One could employ all sorts of metaphors to describe the delicate process of replacing the revered chef at a venerable, though now slightly dated, big-city restaurant. There’s the new-sports-coach metaphor, although not many teams have had a head coach for as long as the recently deposed Alfred Portale ran the Gotham Bar and Grill, which opened, as its devotees can tell you, in a tall loft space in the Village almost four decades ago. There’s the avuncular-school-principal metaphor or the old cruise-ship-captain metaphor, although, in the fickle restaurant world, old regulars aren’t forced to sit patiently at their tables the way students are when a new head of school arrives (they generally bolt in a huff and never return), and when a new ship’s captain is piped onboard, he or she doesn’t usually have to come up with a whole new itinerary or replace the entire crew.
Victoria Blamey, who took over the kitchen at Gotham Bar and Grill after the old captain’s forced, somewhat abrupt departure several months back, has had to deal with these issues plus several more. As on a cruise ship, old regulars are the lifeblood of iconic ye-olde-gourmet establishments like this one. Trying to keep the Old Guard happy while developing a new crowd of slightly more, er, “current” regulars is no easy task, especially when the makeover period is such a short one. It’s even more difficult when the grand old dining room itself, with its puffy hanging-light installations and long granite bar, hasn’t yet undergone a serious redesign and still provokes in the hearts of old regulars, like me, a kind of Pavlovian desire for a wheel of Portale’s tuna tartare, perhaps, or a bite or two of one of his vertically arranged lamb chops.
But Blamey — who, when we last glimpsed her briefly in the kitchen of the newly rebooted Chumley’s down in the West Village, was showing a talent for polished, upmarket pub food — does a good job of charting her own measured course through these various perils and pitfalls. Her excellent “Vic’s burger,” for which she won much praise at Chumley’s (unlike Portale’s more classic effort, the Vic is touched with mango-flavored barbecue sauce, among other things, and is shot through with melted bone marrow), has been transported to the newly beefed-up Gotham bar menu. Fans of classic savory French pastry can enjoy an inventive, New Age crabmeat pithivier to go with their goblet of white Burgundy at the bar, along with chunky rillettes made of wild boar instead of the usual pork or duck, and, for the princely sum of $55, a beautifully cooked New York strip steak piled with a stack of frites sizzled in beef tallow.
It’s natural, when following an iconic long-running act, to strain for iconic moments of your own, and there are times, especially during dinner service, when you can feel the kitchen straining for esoteric touches when just one or two will do. The house sourdough is rendered spongy and strangely inert by the presence of quinoa and what the menu describes as “brined pumpkin seeds.” My West Coast Baywater oysters were as plump and sweet as you’d expect in a first-class restaurant, although I’m not sure the garlic chips and little balls of avocado purée added to their deliciousness. Smoked avocado worked much better as a garnish for the elegantly sliced hamachi crudo, and if you’re looking for a new iteration of foie gras terrine, the latest Gotham version is layered with shiitake mushrooms and braised ham hocks and set in a cooled veal jus.
Blamey is a talented meat cook and has a knack for enlivening heavy, traditional recipes with a touch of lightness and style. I’m thinking of little twirls of Ibérico pork cheeks (served as an appetizer, dressed with black vinegar and petals of baby onion), the beef tartare (folded with tomato confit and crushed hazelnuts as at Chumley’s), and a perfectly cooked square of tilefish that the kitchen recently dressed with pats of gently charred uni. The tender cube of lamb shoulder I enjoyed one evening was garnished with a Calabrian-chile sauce that I had to restrain myself from licking off my plate, and if you call for the exceptional (and at $135, not inexpensive) aged Niman Ranch rib eye for two, you’ll find that it is seized in an addictive, faintly candied glaze made with veal stock and a dousing of beet juice.
It’s difficult to know how the old Gotham diehards are taking these radical little changes, although on my visits, the room was full with the usual mixture of business suits, familiar faces from the neighborhood, and slightly dazed out-of-town tourists. There are still plenty of things for an Old Guard to take comfort in, however, including a bowl of squid-ink “spaghetti neri” (folded with a rich and generous octopus ragù) and the porcelet, which is one of the better new pork dishes in town. There’s also a recognizable and impressive roster of classic desserts, by Gotham’s longtime pastry chef Ron Paprocki, which includes blocks of caramelized pain perdu bolstered with brown-butter ice cream; a beautiful, slim raspberry vacherin decked with flower petals and tiny caps of meringue; and a pear soufflé that, in texture, taste, and appearance, seems uncannily like something the old master would have been pleased to serve back in the day, when the restaurant first opened its doors in the spring of 1984.
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*This article appears in the December 9, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!