One of the first lessons I learned in my grad school graphic arts classes was that elements on a page or screen should complement one another. If they are not complementary, they are in conflict. Conflicting elements confuse the consumer and lead to poor design. This fact is true in fine art, music, or really anything one creates. The Gestalt Principles were based on how people group visually similar items together on sight. Every item is perceived in its most simple form as the brain seeks to make order out of chaos.
This fact is also true in the kitchen. Open your favorite cookbook and pick a recipe. You will find a central ingredient paired with aromatics, herbs, and other elements to present a harmonious flavor. Think about a marinara sauce for a second. Tomatoes are the central ingredient, but you don’t just heat and serve them. Garlic, basil, salt, and oil each bring a certain flavor profile that blends together without any one element fighting for attention.
Everything I ever learned about cooking comes back to that simple principle.
And everything I know about cooking was incinerated by Bobby Flay during our visit Sunday evening to Gato.
Each flavor presented to us was independent, without regard for teamwork or harmony. Not only did they stand on their own with bold, piercing impact, never did they conflict with one another. This entire menu has the potential to be a messy 60-vehicle collision of flavors. Instead, the meal left me speechless.
For 30 minutes.
I sat at the table with a confused look on my face, through the aperitif of cream sherry presented to us after we declined dessert, to the presentation of the check when I attempted to calculate a tip; an act so second-nature to me that it takes longer for The Wife to dig out her phone, unlock it and open her calculator app than it does for me to work out a percentage in my head. But there I sat, victim of an endorphin release, incapable of anything more than a mutter.
Reservations for this evening were made exactly 30 days in advance on OpenTable. Forget about doing it any other way right now. The celebrity chef’s newest outpost is high on the list of the city’s hottest tables. When I booked our reservation at 6:30 a.m. on the day tables for June 29 were released, the latest table available was 6:15.
We arrived early and took up space at the bar, a large rectangle at the middle of the dining room, before moving to our seat. Mohammed, our server, was precisely what this restaurant needs right now. The menu makes no sense and Mohammed was our translator, guiding us to the signature dishes from start to finish. The night before, we had drinks with a friend from college. Brian told us that he was jealous of his wife’s vegetarian paella, regretting that he did not order it for himself. She admitted that she considered licking the pan. The Wife was going to order this, as I planned to order rabbit. Mohammed changed our plans.
Knowledgable without being pushy, he pointed out the house specialties while mixing in his own favorites on the page. Flay’s front-of-house crew is trained so that not only do they know the basics, they can explain how the dish is created.
The menu itself is a play in four acts: a bar apps menu ordered as a trio of tapas for $17, a selection of 10 starters ranging from salads to pizzas, entrees, and an a la carte list of vegetables.
We started with the softshell crab crostini and scrambled eggs. The former was presented with two baby crabs, dusted and fried, and served on toasted bread with a tomato-basil tapenade and sprinkling of smoked paprika. Fried to perfection, the crab was intense, as was the fresh punch of the tomato.
As odd of a choice as it sounded, the scrambled eggs were a standout. Just-done eggs were mixed with a traditional romesco sauce and a soft Boucheron cheese. Served with a tomato confit toast, the roasted red pepper and almond from the romesco were dominant, but you could not escape the instantly recognizable flavor of goat cheese. When we ran out of toast, I used the spoon and at it directly from the bowl.
It was a simple starter combining eggs with a traditional Mediterranean romesco, but one could not get over how each flavor — the creamy, pungent cheese, the nutty almond, the sharpness from the red pepper — stood up on their own. It was like an Olympics track and field or figure skating competition. Each athlete, regardless of country, competes against one another, but are united by their nation’s flag.
It should not have been good.
It was superb. And it set a stage.
I had planned to order rabbit, figuring that this kitchen would do it right, while The Wife was planning on the paella. Upon Mohammed’s recommendation, I chose the paella while she had steamed halibut.
One would think that steamed fish would be boring and lifeless. One would be wrong. The filet was cooked with mint, olives, anchovy and served in a saffron-tomato broth with couscous. I don’t care for halibut, but was seduced by it when paired with this broth. The sharpness of the saffron should have overpowered everything around it, yet it did not. It was the dominant flavor, but not at the expense of anything around it. I considered ordering a coffee cup full of the broth for dessert.
The kale and mushroom paella is shaping up to be one of the flagship entrees at Gato. Paraphrasing my friend Brian, you want a protein at this sort of restaurant, so your eyes are drawn to the charred beef, halibut or, in my case, rabbit. But, it’s the paella that nonchalantly stands at the corner, waiting for you to wander down the street so it can assault you with wilted kale, use a runny egg to steal your wallet and run away before you realized that you have never tasted artichokes that way.
Presented in a single-serve paella pan, a member of the waitstaff scrapes the pan for you, tossing the ingredients together with a spade so you don’t have to. If you have never had a paella, you have to understand the rice at play here. Spanish bomba rice is a hardy sort. Traditional Valenciana recipes hold the rice in the pan for at least an hour at varying temperatures. The texture is more like a perfectly cooked al dente pasta.
The flavor? I can’t describe it. I could make up a word to illustrate the interplay of strong flavors from the briny artichoke, peppery kale, nutty rice and the egg. Oh, the egg. Why is there an egg on top of this? Because it binds everything in the way that a broth could never dream. If I did make up a word, it would involve rolled r’s and a tilde and you would need six semesters of Spanish to pronounce it correctly. You’re better off booking a reservation and going.
As Brian’s wife, Shawna, foreshadowed, I found myself sitting at my paella pan teetering on the edge of licking it.
Writing about the charred carrots with parsnip chips, harissa and yogurt would simply be overkill in an already long review. Suffice it to say, I’ve now been ruined on carrots.
We declined dessert. I cannot imagine any dessert at this establishment standing up to the entree course in a way that ties the experience in a bow. Mohammed brought us flutes of sherry as we contemplated our newfound enlightenment at the hands of the TV chef, who was taking an uncharacteristic day off from the line to shoot one of his television shows.
Food critics have struggled when reviewing this restaurant. People who do this professionally don’t know what to expect and find themselves confused about what they are served. The food is amazing, though it shouldn’t be. As I said before, Gato should be a disastrous experiment in culinary contention and the antagonism between ingredients.
Instead, it was an awe-inducing experience that I cannot put out of my mind.
I’m still lost for words.
Gato is located in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood at 324 Lafayette Street between Bleecker and E. Houston in New York City. Reservations are required. Dinner for two with drinks was $125 before tip.