The bar menu features small plates that come three for $17, including, clockwise from top left, eggplant with manchego, oregano and balsamic; artichoke heart with quail egg and sea urchin; white anchovies with sour orange; duck liver with red grapes and black pepper; chorizo crepinette with apricot mostarda and pickled Brussels sprouts; and a piquillo pepper filled with raw tuna and saffron sauce.
“Of all God’s creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the leash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” –Mark Twain
I’ll start by confessing that I’ve been a shameless fan of Bobby Flay’s since that thrilling evening in 1993 when I first tasted his bright and lively riffs on Southwestern cooking at Mesa Grill. Not that my crush on his food ever kept me from chiding him from time to time. “Not everything needs to be sweet,” I once wrote—without much impact, it seemed. I got Bolo from the beginning, and raved. In my neophiliac wandering, I didn’t often think about Bar Americain, but when I did, I found happiness there, too.
Reading interviews with Flay on the eve of the opening of Gato, I sensed an unconcealed need for him to prove himself as not just a wandering chef celebrity—the cutest, the hottest, the busiest. He wanted a restaurant spotlight again. It wasn’t clear what he planned to do at Gato—“the food of countries that use olive oil,” he’d said. But I never doubted that Gato would be good.
Indeed, after just three visits, I was totally wowed. Flay is not just tagging along on a Mediterranean binge. He’s reinventing dishes we thought we already knew, as if Bobby Flay were a new country on the border of the Olive Oil Sea.
In those three visits I couldn’t begin to taste everything. I started at the top, working my way through the bar menu, sharing three plates for $17—squid with bacon and garlic; 11-layer caramelized potatoes; and wild mushrooms with ricotta and hazelnuts. It was torture to have to divide the tiny duck liver with sherry vinegar and honey. Mussels and razor clams divvied neatly, but I wanted more anyway. I can’t imagine in what country what other chef would come up with a chorizo crepinette and apricot mostarda. Add the romesco-painted scrambled eggs tumbled on tomato confit toast, and the pizza of lamb sausage, mozzarella and tomato jam with a hint of mint—that made an exciting dinner.
One evening other friends and I shared Gato’s spreads—Greek yogurt doused with charred green chili pesto; lemon chickpea puree spiked with smoked paprika; and white beans laced with feta and walnut-piquillo relish—served with buckwheat pita puffs. A few days later, other first-timers and I started with those plump, white anchovies, then went right to appetizers—supertorrid oven-roasted shrimp diavolo and fried squid with hits of anchovy on green chili pesto. Every restaurant in town has its octopus. Here, the texture is silken, tender but not too tender, with bacon bits and tangerine. And here, the ubiquitous carrots of the moment get painted with harissa, charred and topped with parsnip crisps.
Crispy chunks of potato, goat cheese and dandelion sprigs make a special event of blistered tarragon chicken. I laugh at my dieting friend when she orders steamed halibut with Sicilian olives (and couscous on the side). But she insists it’s the best halibut she’s ever eaten. I taste, breaking off a delicately cooked chunk, spooning up the saffron-tomato broth. I’m forced to agree. I’d read that everyone was ordering Flay’s kale and wild mushroom paella. Kale-hater that I am, I resisted till outvoted—then watched the server scrape up the crusty rice socarrat from the bottom of the pan, and fell for paella too.
Gato’s modest entrance on Lafayette Street doesn’t prepare you for the complexity of the room. I’m a longtime David Rockwell fan, so I’m not surprised that the tile floors are unique and the lighting is artfully aimed to let each table see the food—two Rockwell signatures. The soaring brick vaults above had been hidden behind a dropped ceiling. Restoring the ravages slowed down the rehab, but now the sprawling room is warm and appealing and looks like it might have been transplanted from an old quarter of Barcelona.
Back when partner Laurence Kretchmer was on guard to keep the house less than fully booked while Flay honed the kitchen’s timing on the line, savvy first-nighters hogged the bar early in the evening, waiting for tables to open. Now that even cynics and Flay-naysayers have been seduced and word is getting around, I don’t imagine that pressure will let up soon.
I’m back once again on a Saturday night with friends who were after me to join them because they couldn’t get a booking. We share the fabulous white anchovies in their sour orange puddle, and the chopped razor clams and mussels with pickled shallots. I try to imagine what country would claim the piquillo pepper so deliciously stuffed with raw tuna in a saffron sauce.
I’m shocked to discover that the thick, old-fashioned tortiglioni pasta is not quite cooked through. But with a chunk of the huge porterhouse pork chop on my left and a generous slice of the fine charred beef with Valdeón bleu-cheese brown butter on my right, I have more than enough to eat. And then here’s Flay, rushing out of the kitchen to take the blame for the pasta. He moves on to say hello to friends, Food Network pals and wife Stephanie, then races off.
Chocolate crema Catalana would not be my choice for dessert, but the chocoholic Italian I’m with tonight finishes it off. As my other companion observes, espresso-soaked bread pudding is tiramisu with Nutella. A better choice is the fromage blanc cheesecake on an almond crust with blood orange sauce. But an individual tarte tatin with salted calvados caramel and vanilla-black pepper gelato is remarkable, not to be missed.
324 Lafayette St.