In his first new restaurant in New York City in almost a decade, Bobby Flay restores our faith in the quality of Food Network chefs, and proves that he is a household name for a reason beyond his sunny, television persona.
The Food Network is a mysterious beast. On one hand, it is responsible for catapulting many talented chefs into nationwide stardom and for creating a comprehensive food culture accessible to millions of Americans who are now deeply invested in all aspects of the industry for the better. On the other hand, it is a media machine that also has some baseless programming featuring food personalities with no discernible talent other than bleaching and spiking some hair while running around a grocery store game show.
And while I think I love watching Bobby Flay tear up the kitchen on Iron Chef America as much as anyone else, I’ll have to be near comatose before I ever enter Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen and Bar, which has proved that not everyone who knows a thing or two about cooking has the authority to open a restaurant, let alone a 500-seat behemoth more contrived than the restaurant inside Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland, even if the chef is on the Food Network.
But Bobby Flay is not Guy Fieri, and I like to imagine that he and other star chefs like Tom Colicchio whisper their disapproval of mediocre television personalities behind closed doors. So taking my trepidation about Food Network-branded restaurants and my possibly delusional trust in Bobby with me, I entered Gato.
And what struck me immediately was the very apparent absence of the Ruby Tuesday crowd. Gato is a serious restaurant, and Bobby Flay is a serious chef trying to do great things with his food.
The downtown space is appropriately sleek, with subway tiles and dark colors lit up by low-hanging industrial lights. The food is then appropriately dense and heavy with flavor, punching the palette with note after note of smoke, salt, acid, spice, sweetness, and fat. This is particularly true of the bar snacks, bite-sized packages of hard-hitting flavor at 3 for $17. The Beef Crudo with pickled fresno chiles and the Burrata with peperonata and harissa show off classic Flay moves of peppers built up with accessory heat, and both are marvelous successes.
The vaguely Mediterranean menu also offers some unique surprises, like the Kale and Wild Mushroom Paella with artichokes and egg, scraped up from the cast iron pan in front of the table. Mr. Flay does wonders with the crispy textures of the cooked rice, balancing them with a light but creamy sauce that slowly comes to the fore of the dish.
Yet it is the Tarragon Chicken with crispy potatoes, goat cheese, and dandelion that shows how Mr. Flay continues to make flavor combinations that have never before existed. This is a dish that makes friends for you when you notice that the table to your left has also ordered the chicken and can’t stop talking about the deeply pleasurable notes of salty, pungent goat cheese next to the most subtle herbal and licorice flavors of the tarragon and seasoned potatoes. For someone who has actively refused goat cheese and licorice independently on several occasions, I was seriously surprised by the depth of my affection for this dish.
Our neighbors seemed to be surprised too, and after sharing our mutual incredulousness at some of the food found in this city, we left the restaurant at 11:15 and saw some live music nearby. All because of that chicken. So thanks for making friends for me, Bobby. And thanks for showing us all that even celebrities can still dream up wildly new and creative flavors with appeal far beyond the confines of a Food Network caricature.