July 20, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Gus and Gabriel: A Pub By Any Other Name
Treat for the Road Food Warrior – chili and cheese stuffed dogs. Photo: Steven Richter
As if he has not already brought a giant measure of comfort to our town’s eating scene — Anthos for thrill-seeking gourmands, Mia Dona and Anthos Upstairs for downsized budgets, Kefi for the howling masses — now star chef Michael Psilakis seeks to smother the Upper West Side in comfort. The menu for his brand new Gus and Gabriel, stuffed into the tiny pocket that was once Kefi, reads like a sheltered Greek boy’s dream of how Americans eat. I imagine the young Michael, in the sequestered tradition of his transplanted Greek family, eating meatballs in yogurt while longing for BBQ-pork-cheddar-jalapeño tater tots and a chocolate malt.
In case you don’t get it, the sign outside says Gastro Pub. Photo: Steven Richter
Well, now he has his own fantasy paradise — named for his father and his son. It’s the hookup of a pop-food heaven with a cleverly wicked ice cream parlor and neighborhood bar. No credit cards, no reservations, mostly modest prices, painfully noisy. He’s installed faux Tiffany sconces and hauled in a Walt Disney suit of armor and oddments from a Ye Olde Catalogue, calling it a gastro pub, unleashing images of gastroenteritis and gastric reflux. Is there no better way to say it? How about Good Grub Pub? Or Thank God It’s Tuesday? Oh, never mind, it’s not my job to edit his business plan. My job is to wade in and eat.
Macaroni baked in jalapeño béchamel with sour cream scores on crustiness. Photo: Steven Richter
On our first visit, the three of us, even highly disciplined size two Ava, take one long look at the menu and lose all control. We must have “Loaded Potato Skins,” “Mexi mac ‘n cheese,” a towering bacon and cheddar burger, the pulled pork Cuban. Yes, yes, yes and might as well get the crab cake, too, and — for comic relief — the American salad. “Dressing on the side,” Ava instructs.
The secret ingredient is sour cream on nachos and loaded potato skins. Photo: Steven Richter
“It looks like he got a special on a crate of romaine,” says Ava, as we tuck into a prettily accessorized crab cake on a puddle of tartare sauce with jicama slaw and wings of romaine. Feathery leaves ride the skyscraper burger, too. Reveries on a night of insomnia might have inspired macaroni baked in a jalapeño-detonated béchamel with sour cream, pico de gallo, pulled pork, salsa verde, Monterey jack and cheddar, but it’s properly crusty and fast disappearing with murmurs of ecstasy and suppression of the usual guilt. Alas, the salad has a wilted, forlorn indifference. (That will teach us to try eating healthy.)
Mirrors, oars, faux Tiffany sconces want to suggest it’s a pub: Photo: Steven Richter
Then Psilakis sends up sherry-honey-molasses glazed pork riblets on potato puree, only four, thank you Dr. Ornish, and a big swamp of nachos with odd plops of chili, refried beans, guacamole, salsa and sour cream and unorthodox slivers of bell peppers. The secret ingredient tonight is sour cream. And salt. Pickled jalapeño is a fetish, too. The bare wood table top looks like a food fight. Given the theme of hunger and regret, I am almost grateful that the burger is rubbery and slightly off and that the soft potato shells overflowing with chili, cheddar, Monterey jack, bacon, sour cream are not the crusty patrician beauties of childhood memory. I’m not sure what makes it Cuban — it isn’t pressed, but all of us are happy enough with the pulled pork hero with that Monterey jack, pepperoncini pickles and sauerkraut in a toasted hero. The fries are okay. “Shouldn’t we try the beef brisket French dip?” I say, taking another look at the menu. “We missed the baked ziti.”
“Are you out of your mind?” asks the Road Food Warrior. Well, if we survive the night, we can come back, I decide.
Two musts: peanut butter cupcake and this luscious burnt caramel apple crisp. Photo: Steven Richter
“You must have the peanut butter and jelly cupcake,” cry friends across the room. Before the three of us can forge a unified conscience-ridden response to thoughts of dessert, a peanut butter-and-jelly fluff-coiffed goodie arrives, not the usual innocuous sweet but a quite fabulous cake and with it, marvelous warm apple crisp with burnt caramel and toffee crunch, maple walnut ice cream melting away on top.
Great biscuits are the standout item on this chicken plate. Photo: Steven Richter
Memories of next morning’s dyspepsia (gastro pub indeed) only take a day or two to fade and a week later we’re back, fully recovered but wary. Happily the kitchen seems to be settling down, too, easier on the salt, although not if you insist on homemade hot potato chips with caramelized onion, garlic and chive in the sour cream dip (irresistible at just $2.95). Buttered sweet corn and jalapeño soup is good, but the black bean with avocado and shreds of pork is even better. A dozen spicy soft meat balls marinara stuffed into a hollowed out hero, big enough to frighten a small dog, is not for me. Our guest won’t even try it. And I agree with her that the sensational biscuits are the best thing on a generous $13.95 “batterless” fried chicken plate (dried out bird) with mashed potatoes and grilled corn.
Gruyère fried egg burger is oozy, sloppy and very good. Photo: Steven Richter
Steven says he’d come back for the two chili cheese dogs decked out with raw onion, pickled jalapeño, black bean and pico de gallo and doesn’t seem to mind the odd softness of the franks. (Is it possible they’re made in the house? Given the chef’s ambition, I wouldn’t be surprised.) Distrustful after our previous tangle with a burger, Steven urges me to try a basic beef patty, but I go for the killer: with Gruyère, bacon and a fried egg on top, good fried onion rings alongside. It’s oozy, sloppy and very good.
“But you can’t get it into your mouth,” he protests.
“If you leave the top of the bun off, you almost can,” I say.
The caramel ice cream sandwich and its Jim Beam vanilla shake send us home happy. Photo: Steven Richter
Now busboys in black shirts with white Gus and Gabriel silhouettes have carted away the debris. My friend and I are studying the dozen or so floats and shakes listed with their optional rum, bourbon, tequila and Bailey’s Irish cream. For $5.95 we will end the evening in adolescent bliss. Two fat straws for the Jim Beam-spiked vanilla shake that escorts a caramel ice cream sandwich between triple chocolate cookies.
Michael Psilakis cools off on the sidewalk after the dinner rush. Photo: Steven Richter
Outside on the sidewalk we find the chef cooling off in a wrinkled tee. I’m not the only professional that thinks he has gotten carried away by too much recognition too quickly. Tonight, still sweating from his subterranean kitchen, hearing him tell stories from Andre Soltner’s memoir — “How much I learned from that book...” I sense genuine humility, how far he has come. I find it endearing.
222 West 79th Street / 212 873 0200. No reservations. Cash only. No credit cards. Monday, Tuesday, Sunday 5 to 10 pm; Friday, Saturday 5 to 11 pm.