what other age could one of the best high-end Greek restaurants in New York, open and go almost totally unnoticed?

That is the perplexing question at Nerai, which opened in May 2013 in the old Oceana space, and has attracted no professional reviews that I can find, except from John Mariani in Huffington Post, who posted a rave three months ago.

The opening certainly was publicized, although perhaps not as well as it could be. Did it begin so poorly that the first critics to visit found it not worth writing about? Or did they just assume that a white tablecloth restaurant on East 54th Street is unimportant by default? I fear it could be the latter.

I am not going to pronounce Nerai the best modern Greek restaurant in New York. That judgment would require more visits and deeper exploration than my time and money will allow. But after one visit I can certainly pronounce it a candidate.

Admittedly, there’s not a lot of competition since Michael Psilakis’s Anthos bit the dust. Molyvos is reliable, but not the standout it once was, although it has the city’s best Greek wine list. Milos could be better, but I’ve never been (GQ’s Alan Richman posted a rave in 2010). Thalassa is an old favorite of mine, but it gets very little critical attention; it is still very good, but below its peak.

Which brings us back to Nerai, which feels immediately cozy and elegant. A series of rooms in the bi-level space is decked out in soothing, vaguely nautical themes. In the room we were in, on the ground floor, the walls are lined with white muslin gauzes, pleated to resemble sails.

You won’t get out cheaply. Starters and salads range from $15–27, composed entrées $26–56 (just one dish under $30), sides $10. There’s also whole fish and seafood, $33–60 per pound, a notoriously tricky format, as you don’t quite know what you’re paying until the bill arrives.

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Tuesday
Apr082014

Ristorante Morini

How much Michael White is too much Michael White? At Ristorante Morini, his seventh New York restaurant in as many years, the chef is betting that we still don’t have enough.

There’ve been some stumbles along the way. Nicoletta, his pizzeria, is limping along after horrible reviews. How do you screw up pizza? Somehow, he did. The Butterfly, his take on a 1950s Wisconsin supper club, quickly fell off the radar after a much publicized opening. A recent re-visit to Costata, his Italian steakhouse in Soho, was disappointing. But at modern haute Italian fine dining, his judgment has never failed him. That’s the genre he tackles once again at Ristorante Morini.

White may be repeating himself, but have you tried to book a table at Marea lately? After five years in business, it is still solidly booked at prime times. Opening Ai Fiori, a second restaurant in the same mold, did nothing to tamp down demand, so why not build a third?

He chose the right location, the Upper East Side, the city’s only remaining residential neighborhood where guests aren’t offended by white tablecloths and don’t require a special occasion for fine dining. The Met is a block away, and if you’d rather avoid museum food, there is now a far better option.

I’m not sure why he chose the name Morini, which this new restaurant shares with Osteria Morini in Soho, where you find haute trattoria fare served on wooden tables with orange paper placemats. This Morini is nothing like that Morini, but I’m sure some tourists will show up at the wrong one.

To run the kitchen, White has installed Gordon Finn, who worked for him at Alto when it had two Michelin stars. Finn executes the White playbook flawlessly. Close your eyes, and you could be at Marea or Ai Fiori.

The prices are punishingly high. You are paying for luxury, or at least the perception of it. Crudi and antipasti are $19–26, pastas $22–29 (not counting gnocchi with black truffles, $42), entrées mostly $36–52 (but Dover Sole will set you back $69).

There is also a four-course option for $84, which allows you to select almost any starter, pasta, entrée and dessert (some items carry supplements). The tariff will probably go up over time, as Ai Fiori’s prix fixe is $94, Marea’s $99, and the restaurants are quite similar. Indeed, when the chef came to our table to say hello, he did not disagree when I described it as “Marea with a meat option.”

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Tuesday
Apr012014

Montmartre

If Montmartre were an operating system, what version would it be? Best I can tell, we’re on Montmartre v3.0.

The restaurant opened 13 months ago with ex-Momofuku chef Tien Ho serving classic French bistro cuisine. After just five weeks, Tien and owner Gabe Stulman tossed the menu in lieu of the Asian-inflected Vietnamese cooking that the chef was known for. This was a remarkable turn of events: the restaurant was busy, and none of the pro critics had reviewed it yet. But Stulman apparently smelled a rat before the critics told him what was wrong. When Pete Wells awarded two stars in June 2013, he found v2.0 much improved over version he had beta tested.

It is less clear what went wrong after that, but Tien left the restaurant in October 2013, and Michael Toscano (Stulman’s partner at Perla) was appointed executive chef and co-owner. Strangely enough, v3.0 reverted back to the plan of v1.0, with a classic French bistro menu. It’s a bit like the failure of New Coke: Coke Classic was better, after all.

