If it were 1986 and Patrick Bateman needed to find a place to celebrate a pal advancing to director at his bank, he would open his copy of the Zagat restaurant guide and find Gotham on 12th Street. Once there, he would be reassured looking around the room with its tables of six to eight guys in varying versions of a French-blue shirt with suspenders and red ties, eating food artistically stacked into towers, and drinking wines with labels you would know from a distance. The American Psycho would be comforted by the fact that most every table in the place was a good one, so no guy from another bank could look and say, “look at Bateman, sitting right next to the kitchen.” He could enjoy bumping into all of his friends who crossed the barrier to downtown to try new places like this and Union Square Café. He could bask in the din of power people loudly discussing power things at Gotham and after dinner, pop over to Nell’s to party all night and murder on his way home.
I don’t know how we decided the right place to celebrate our friend’s promotion to director at his bank last night was Gotham (maybe Brett Easton Ellis is an even more powerful author than I thought) but no doubt it was. Gotham is still a place where brokers sit and envy each other’s watches. Although French blue has changed into oxford blue, and the ties and suspenders are gone, you can still pop into Gotham and find tables of six guys, four of which clearly played ball together at some state school, and two of whom crewed at an Ivy league school, sitting together drinking old Bordeaux with lobster.
Ok, so meatheads who suffer from stereo envy have a perfect room, somehow frozen in the time when a Laserdisc machine was a multi thousand-dollar purchase, to go to. There used to be many of these in town. Why is Gotham the one still going strong as a some how un-self-conscious time capsule?
Gone are the days when Alfred Portale was the new kid on the block doing amazing new things with seasonal produce downtown. In fact, the catch-22 of Gotham is that before a lot of people get there nowadays they have already had a version of Alfred’s food somewhere else, detracting from its uniqueness.
Gotham has begotten some of NYC’s most respected chefs and restaurants, Tom Colicchio, Scott Bryan, and Wylie Dufresne (of Craft/Gramercy Tavern, Veritas, and WD50, respectively) all went through Gotham to get where they are. Although no one would say these guys are making Alfred’s food at their places, certain similarities of theme cannot be denied.
So why is Gotham still exactly Gotham, while Jams, The Quilted Giraffe, and Nell’s are all gone? Gotham makes what Gotham helped become authentic American food exactly as it should be made, every time, without fail. Somehow the exorbitant pricing is forgiven because, as with everything else at Gotham, it stems organically from those decadent days when you could trust the place was good because it cost so much money.
Innovation is one of the greatest things in cuisine, but sometimes, when you want a great night out with a group of people who have been brought together in order to celebrate rather then dine, there is something comforting in going to place that is being copied or paid homage to throughout the dining world. You can rest assured there will be something to make everyone happy, even if they are the types to reject the unfamiliar.
In 1985 Frank Prial wrote: The Gotham Bar and Grill in Greenwich Village is the latest in the converted-dry-goods-emporium series of restaurants started by Joanna's, and it proves that it's possible to have a good list that is also inexpensive. There are decent wines at $9 and a Duboeuf chiroubles at an extraordinary $10.50.
So there we were, staring at a "comfortingly" expensive wine list, trying to decide which $200 bottle of wine to choose. Looking for a bright side in that the best part about buying in this range is the same forty dollars that doubles the price of an average wine we would grab in a restaurant is negligible as the difference between $180 and $220. It is kind of an in for a penny in for a pound program.
Being a couple of bottles of Champers and a few cocktails in all ready, we decided to skip right to red wine and kicked it all off with 2000 Marcassin Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. This wine is bold and genius with a rigid backbone and great fruit. A strong wood program is evident and you can tell no expense was spared in making this the best Pinot it could possibly be, which is undeniably American. A perfect wine for this place.
We followed the Marcassin with a 2001 Cims de Porrera from Priorat in Spain. Cims are summits and this wine is made of 70% Carignan and 30% Granacha from vines between 60 and 100 years old, grown at the tops of the hills between 400 and 600 meters up. It was exciting, with a nose of dried spices, white pepper, and red fruit. Wines like this are the reason to pay the exorbitant premiums demanded in Priorat.
After a try at a 1987 Pichon Lalande that was corked, Michael Nelson (wine guy extraordinaire) in his calm confident manner, suggested we trust him in going another way. We did, and he chose a 1999 Le Macioche Brunello di Montalcino. It was great, easy drinking, with red fruit perfectly matched to the entrees we were on at that point.
Dinner was kicked off with a fish course the kitchen sent out to us. It was house-cured salmon with a Meyer lemon sauce and a small, green salad. Four slices of salmon and a salad that contained, among other things, the lovely sting of shaved scallion, paired perfectly with the pinot we were drinking, something I wasn’t sure it could pull off with the fish offered as the first course. Everyone was happy to have it.
The second course section of the menu has never not pleased me and it was a huge success again this time. I sampled the Seared Foie Gras, the lady on my right had ordered, as did every one else at the table. To be honest, the scrum at the table next to us could have shared as well the portion was so plentiful. It has perfect texture and flavor; a simple sear is really one of the best preparations for a torchon of great quality foie.
For my second course, I had the Gotham Pasta, which was home- made linguine with a simple cream sauce and a mélange of wild mushrooms. Great earthiness of beautifully pared down wild mushrooms with the sweetness of a cream sauce. Remember cream sauce on pasta? Well it is here and perfect.
The third course section has eleven choices, really something for everyone. I chose the Roast Squab; in October 1985, when Bryan Miller reviewed Gotham for the Times, he refers to the roast squab with Swiss chard as a great dish. Well it still is. It has wonderful little slices of potato that have been crisped up and mixed with sautéed greens (Swiss chard playing a part, I like to believe). There is also a slaw of shredded cabbage, which I can’t imagine Bryan would have failed to mention if it was there twenty-one years ago. It was great.
As often happens, dessert was skipped but espresso was had and it was great. I believe it is much harder to find a good coffee in this town than a great dessert, and it is another thing Gotham does exactly right.
Go to Gotham, whether you are nostalgic for the eighties, or really just want honest seasonal American food prepared exactly as it should be. For twenty-one unchanging years, it hasn’t, and won’t, disappoint.