As prime time approached on a recent Saturday night, a family of four stood at arm’s length, eyeing our table with intent. Unable to finagle her way into the vibrating mass stationed around the massive cornerstone bar, which separates the back dining room from a small front lounge, the quartet’s matriarch leaned in for the third time.
“I’m sorry to keep bothering you, it’s just that we’ve been waiting for almost an hour and they said this area is first come, first serve, but people who got here after us just took those seats. Can we ‘reserve’ your table for when you’re finished?”
Never mind that we were sat at a two-top — the woman was determined to make it work despite looking like she wanted to beat Bobby Flay, and not in a televised event developed by Bob Tuschman.
Only at impossibly busy restaurants do people resort to such intrepid schemes, and Gato — Bobby Flay’s first opening in almost a decade — has been slammed since the celebrity chef and his partner, Laurence Kretchmer, renovated a former Bowery Residents Committee addiction treatment center in early March.
Drastic measures are familiar territory for Mr. Flay, who’s spent the past nine years zooming headfirst through an olive-oil-slicked Slip ‘n Slide of fame and the occasional misfortune. As his Food Network presence increased, the New York native was forced to close his two most significant restaurants: Bolo, where he harnessed the flavors of Spain, and its predecessor, Mesa Grill, a love letter to the Southwest. Even celebrity chefs aren’t immune to the NYC real estate beast. Perhaps because of these losses, at Gato — which the chef openly admits is Bolo reinterpreted — it would appear that he’s playing for keeps.
Were you just getting used to small plates, the scourge of contemporary dining? Gato knows you’re one hep cat, so Mr. Flay serves micro plates masquerading as a selection of bar tastes. They come as a set of three for $17, more of a glorified solo appetizer trio than a shareable dish. Perhaps that’s why a lone, albeit perfectly fried shrimp has been axed; memorable but impractical, as many tables were splitting forkfuls between multiple diners.
The rest of the dishes are split between appetizers, vegetable sides, and proper entrées, although a platter of three signature spreads in ring-molded loose circles gets its own designation on the menu apart from the bar snacks (and for $1 less).
The kitchen pulls flavors from the Mediterranean and the Middle East, coaxing nuance out of supple roasted octopus via tangerine sauce rounded out by oregano and crisp bacon. Soft-shell crab crostini entertains a lingering spice thanks to harissa along with the oniony depth of charred ramps. A take on frisée aux lardons with apricot vinaigrette, white chicory, and crisp chorizo is met with battling forks eager to cleave the salad’s poached egg. Oblong pizzas bear toppings of goat cheese or sliced lamb sausage. Head for the barnyard and you’ll be further rewarded with heady tomato jam and a heaping garnish of mint.
Having produced 13 programs for the Food Network over his career, Flay’s no stranger to the constructed drama of TV storytelling. As such, larger plates showcase larger flavors. Mussel stock simmered with squid ink coats pasta so thickly that, after twirling our way through the carbohydrate minefield of fettucine and mussels sitting in sharp green onion sauce, we look like we’ve chewed too vigorously on several pens. The black-and-green canvas is crowned with a pair of bright red Spanish prawns. Pats of Spanish Valdeón blue cheese mixed with brown butter accent medallions of charred beef, but a porterhouse pork chop bests its bovine contender in this meaty throwdown thanks to heavy char and red pepper romesco polenta. Kale and mushroom paella hides a decent socarrat, the crispy bits of the dish that stick to the pan during cooking. Two tiny hunks of rabbit tenderloin vanish immediately, but a deeply browned leg makes the portion feel generous. Glazed with sweet carrot hot sauce, the usually mild meat is vibrant, tempered by an earthy pile of pearled fregola sarda mixed with peas and chanterelles and topped with crispy ham.
Mesa Grill’s Clarisa Martino presides over a dessert menu that complements Flay’s savory handiwork in its balance of the familiar and mildly boundary-pushing. A squat tower of tarte tatin welcomes vanilla-black pepper gelato. Espresso-soaked bread pudding is denser and more gratifying than the tiramisu it impersonates. But a rustic blackberry crostata softening under strawberry rhubarb gelato is just plain satisfying. So is Gato.