The new menu is not quite full-on French. Under a heading like Coquillages, you’ve got an offering like Shrimp Cocktail ($15), which basically could be served anywhere. Likewise, under Salades, a choice of Winter Greens ($11) with blood orange vinaigrette. But there’s also escargots ($15) and cassoulet de cochon ($29.50), so there’s enough French for those who want it, along with classic bail-out dishes like a dry-aged burger ($19) and a straight-up roast chicken ($28).

Appetizers and salads are $11–17, entrées $19 (the burger) up to the oddly priced steak frittes ($35.25). There are a lot of prices ending in .25 or .95, which I have to think is a joke, as it is not consistent, and none of Stulman’s other restaurants—all with a similar vibe and price range—are priced like that.

Despite the humble, and for the most part inexpensive, bistro cuisine, Stulman price-gouges on the wine list, as he always does. There are hardly any reds below $60, and the bottom end is mostly over-priced vins de pays. He really ought to be ashamed of himself. The 2012 Gravilas we ordered was fine, for what it was; it just shouldn’t be $52 (it’s about $17 retail).

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Tuesday
Mar252014

Telepan Local

Today, chefs with even modest success barely wait fifteen minutes before opening a second restaurant, and then a third. Michael White will probably open another half-dozen before you’ve finished reading this post.

Hats off to Bill Telepan, who waited almost nine years after the eponymous Telepan on the Upper West Side, to open his second place, Telepan Local, in Tribeca in the old Industria Argentina space. I have no window into the chef’s thinking, but the original restaurant didn’t arrive fully-formed, and that could be why he was in no hurry to open another: my first visit (in 2006) was so disappointing that I waited five years to try it again, this time with far better results. In the most recent Michelin Guide, Telepan received a star for the first time.

Telepan Local is Telepan’s dressed-down little brother. The design by the Brooklyn studio firm Home isn’t the most original idea, a barn-like structure with exposed wood and subway tile. It’s not a quiet place. Servers wear checked shirts that might’ve been imported from the wilds of Bushwick.

The chef refers to the concept as “American tapas,” a phrase that doesn’t fill me with delight, but I can hardly blame him for copying a format that has been so wildly successful all over town. The menu, which will change frequently, consists of around 25 small plates ($7–17 each), a format that often promotes over-ordering. Sure enough, the server recommended “3–4 dishes per person.” We ordered six for the two of us, and couldn’t finish the sixth.

But it’s possible to dine quite inexpensively here. The two-page wine list offers many bottles under $60. A 2008 Rioja was $54, and with six small plates the bill came to $118 before tax and tip. There aren’t enough good restaurants where you can do that any more.

Telepan’s press interviews promise “seasonal and local” cuisine, which would sound like a broken record, except he was doing it before everyone did it, and he is better at it than most.

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Tuesday
Mar182014

The Peacock

The Peacock strutted into town in late 2013, aiming to prove that British pub food is fit for fine dining.

The British invasion is hardly big news any more: The Spotted Pig opened in 2003, and there have been many that followed, including Jones Wood Foundry on the Upper East Side, whose owners are also behind this new venture.

But these older places are fundamentally casual, reflecting the cuisine’s humble origins. The Peacock asks diners to contemplate $26 fish and chips in sumptuous rooms, alongside three-figure Bordeaux served by suited sommeliers.

We liked it, but I’m not sure it will last.

The two adjacent townhouses on a Murray Hill side street were formerly the Williams Club, one of many establishments that catered to affluent alumni of Northeast liberal arts colleges. It was a place where locals congregated with their fellow grads, where those not based in New York could find a place to stay. As the Wall Street Journal explained:

The demise of the university clubs comes not from economic recession or a dwindling population of grads but a change in leisure interests. Younger generations of men and women, for good or ill, seem to prefer boutique hotels to the gilded clubhouse. They perhaps don’t see as much prestige in drinking and dining in swanky clubs with their alma mater’s name, when they can just as easily stay in touch with college friends on Facebook.

(There are still a few of these around: the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton clubs are in no danger of disappearing.)

The Williams site was acquired by restaurateur Yves Jadot, who converted it into a boutique extended-stay hotel (30 days minimum) called The William. There are two restaurants, The Peacock and a casual pub called The Shakespeare. Jadot’s other properties supplied the culinary talent, chef Jason Hicks of Jones Wood Foundry (who is listed as a co-owner), and Meghan Dorman of the speakeasy-style cocktail bar, Raines Law Room. Robert Aikens, formerly of Stephen Starr’s The Dandelion in Philadelphia, is executive chef.

There are two lounges with wing-back chairs and plush sofas, where you can kick back on Dorman’s painterly cocktails. They’re over-priced at $16–18, and the pours are not generous, but you are paying for atmosphere. For dinner, you move onto one of two comfortable, dimly-lit dining rooms, where tables are generously spaced and you will not struggle to hear your companion. (See Eater’s photo essay for a look at the décor.)

There are no tablecloths, but everything else about the place screams fine dining, and I don’t take issue with that. I just wonder about the viability of Gammon steak and bangers & mash in this setting. The quality of the cooking is better than most pubs, but it still feels like eating a pub menu at Per Se. Prices are not out of line, considering the elegance of the room and the skill of the cooking, with starters $11–18, mains $21–33, and sides $9.

