Bring L.A. Friends to Gotham, But Forsake Those Tiny Frocks

Gotham Bar & Grill is in many ways the quintessential New York restaurant. It is a postmodern take on the city, with its park balustrades, columns and even a Statue of Liberty presiding from one corner. It’s not a hushed temple of gastronomy where silver domes are whisked silently from the plates set down before you and nothing interrupts your concentration on the food. Like the city, it’s crowded, noisy, even a bit claustrophobic. In Las Vegas, there’s probably a room trying to look like this one-but there are few places in New York or elsewhere that can match chef Alfred Portale’s food. His signature-ingredients stacked up on the plate in high, vertical creations-is right at home in a city of skyscrapers.

Recently, I went to Gotham for lunch with an editor who has a close friend in the fashion business who supplies her with designer clothes. The drawback is that they are always size 4, and she has to watch what she eats in order to fit into them.

“I want something very, very light,” she had announced firmly as we took our places for lunch on the banquette, helping herself to a piece of the crusty roll the waiter had put on my side plate. “If I take some of yours, it doesn’t count, does it?”

We began by sharing a salad that was modest in scale by Mr. Portale’s standards. Baby lettuces heaped up (though not eight inches high) and a colorful array of vegetables-glistening beets, plump grilled leeks, roasted red peppers-presided over by a melted disk of warm goat cheese speared with croutons. Each ingredient had intense flavor. After we had finished, she looked at me in dismay. “I hate it when I can’t leave half the food on my plate.”

For her main course, she had ordered roast cod with mashed potatoes, sugar snap peas and lobster essence. “This is simply wonderful …” she said, her voice trailing away. “I can’t come back here.”

I was eating rare tuna, cut in thick squares and served with a nice wintry mix of savoy cabbage, green lentils, sweet waxy fingerling potatoes, the whole complex of flavors brought together with a rich, dark cabernet sauce.

For dessert, we had one of the best chocolate cakes I have ever tasted, a dark, airy sponge served warm with toasted almond ice cream.

“I could do the whole meal all over again,” sighed my friend after the last mouthful had disappeared. The only thing she was not ecstatic about was the dining room, which is on several levels and is certainly unwieldy. It was redone a couple of years ago and now, with a banquette down the middle, it seems a lot less noisy than it used to be. The high ceilings are still hung with lights covered with a strange fabric that looks like a cross between a parachute and a diaper, but they cast a gentle, diffused glow over the room that is not unflattering. The service is unobtrusive and impeccable.

A few nights later, I returned for dinner with two former New Yorkers who now live in Los Angeles. Both of them had come here years ago and had been distinctly underwhelmed, but on this occasion they were certainly impressed. We began with Mr. Portale’s famous tuna tartare, which was cut in thick chunks, tossed in a ginger vinaigrette, topped with a spray of greens and surrounded with a ring of sliced cucumber. The woman from Los Angeles said she had never tasted better in her life. The man, who had ordered seafood salad, another Gotham favorite, took a while to muster up the courage to knock down the precarious tower of lolla rosa, frisée and red oak-leaf lettuce set before him. When he did, he was rewarded by a nest of poached squid, octopus, scallops, lobster and avocado seasoned with a sharp, clean lemon vinaigrette. It tasted as though it had been prepared on the shores of the Mediterranean. Salmon carpaccio was also good, with slivered cremini mushrooms, two tiny grissini and a salad of baby greens. In the attempt to keep size 6 if not size 4 within my grasp, I had the cauliflower vichyssoise, swirled with a translucent green purée of leeks; in the center, a fat, bronzed sea scallop topped with osetra caviar floated like a raft.

People who live in Los Angeles take their food as seriously as New Yorkers, and when I bring them to restaurants in Manhattan they can be pretty critical-downright sniffy sometimes (we don’t have anything like their fruits and vegetables, and so on). But at Gotham, both Californians admitted that they’d never eaten this well in L.A. Mr. Portale has an unerring way of combining ingredients in ways that bring out the best of each one and that also work as a whole. Roasted lobster tails were tender and juicy, served with an energetic array of the sort of vegetables you want in winter-savoy cabbage, fingerling potatoes, whole garlic and flageolet beans. Meaty, rare slices of duck breast coated with Chinese spices were served with seared foie gras, caramelized mango, baby bok choy and crunchy snow pea pods (eat that and try to get into your Chanel!). Squab, also cooked rare, was matched with soft white polenta and borlotti beans that cut the richness of the meat. The pheasant was also delicious, marinated in ginger and juniper and served with red cabbage and a poached lady apple.

My only remaining caveat is the prices on the wine list. It is an excellent list, but at first glance seems to be denominated in yen rather than dollars. We chose a Chorey-Côte-de-Beaune, which at $45 was one of the cheapest, and it was wonderful.

Desserts were certainly no letdown. We wound up dinner with a terrific lemon almond torte with lemon basil ice cream (garnished with a jaunty “cigar” filled with lemon cream), and profiteroles stuffed with espresso, almond and vanilla ice creams. Vanilla bean crème brûlée was as light and delicately custardy as you could imagine, served with a warm compote of bananas flavored with anise.

Mr. Portale has published a first-rate cookbook containing recipes for many dishes from the restaurant, simplified for the home cook. I thought for a moment of sending a copy to the friend who used to be a size 4 before she went out to lunch with me. But then I decided that wouldn’t be very kind. Gotham Bar & Grill

***

12 East 12th Street, near Fifth Avenue 620-4020

dress: Business

noise level: Reasonable

wine list: Outstanding but very expensive

credit cards: All major

price range: Lunch main courses $16 to $19.50, dinner $27 to $35

lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2:15 P.M.

dinner: Monday to Thursday 5:30 P.M. to 10:15 P.M., Friday and Saturday to 11:15 P.M.

* good

* * very good

* * * excellent

* * * * outstanding

no star poor

Bring L.A. Friends to Gotham, But Forsake Those Tiny Frocks