Asam has recently arrived from London, and Bear’s divine inspiration for a truly authentic New York place to take him, before the standard Luger’s, Katz’s and so on was Gotham. Makes sense. Gotham was instrumental at shaping and definitely excels at that part of American cuisine most clearly born of the New York of our life times – her products, her history, her use of an open loft-like interior, and her love of towering structures.
Walking down Fifth and talking about Strip House, Cru, Babbo, Blue Hill, and the many other fabulous eateries within six blocks of Gotham’s front door, we got to discuss how groundbreaking it was for a good restaurant to even open in the neighborhood back when Gotham did, let alone fight it out to become a well-established destination standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the old guard, and at this point to have lasted long enough to become a benchmark for others.
So there we sat in a room typically full and bustling, at a table for four, me, Asam, Bear, and Pebbles, the two of us who had dined here before explaining that there was no bad choice to be made, and to pick freely. For wine we had an ’03 Martinelli Three Sisters Chardonnay and a ’97 Turley Zinfandel, as well as a glass each of a pink champers that was sent to welcome us. At a place as decidedly American as Gotham even I, the devout Old World cork-dork, bend to the big wines of California, “what grows… goes.”
Our Meal started with an amuse of sorts, the nicest amuse I have ever been given: a butter-poached lobster claw with tomato broth and local tomato. In a shallow pool of tomato water sat a touch of olive oil, some finely chopped chives, basil tops, half a yellow cherry tomato, and the claw of an Atlantic lobster. If there is an ingredient in the world you want your chef to have confidence in it is a good tomato. The best tomatoes are perfect with nothing more than a sprinkling of sea salt and a little olive oil. The amount of ingredients a chef adds to a tomato dish speaks to his faith in his product. At this time of year, smaller tomatoes are coming in. The slight addition of herbs here served only to point out the beautifully sweet acids of the tomato water, which in turn showed off the sweetness of the lobster, highlighting clarity in its aplomb.
From the Appetizer section of the menu I opted for the seafood salad. On top of a lobster claw wrapped in thin slices of avocado were ribbons of calamari and shrimp, with tobiko, lettuces, herbs, and peppers. A salad so simple that the tobiko got to show off a little, popping and adding its dimension much like a well placed poppy-seed will on the roll of a roast beef sandwich.
I support becoming a regular at any restaurant you like; it is a nicer way of life, being familiar with the people who put their time into making the things you love. When ordering came around, it was strongly suggested by one of the staff I consider a friend we go with pasta, and of course we ignored such advice for the first and probably last time. As if to say “look schnook, we know what you want far better than you do,” we were sent a small between-course of goat cheese tortellini in truffle brodo, with morels and corn. They were right, and we were wrong, which is almost inevitable; the pasta was not to be missed. A toothsome noodle contained a creamy yet still tangy goat cheese floating in the truffleiest substance I have ever tasted in summer. The thinness of the stock kept the dish from rooting too far in the earth and light enough for the season, and its point was driven home by the sweet snap of fresh corn kernels popping in your mouth.
For my entrée, I chose the soft shell crabs. I love fried soft shell crabs, in spite of the fact that most of the preparations I have had tend toward the greasy. At Gotham, the crabs are dredged in what must be a slurry of some kind of incredibly light starch. A thin and resistant shell is formed, with raised nubs that seem like they could be puffed rice as much as anything else. It is a treatment that somehow shirks the greasiness almost expected in soft shells these days and is so light, in fact, that even its dressing of spring onion, capers, and brown butter in no way acts as ballast. This dish is rounded out in a nouvelle manner in as much as the ingredients are all those of a New England crab boil, although each has its own unique preparation. Sections of corn off the cob, almost raw in their crispness; blanched sections of waxy potato; roasted vinegary bell peppers, and on and on. There were so many components and layers to the flavors of onion, herbs, and roasted tomatoes that each bite was entirely different from the one before, while always being about the crab.
Talk to any New Yorker and they will tell you about how they lived in such and such neighborhood long before it was gentrified. They will tell you that even though there are taller towers out there, ours are by far the best; that although California may grow more produce, ours is more flavorful; and, no matter what trend you are addressing, they will let you know that even if it didn’t start here it wasn’t real till we got hold of it. I can’t say what Gotham was like 25 years ago. All I know for sure is that it was popular enough to get people to brave the trip below 14th street for dinner when that was something that just wasn’t done. At this point, it is the consummate New York restaurant. It blazed a path to become a place rooted in its neighborhood and goes out of its way to make locals feel appreciated, while all the while exuding an easy confidence and seeming almost unaware of those that emulate it; a place with a long history of doing just what it does and doing it well.