March 20, 1995 | Vintage Insatiable
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.
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.” Guérard loved Portale’s feathery pyramids.
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 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.”
Across the waters at the River Café, Charles Palmer, now the owner of Aureole and a partner at Alva, was the dean of his own design school, stacking up, hoisting herbal flags, doing calligraphy in sauces. And his pastry chef, Richard Leach, unleashed, became the Michael Graves of sugar with his neo-Moderne columns, undulating chocolate walls, and pecan-brittle pediments. As a kid, Leach played with an Erector Set and Lincoln Logs – “The whole family was pretty artistic.” He worked the line at the River Café, begging to try pastry. Everyone agrees that Leach, now sharing Symphony Café’s kitchen with chef Neil Murphy, took sugar to unimagined heights. As for his imitators – “It’s a compliment,” Leach says. “If you could copyright food, I’d be rich on royalties.”
Most of Alfred’s alumni are stretching. At Monkey Bar, John Schenk’s chicken is a clone of Portale’s admiring borrow from Jonathan Waxman of the defunct Jams. Salad plumes soar, and even a side of crisp fried onions stacks 8½ inches tall to the tip of its rosemary sprig. In the cramped kitchen of Arizona 206, Gotham grad David Walzog stacks pounded pork with portobellos, then tops it with pom-poms of grated carrot and jicama. Gary Robins dispatches elegant rice crackers reaching for the chandelier at Aja.
Portale broods about untalented imitators: “Any young cook with a squeeze bottle and a circle mold is capable of silly food.” Like scaling Mount Everest, cooking tall is high risk. “You have to ask yourself, ‘It is too contrived?’” says Portale. Surveying the work of his gifted pods – David Burke (Park Avenue Café), Don Pintadona (Tribeca Grill), Rick Laakkonen (River Café), Neil Murphy (Symphony Café) – Palmer can be critical. “Height adds a dimension; it makes food more fun,” says Palmer. “But some of the guys have gone too far. I’d like to see less theater and more perfection.”
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.