March 24, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Gato: Beat Bobby Flay

Must-have scrambled eggs with romesco and Boucheron to pile on tomato confit toast.
Must-have scrambled eggs with romesco and Boucheron to pile on tomato confit toast.

          There must be a reason the Food Network thinks it has a winner in its new show, “Beat Bobby Flay.” Food hounds, chef star wannabes, pumped-up cooking rivals, and self-nominated amateur critics might get a kick out of seeing the food world’s matinee idol flattened a little. Maybe some unsung whisk will smash him with a forehand. Maybe Bobby will slip on some spattered olive oil racing to the pantry. Or mistake salt for sugar. Or spurt blood from a slashed finger and waste precious time as he did minutes into the cooking match on the premiere show.

Enamored fans mind waiting less, as they watch Flay on the line. Photo: Gerry Dawes

          Those same marginalized narcissists and gripesters may hope to report that the golden boy’s ambition, his dream of affirming his mastery in the restaurant orbit at Gato, is tarnished. That only fans blindsided by love will fall for his predictable game. Sorry, bad news bears. Almost everything I’ve tasted in three early visits has been bold, original, smartly creative and delicious, if not just plain masterly.

Here’s the lineup at the welcome podium on my first visit. Photo: Gerry Dawes

          Indeed, it’s only a few weeks into Gato’s quiet opening. Too soon to engrave a triumph in stars, but not too soon to be excited by what I’ve tasted. Partner Laurence Kretchmer keeps the booking of the 115 seats deliberately spare. Yelpists and assorted first nighters have figured that out and crowd the big rectangular bar early vying to be seated.

The big rectangular bar gets crowded early with first nighters hoping to get tables.

          And there is Flay in navy blue -- the baby-faced redhead now as lean and grownup gorgeous on the line in the glassed-wrapped kitchen as his glamorous wife, Stephanie March, at the next table (every night I was there with friends at a different table).

Small bar dishes like tuna-stuffed piquillo or mussels with razor clams are 3 for $17.

          Taste the range of those brassy bar snacks, three for $17 -- the elegant mussel and razor clam salad with anchovy vinaigrette, an artichoke heart with quail egg and sea urchin, the chorizo crépinette with apricot mostarda and pickled Brussels sprouts. You never tasted anything like that caul-wrapped chorizo patty in Nice or Sicily or Barcelona. Of course not. Flay didn’t promise a Mediterranean hit parade. He merely said he would be inspired by countries that cook with olive oil. Inspired, indeed.

What other chef would come up with chorizo crepeinette with apricot mostarda?

          Not everyone at my table can handle the afterkick of white bean piquillo relish in the Gato spreads or the fire of oven-roasted shrimp diavolo with its warning flag of a whole red pepper. But the pepperheads are in heaven.

Gato spreads – chickpea, Greek yogurt, torrid white bean – come with pita puffs.

          My highly sophisticated companion who eats out every night insists that her steamed fish with Sicilian olives, mint and anchovy in saffron-tomato broth is the best halibut she has ever eaten. I’m not debating “best ever,” but inspired? Yes. Delicious. Yes. I agree.

Salted calvados caramel with black pepper gelato could be the best tarte tatin ever.

          I’m possibly being rash myself on my second outing, certain I’ve never had a tarte tatin better than tonight’s with salted Calvados caramel, mascarpone crema and bittersweet cocoa.

Lamb sausage pizza with tomato jam, mozzarella and mint is a must to share.

          Everyone (the rotating everyone in my three visits) agrees they must have the scrambled eggs under almond romesco and Boucheron cheese to pile on tomato confit toast every time they come, and also the lamb sausage pizza with tomato jam and a faint ring of mint. The tarragon chicken -- “blistered” the menu warns; “herbaceous, not hot,” says the waiter -- beguile more timid eaters. Me, too. Crispy potatoes with, dandelion greens, smoked paprika and parmigiano adds to the flavor dazzle.

The waiter scrapes up the essential socarat of the kale and wild mushroom paella.

          Bobby has said that every table is ordering the kale and wild mushroom paella to share with crispy artichokes and an egg. Kale-hater that I am, I don’t rush. Finally outvoted, I’m impressed that even the runner knows that soccarrat -- the stuff that sticks to the pan -- is essential. The rice is perfect. I’m scraping more off the pan myself.

Bare brick, colorful tile and rusted shades overhead give Gato a smart, lived-in look.

          I tend to like what David Rockwell and his design team do (Not because we’ve been friends for decades and he’s on the Citymeals board, I promise.) Here the soaring brick ceiling and varying scarred glass shades on hanging lights make the onetime warehouse look as if it’s been an easy hangout forever. Too smart for Brooklyn, more likely near the waterfront in Barcelona. There is light on our table, but not in our eyes, as there always is in a Rockwell restaurant, as long as no one moves the tables. And the tiles are unique -- like the food -- smart, original, adding dimension.

Oven-roasted shrimp diavolo are too torrid for some but not for pepperheads like me.

