Thursday, November 7, 2013

New York’s Gotham Bar and Grill and a Great Ham Sandwich

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?

Alfred Portale, NYT photo
In 1985, NYT critic Bryan Miller wrote “In a short time, Mr. Portale has transformed the Gotham into one of the most exciting ''new'' restaurants in town. His cooking approach is contemporary and personal, but not free-wheeling; his dishes are visually dazzling but rarely incongruent.”

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

The restaurant still makes the top 10 list of  NYC's best restaurants and has generations of fans –––  being open nearly 30 years and still great in NYC is quite an accomplishment. It’s not just the food, it’s the service. People say over and over again that the staff is remarkable. Reichl said it well in 1996, “The service is a big part of this equation. The people who work at Gotham Bar and Grill have figured out how to make Americans feel at ease in the presence of fancy food. This is harder than it sounds; there are no rules and different people have different expectations. At Gotham, the waiters take their cues from the customer, tuning in to almost imperceptible vibrations. Give the waiter the slightest hint that you are interested and he will describe the food in loving detail. Indicate that you are not and your order will be taken without a word.” They treat you well whether you are ordering big and expensive or sharing appetizers. I've never had a bad meal there.  Waiting at the bar is always fun because it's like a stage.

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.

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La Table De Nana said...

I was actually sad to read aour Charlie Trortter..
I have not stopped thinking about him..Life is precious and for some it is short.. for some frought with challenges..A mystery for certain regarding the disparities for each and every one.

You know Deana..your food photos are right up tehre as the magazine ones..

ArchitectDesign™ said...

Yummy yumm. I've never heard of the restaurant but it's on my list for my next trip! I can never pass up a good burger (my favorite meal)

lindaraxa said...

Oh no, Charlie Trotter died? I had no idea. His restaurant was one I never visited and wished I had. I have both cookbooks, his, and the Gotham B & G but have never cooked from either of them. I think I will take both to bed with me and take a look. That sandwich looks divine. So simple...goes to show you.

Reggie Darling said...

I've eaten at Gotham half a dozen times over the years. Interestingly, I had one of the rudest, most impatient waiters of my life there one evening, which soured my appreciation for the place. Like you, I found/find the decor off-putting, but the food really is divine, and those towers--oh what a delectable thing of beauty they are! Reggie

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

I haven't been to the Gotham Bar and Grill in so many years. The idea of "tall food" seems almost "quaint" today, but your photos tell the story - the dramatic dimensions never fail to impress. I did not know that Portale started in design, but this makes perfect sense. Craving that "ham sandwich" right now ...

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I must admit that I never really considered the concept of "tall food" until now! But I can imagine what a visual impression that it makes. A few years ago we went to a restaurant that had a very tall salad and we were impressed. And thinking about meals nowadays, they're relatively flat! :P And now all I want is a ham sandwich-that ham sandwich! :D

Barbara said...

I haven't been for a few years, but you said two things that are THE most important: you never had a bad meal there and the service is impeccable. You just can't beat that combo.
As far as ambiance is concerned, one of our favorite restaurants in S. Florida is in a strip mall in Pompano Beach. Ugly mall, uninspiring decor, but oh my. The food, the wine list...never had a bad meal there either.
Your sammie looks deeevine!

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to remember this place for my next NYC visit. The sandwich looks fab.
Hope you've had a good weekend daaahling!
*kisses* H

Anonymous said...

Love your blog. Ann

El said...

The tall food looks incredible. It is indeed sad for the culinary world to lose Charlie Trotter.

Frank said...

For me there is no doubt about it: simple food, prepared well, makes for the very best eating.

pam said...

that looks like the perfect sandwich. I've pinned those pickled red onions - I adore condiments!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I am drooling at your gorgeous grilled cheese. On busy days we'll indulge in the occasionally grilled cheese with pickles and chips :) I'd love to try this gourmet version.

Thanks again for your support and kind comments recently.

Diane said...

Tall food is a new one on me. I have to say though, that sandwich of yours, just looking at the photo my mouth was watering :-)) Have a good week.

Sarah said...

Oh my gosh, that looks decadent. There is no better ham than what you can find in the U.S., I swear. When I was in TN I could break down in tears trying to choose one. The choices were amazing.

Christo Gonzales said...

I was the stylist for that dewars ad

Karina A. Fogliani-Ahmed said...

The sauce looks definitely interesting.