The wine list (available online) runs to five pages, with a good range of selections below $60. A 2005 Château Ramafort was fairly priced at $55.

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Saturday
Mar152014

The Art of the Cassoulet at Back Forty

Every winter, chef Peter Hoffman hosts a Cassoulet tasting at his Soho restaurant Back Forty, a worthy tradition carried over from dearly departed Savoy, which occupied the same location from 1990–2011.

The only constants in cassoulet are an earthenware pot and white beans. Almost any meats can be included, but duck leg and pork sausage are the most common. Savoy itself used to serve a terrific cassoulet, which it prepared in the upstairs fireplace. We had it in 2009.

There’s a cult of cassoulet, and even a Universal Cassoulet Academy devoted to the dish. Philippe Bertineau, the Academy’s only member based in America, serves an acclaimed cassoulet at Alain Ducasse’s Benoit. I suppose it would be too much to expect him to serve it at Back Forty.

Nevertheless, Hoffman assembled a worthy sextet of chefs (click on the menu for a larger image), including two from his pair of Back Forty restaurants.

The format isn’t ideal. You grab a napkin and fork, walk to serving stations (two downstairs, four upstairs), and take appetizer-sized portions of cassoulet, one at a time. Most of the tables have been removed, so you sit on benches along the outer edge of the dining room, balancing plates and bowls in your lap. It inevitably feels and tastes more like catering than dining.

There were staggered reservations between 6:30 and 7:30, and it was an advantage to arrive early. By the time we left, the later crowd was arriving and, for the most part, eating their cassoulet without a place to sit.

Within these constraints, the staff are efficient: checking coats, clearing plates promptly (you’re expected to re-use your fork), and patrolling the room with wine refills. You can’t beat the price: $65 including wines, before tax and tip, and the proceeds benefit the New Amsterdam Market.

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Tuesday
Mar112014

Gallagher's Steakhouse

Gallagher’s Steakhouse is back from its near-death experience. Prior owner Marlene Brody had planned to close the place in late 2012, citing “economic reasons.” In swooped Dean Poll, operator of the Central Park Boathouse Cafe, who signed a 20-year lease on the space and bought the name, saying he considers himself “privileged to own it.” The restauant closed for renovations in mid-2013 and re-opened in February.

There was much rending of garments over the near-loss of Gallagher’s. Fact is: it had long ago ceased to be relevant. I don’t ever recall seeing the place on any top-10 steakhouse list. Or top-anything, for that matter. Passersby oogled the windowed meat locker facing 52nd Street—and then kept on walking.

The décor that Poll inherited (checked tablecloths and knotty pine walls) had not been fashionable since the Eisenhower administration, unless it was the Truman administration. Anyhow, Poll has revamped it smartly, while retaining the bones of the old Gallagher’s, including the street-facing dry-aging locker and photos of celebrities on almost every inch of wall space. But with white tablecloths, dark leather chairs and mahogany paneling, Gallagher’s now looks like the old-school steakhouse that it is.

The menu earns no points for originality—nor should it. Poll has restored the porterhouse steak (deleted, incredibly enough, by the prior owners in 2008), and there’s a decent selection of non-steak entrées if you visit with your pescatarian friends. Otherwise, it’s mostly the items you expect. The place is not a Luger clone, as there is no thick-cut bacon. Prices are about in line with other old-school joints, and slightly less expensive than premium modern steakhouses like Porter House New York or Minetta Tavern.

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Saturday
Mar082014

Circo's Festival of Black Kale

It’s a good year to be checking in at the Maccioni family restaurants—Le Cirque, Sirio, and Circo. The patriarch, Sirio Maccioni, will receive a James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award later this year; his three sons now tend to his international empire. At Le Cirque, there’s a new chef (Raphael Francois), hired after Pete Wells filed a brutal one-star review in late 2012.

There was a less heralded change last year at Circo (pronounced “cheer-ko”), where Alfio Longo took over the kitchen. Now that he has settled in, the chef hopes to serve special menus every couple of months, focused on seasonal themes—currently, black kale from the Maccionis’ native Tuscany.

The four-course menu (click on the image for a larger copy) will be served for just five days, March 17–21, at both lunch and dinner.

If this meal is indicative of the chef’s talents, Circo is in good hands. One might worry about monotony in a menu built on one ingredient, but he deploys it so cleverly that one is scarcely aware of the repetition. And he is not afraid of challenging the diner: a rich tripe florentine, a chickpea pancake called a farinata, and a cuttlefish stew, are among the choices.

They are practically giving it away for just $49. If Michael White did that, he’d be hailed as a genius. By way of comparison, the four-course menu at White’s least expensive Italian restaurant, Osteria Morini, is $70. Last time I was there, they had paper napkins, orange placemats, and no tablecloths.

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