|Gotham photo from website|
In the beginning I heard things –– nattering about a $10 hamburger that was worth the freight ($10 was a lot for a burger the mid 80’s), then louder, more insistent recommendations –– something about the wonders of tall food –– “You have to go to Gotham, this Alfred Portale's food is amazing, it’s like art." Tall food?
Gotham was just around the corner from me. I lived on 11th Street and it was on 12th Street. One day, I walked over and peeked in the window. My first impression was not positive –– I hated the way the restaurant looked (for me, it epitomized everything that was wrong with late-20th century design), but then I saw the food –– the way the food looked –– that was amazing. Loved it.
|photo from 1997 cookbook|
photo from NYT today
It was tall food –– deconstructing it was fun and delicious. In 1993, NYT’s critic Molly O'Neill said of Portale’s plate-art, “The dishes soar in height as well as flavor. Gotham Bar and Grill is the home of tall food. The salads look like mountain ranges.”
I know food with levels is not extraordinary today, but in the 80’s it was striking. One of the first things I read about Gotham’s chef Alfred Portale was that he had been a jewelry designer before becoming a chef and when you looked at his dishes you think architecture and flower arrangements, not dinner. But it wasn’t "just another pretty face" on the plate, his dishes are full of flavor and texture.
photo from Modern Culinary Art, 1950 ed.
photo from Modern Culinary Art, 1950 ed.
When the artist in Portale found food, magic happened. After seeing Henri-Paul Pelleprat’s book, Modern culinary art –– L’art culinaire modern, full of mad illustrations and busting with classic recipes (that I wrote about HERE), he threw himself into The Culinary Institute and graduated as the top student in his class. He got ridiculously lucky translating for Michel Guérard in NYC in a pinch and through that meeting, hooked up with the Troisgros brothers doing his “French tour" (then as now, requisite for great young chefs) working at their top restaurant. His work at a NYC restaurant led to his job at Gotham and he never looked back.
photo from 1997 cookbook
Ulterior Epicure Photo from today
Thing is, what brought me to write about Gotham wasn't a Portale-styled towering dish like you would expect. I was making something simple from his 1997, Alfred Portale's Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook –– a ham sandwich, and it was so good I decided to share it with you.
|Photo from Gotham Cookbook, 1997|
The page in my copy is a bit of a mess, it has a few sauce splatters from many visits, always a badge of honor in my book. It couldn’t be simpler –– great bread, good ham and cheese and a killer sauce. This is a sandwich that came from Portale’s Buffalo, NY past. The first restaurant that he ever worked at was in Buffalo and it had the sandwich on the menu, the owner of the Chevy dealership next door had the sandwich everyday for lunch –– it’s that good. I love it with cucumber pickles and my new favorite that takes 2 minutes to make, David Leibovitz' pickled onions. You might want to make more of that sauce –– it's terribly good.
Yes, I love the elegant food at Gotham –– Portale's mustard custard is one of the best things on the planet, but he does a simple soup just as well. You'll love the restaurant and his cookbooks (there are more recent books with simple food too). You can still order their great burger, –– check out the menus HERE and enjoy!
Grilled Ham, Smoked Mozzarella and Red Onion Sandwich from Alfred Portale serves 4-8
½ c mayonnaise (bought or homemade*)
5 t ketchup
½ t cognac ( I used more – more like 1½ t)
8 slices crusty bread (my long-rise bread recipe is HERE)
8-12 oz fresh smoked mozzarella* (2 - 3 slices each sandwich)
8-12 oz smoked ham* ( 2 - 3 slices - I like Whole Foods rosemary ham for this)
1 small red onion, sliced very thin
4 T unsalted butter
Serve with pickles, pickled onions and chips.
In a bowl, combine mayonnaise, ketchup and cognac. Spread onto 4 slices the bread, layer the cheese, ham and onion and top with another slice of bread. Spread 1/2 the butter on one side of the sandwich
Heat 1/2 the butter in a pan and sauté the sandwiches on both sides, unbuttered side first -- around 5 minutes. I put a lid on the pan after I flipped to melt the cheese. I also used a sandwich weight after I flipped to even out the surface.
Cut in half and serve.
* if you have thinner slices of bread, use less. I'd say 2 oz. each is plenty. 3 oz. each is a very hefty sandwich. I would say the larger size is enough for 2!
*Mayonnaise from Alfred Portale
2 room temperature egg yolks
2 T lemon juice
1 T Dijon mustard
coarse salt and pepper to taste
cayenne to taste
1 c olive oil
1 c canola oil
1 garlic clove mashed to a poast with a sprinkle of coarse salt.
Blend the yolks, lemon, mustard salt and pepper and cayenne. Whisk the oil in drop by drop until it emulsifies. Add the garlic, and taste for spices.
(the original recipe for the mayonnaise in the book includes 1/4 c of ginger juice squeezed from 8 oz of grated ginger)
Goodbye Charlie Trotter, I will always think of you as the young genius who laid flavors on a plate like an artist lays paint on a canvas. You had so much life ahead of you.