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