Changing Chefs, Gotham Bar and Grill Starts a New Era

The New York Times Lifestyle 2 weeks ago

Until this year, Gotham Bar and Grill without Alfred Portale was as hard to imagine as Cuba without at least one Castro. Mr. Portale was not the first chef at Gotham, but he took the job so soon after the restaurant opened in 1984, and kept doing it for so long, that when he finally left in May his name and its name were almost inseparable.

It was Mr. Portale who lured Tom Valenti, Bill Telepan, Tom Colicchio and Wylie Dufresne to work at Gotham early in their careers. Gotham’s first three-star review in The New York Times, from Bryan Miller in 1985? Mr. Portale was in charge. Its most recent review, three stars from Sam Sifton in 2011? Mr. Portale was in charge. The three other Times reviews in between? Always Mr. Portale. Always three stars, too.

Anyone following a long-running success like that has two choices. She can try not to startle the horses by speaking softly and moving slowly. Or she can get it over with and shoot the horses. Victoria Blamey, who was hired to take over for Mr. Portale at Gotham Bar and Grill, shot the horses. In an interview published in September, speaking of the architectural plating style Mr. Portale was once known for, she said, “no one wants to see that right now.”

The next day she let loose with a menu that buried every one of her predecessor’s dishes (here’s your hat, tuna tartare; what’s your hurry, seafood salad?) under a heap of her own ideas. No question, Gotham Bar and Grill is in the Blamey era now. Loyal customers are going to have to get out or strap in.

Ms. Blamey’s new menu is not self-consciously avant-garde, the way Atera’s tasting menus were when she was the sous-chef there, but it may be more original. It’s certainly not like anything else around town. Her plating style is stark — not aggressive, but a little severe and occasionally challenging. The flavors aren’t like that, though. They’re deep and enveloping; they tend to open and change in your mouth, and linger after you swallow, like wine.

Victoria Blamey’s new menu includes scallop ceviche in corn broth, left front, and tilefish with sea urchin and squash.

Take her ceviche. Normally, you know where you stand with a ceviche. You know how the marinade will change the seafood, how the seafood’s juices will knock the edge off the citrus and how the chile fits in.

The sea scallop ceviche at Gotham is a trickier character. The splayed-open scallops sit in a pale yellow juice that tastes of corn, first sweetly, like a fruit, and then not so sweetly. Then other things enter the picture, smoke and citrus and chiles. The scallops taste like scallops, so of course they’re wonderful, but they’ve also been rolled in chile salt and each one has a pink dot of aged umeboshi paste in the center. There is more to the story, including some charred baby corn whose kernels are the size of poppy seeds, but it should be clear already that you will need to hold on tight if you are going to follow every twist and turn at Gotham.

As anyone knows who has eaten the drippily sophisticated burger incorporating bone marrow and American cheese that she invented when she was the chef at Chumley’s, Ms. Blamey has a way of using fat to underline her points. Most of the time, this comes off as smart rather than obvious. (With the burger, now available at Gotham’s long, much-loved, pink-granite bar, it’s both.)

Try the Baywater Sweet oysters farmed in the Hood Canal in Oregon; they’re creamy enough to bring on a swoon, but instead of the mignonette that might keep the fat in check, Ms. Blamey spoons a cauliflower and white chocolate purée into each silvery shell. Half vegetable and half candy, it even upstages the black pearls of caviar on top.

Triangles of foie gras torchon under a translucent layer of black-truffle jelly are really quite fluffy and rich, even by the standards of foie gras torchons. So of course Ms. Blamey serves it with butter — kombu butter, which goes so well with the warm kombu brioche. If the city’s new ban on foie gras ever goes into effect, I already know one place where I’ll stop to say goodbye.

While the torchon will not win Ms. Blamey many fans among the vegans, the cabbage should. The warm, satiny leaves — she uses the caraflex variety, tender and virtually ribless — are dressed with sugary brown juice pressed from charred onions; golden pearls of fregola give the dish the heft of a main course.

Although Ms. Blamey is quite clearly a cheerful carnivore, she turns vegetables into compelling events. She amplifies the smokiness of creamy charred Japanese eggplant with a lapsang souchong broth; her dal is made with coconut milk, mustard seeds, fried curry leaves and the care a good Indian cook would put into it. The legumes, though, are the dense, creamy red peas long cultivated by Gullah rice farmers on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.

The animals she does cook, and there are quite a few, are ones she believes were sustainably raised or caught from healthy populations. Tilefish, not popular enough yet to be overfished, is on the menu, under a thick coral pelt of caramelized sea urchin from Maine. Oregon Dungeness crab stewed with tomatoes and ají dulce peppers, a twist on an abalone dish Ms. Blamey ate in Chile as a girl, is stuffed between layers of puff pastry to make a cross between an empanada and pithivier.

Rabbit leg is braised in olive oil and an allium stock flavored with charred fig leaves and seasoned with fish sauce. I learned that later on, in a phone call with Ms. Blamey; at the time, I just knew that I’d rarely had rabbit as rich or as sneakily packed with flavor. The rabbit is served under black lentils. The lentils are augmented with chicken fat.

The owners and Ms. Blamey have said they want to entice younger diners to give Gotham a try. Josh Lit, the wine director, does his part by adding five pages of fashionably noninterventionist, sulfur-phobic winemakers like Christian Tschida and Frank Cornelissen to a list that is already as long as a novella. There’s a whole page for Joe Swick, a young Oregonian who calls his chardonnay “Wyd? U up?” and his field blend “Only Zuul,” a “Ghostbusters” reference that the list handily decodes with the hashtag #thereisnodana.

The interior may be a sticking point in the youth campaign; it hasn’t kept up with the pace of change in the kitchen. The walls were freshly painted and the lighting fine-tuned this summer before the new menu was unwrapped, but Gotham is still a time capsule of postmodernist restaurant design motifs from the 1980s, when vast loftlike spaces were automatically exciting. There is still some drama left in the theatrical, multilevel dining room; the parachute chandeliers that show off how far away the ceilings are; and the plants from the garden that press their leaves up against the back door as if they wanted to come inside. But it’s not the kind of drama that translates well to Instagram, and so far the new crowd looks a lot like the old crowd.

At first you might wonder why a pastry chef with more modern leanings hasn’t been recruited. Then you eat Ron Paprocki’s desserts and you stop wondering. Who would wish for vegetable ice creams, shattered cakes and fermented fruit when we could be eating sticks of pain perdu under a crunchy caramel shell, or near-levitating soufflés made from the red flesh of Ruby Prince peaches?

Mr. Paprocki also makes what must be the greatest tarte Tatin in the city, a ring of apples in a state of collapse on a Frisbee of puff pastry stained with what always seems to be the right amount of burned sugar. If somebody tries to tell you it needs to be updated, just laugh and walk away.

Tags: Food, Dining

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