          Twice I’ve come with naysayers, friends expecting not much from the cook, dubious, I suppose, about Flay’s return to the kitchen after seeming to abandon it to become a matinee idol. It does look like there’s a lot of Bobby on the screen. But TV is deceptive. A show stretched over months can be shot in two weeks. I know that Flay has been at Bar Americain often, redoing the menu. A few years ago I called Mesa Grill weeks ahead to book a table anonymously after a long time away and wrote “Tweaking the Tamales,” a report on Flay’s updating that menu.

From the bar menu: squid with bacon and garlic.

          “I’m really surprised,” says one detractor at Gato. “I didn’t expect it to be so good.” 

          “I came with an open mind,” says another food world professional the next evening, “But frankly, I didn’t think it could be this. This is wonderful cooking.” I’m not surprised at all. On screen, he’s the master of improvisation, wrestling some “secret ingredient” into textural and flavor triumphs, transforming a basket of unlikely ingredients into something wonderful to eat. He always had an impressive palate, even as a wild child (click here to read my first Mesa Grill critique “The Corn Is Blue”). Now with experience and travel, he has impressive authority.

Octopus is crisply caramelized, tender, but not too, and made tangy with tangerine.

          Three of us have shared a trio of bar dishes and the lamb sausage pizza. Maybe no chef anywhere along the Mediterranean ever made just this dress for octopus -- tender and crisp-edged with tangerine, bits of bacon and oregano sprigs -- but that’s what Gato is all about. It’s Flay mixing and matching likely and unlikely ingredients.

Flay’s carrots are painted with harissa, yoghurt and mint, then tossed with parsnip chips.

          Everyone does carrots, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale these days. Charred heirloom carrots are almost inevitable. Gato’s carrots tossed with parsnip chips are burnished with harissa cooled with mint and yogurt. Sweet and sour roasted cauliflower is laced with padrone peppers. The sprouts are speckled with pomegranate and pistachios.

Sweet and sour roasted cauliflower with padrone peppers, a side for the table to share.

          One companion complains the menu is too full of temptations. That’s true, and wanton ordering can puff up the bill even though cocktails are a temperate $12 and $13 -- not the hawkish $16 I see everywhere now. I liked a smoky Negroni and the refreshing Lorenzo (named for partner Laurence) made with gin, sherry, muddled cucumber and not too much Saint-Germain.

          One evening four of us divided 10 small bar plates (a teaspoon or a tingle for each of us), shared two pizzas, the savory eggs with tomato confit toast and the crab risotto with garlic breadcrumbs (the sole disappointment). My friend, a working journalist that evening, was allowed to bring his own Spanish wine. But with a $40-to-$50 bottle from the wine list, our tab would have run $70 each.  A few evenings later with four appetizers, three entrees -- $27 to $35 -- and some happy boozing, we spent $100 each, including tip. On a third evening of aggressive ordering and with a $70 Rioja, the check ran $125 per person.

The Rockwell team designed these tiles and had them made in Vietnam.

          That was last Thursday. Three of us roamed the menu, pulling up plums from the bar menu -- the anchovy-touched mussel and razor clams, a raw tuna-stuffed piquillo pepper, and three white anchovies in a puddle of sour orange. I couldn’t let my two pals -- both from out of town -- miss out on the lamb sausage pizza, the tangerine touched octopus or my favorite scrambled eggs. Together we discovered the unusually crisp squid, fried in rice flour, with anchovy vinaigrette and green chili pesto.

This tangy Meyer lemon tart was a little soupy the first night.

          It was a shock when the pasta antica arrived not quite cooked through -- Flay took the blame, as he belatedly delivered the charred beef himself to our table. “That’s what happens when you worry too much about a critic in the house,” he confides. “I made the pasta cook do it over again. And then I rushed him.”

Rice flour gives extra crunch to fried squid with anchovy dressing on green chile pesto.

          It was one of my you’ll-have-to-show-me friends who ordered the porterhouse pork chop on romesco polenta. He polished off more than his share and then a slice of the charred beef -- rare and meaty, thrillingly sautéed and frosted with blue cheese brown butter.

          Even before he tasted the smashing tarte tatin (my pal agreed with my hyperbole), the espresso bread pudding (born of tiramasu) and the chocolate crèma catalana (“Nutella crème brûlée,” by any other name,) he had already surrendered. 

Bobby says he loves cooking on the line. We see how it goes when the house is packed.

          Well, of course, it’s too soon to call this a review. Let’s just say, it’s a first impression. At some point, Flay will be called to the set or the road or the kitchen stadium. Then he’ll have to abandon the Gato line and if all goes well, discipline will kick in.

324 Lafayette between Bleecker and Houston Streets. 212 334 6400. Sunday to Thursday, 5:30 pm to 10 pm. Friday to Saturday, 5:30 pm to 11 pm.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene or Gerry Dawes. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Click here to return to BITE listings. Click here to follow my twitterings. Click here to see my vintage evening bag collection on Etsy.