Paleo Retiree writes:
In one corner: Gato, located in NYC’s NoHo, and the latest creation of celebrity chef Bobby Flay. The Question Lady and I have been eating Flay’s food since the days of his pre-Food Network restaurant Miracle Grill. We have zero against his stardom, by the way. Like Emeril, Flay has more than earned his rep and his fame, and is an awesome (and awesomely creative) chef as well as a first-class TV personality. Go, Bobby!
In the other: Madison Square Eats, a traveling, motley collection of food stands run by young hipsters devoted to the locavore / craft movement.
Tale of the Tape
Gato: White tablecloth but non-snobby elegance and dazzle, with flavors, decor and service all cranked up to 11. Slick as can be, but in a very rewarding way. Think: a world-class orchestra at its vigorous, precision-trained and sensual best.
Madison Square Eats: Quirkiness, funkiness, bicycles, knitted watchcaps, and uninhibited use of the words “sourced” and “artisanal.” Think: a neo-hippie music festival.
What We Had
At Gato: Perfectly-done, ultra-tender steak exploding with a complex, rich rub, pasta with sausage and mozzarella, roasted brussels sprouts with pomegranate seeds, and silky-rich desserts full of delightful texture surprises. The wines and signature cocktails were to swoon for.
At Madison Square Eats: Oysters, a lobster roll, tacos with Korean flavors, and a truly zany ice cream sandwich.
Atmosphere and Service
At Gato: The theme is “downtown funky/chic”: an industrial-style space, bare brick walls, old-timey floors, ceilings and lamps … Art-directed to death, if the truth be told; I looked at the brick on a wall closely at one point and it turned out to be not real brick but an appliqué about half an inch thick. The crowd: moneyed bridge-and-tunnel scene-makers, or so it seemed to our cynical eyes. The service was spectacularly competent, informed and on-the-ball, the perfect blend of attentive, helpful and non-intrusive. (Our friendly, bright and enthusiastic waiter was at least as smart as the Question Lady and I put together.) We were never rushed, and were always made to feel welcome. The dessert mouthfuls and the after-dinner drinks that were brought unbidden to us at the end of our meal were a genuinely beautiful touch.
At Madison Square Eats: Atmosphere: outdoors, a small car-free zone, though with traffic whizzing by not too far away, and loads of happy people milling about — a benign, cheery and accessible vibe akin to what you’d find at a typical urban farmers market. I’d have felt no hesitation striking up a conversation with anyone. The service: no serving people at all in the waiter-and-waitress sense. The people on the other side of the counters taking our orders ranged (in the usual “alternative” way) from sparkly oddballs to sulky flannel-shirted prima donnas. But they all seemed deeply committed to their offbeat creations and many of them had some boho charm.
At Gato: Spectacular, in a hyper-bold and ballsy kind of way. As beautifully engineered as the evening was, there was nothing precious or fussy about what we were served. Every bite was burstin’ with flavor and texture, every dish was an arresting work of art to look at and sniff. We had the impression that Flay wanted to make his return to New York City with every single one of his guns blazing — that he’d decided to use Gato to show off everything he’s learned during his years on the Food Network about gobsmacking the broad audience with restaurant-going pleasure. Plus, it was hard to believe how purringly the place was running given how recently it had opened.
At Madison Square Eats: Indie-rock-style random yumminess. Mucho oddball combining of tastes and ingredients from different cultures, a po-mo mix of high and low, and a plethora of weirdly-but-pleasingly fussed-over micro-details: Pretzels used as sandwich bread; hyper-peculiar (but wonderful) mustards that could almost stand as main courses; Kimchi hot dogs … There was little to be found that wasn’t arresting and at least semi-original. My lobster roll was as juicily orgasmic as anything I’ve had during visits to Maine. My shellfish-addict wife’s verdict on her plateful of oysters was “As good as you can get in New York City.” I’m not much of a dessert eater, but that artisanal ice-cream sandwich I mentioned above? It was a giddily entrancing high.
As partial as I am to Bobby Flay, and as much as I root these pussified days for all displays of confident manliness — and it’s hard for me to imagine a more manly-yet-sophisticated dining experience than the one we had at Gato — I’m going to hand this particular trophy to Madison Square Eats. First let me say that I found it almost impossible to find fault with Gato. Our meal there was one of the most amazin’ displays of cooking-and-restaurant prowess that I’ve ever experienced: Staging, execution, delivery and vibe were all beyond-snazzy. And the spirit of the place was affable and lovely too. Yet, yet … Eating at Gato made me feel — just a little bit — like we were livin’ a Food Network version of great dining. Nothing wrong with that, of course … but when in NYC why settle for even a slightly simulacrum-eque version of the real thing? I was also reminded — just a little bit — of late Fellini movies. Gato is indisputably the work of a master at the top of his form, but it was also a little deracinated, a little empty. We were experiencing showiness for the sake of showiness, in other words. And, as knocked-out as we were, and as pleased as the crowd around us understandably seemed to be with its evening, we’ll probably never return. That said: no disrespect meant. If you’re visiting NYC, by all means treat yourself to a meal at Gato. Extreme feelings of pleasure and satisfaction are pretty much guaranteed.
Where Gato is all about sitting at the center of a circus of delightfulness, Madison Square Eats is food for the smartphone generation: Stand up, sit down, mill about — you put your experience together for yourself, and you do it, most probably, on the go. For better and worse, this is what today’s young foodies are into, and (whatever my general misgivings about Today’s Youth) extreme devotion to quirky food experiences may be the best thing about today’s younger SWPLs. As Blowhard Esq memorably said (on Facebook, if I remember right) about his culinary adventures during a recent visit to NYC: “I must have eaten at a dozen really annoying hipster / locavore places, and they were all great.” What an era in food! Food in NYC at the moment strikes me as being quite the equal, cultural-ferment-wise, of the punk-rock years. Some of these talented kids will go on to become well-known … but, really (and wishing them all well, of course), who cares? When I eat, I eat in the Now. Besides, and speaking entirely personally, the Question Lady and I aren’t just New Yorkers, we’re downtown New Yorkers, and the fun of the new and the different — the fun of exploring what gifted young people you’ve never heard of are getting up to these days — is a big part of why we go to the trouble and expense of living here. We’ll leave Gato, as dazzling as it is, to the moneyed rubes who it’s probably meant for, and who seem more than happy to be there.
Inadequate iPhone Snapshot Galleries
Madison Square Eats
- Blowhard, Esq. sampled a Gordon Ramsay outlet, munched his way around New York City, and watched a recent documentary about the Danish bicycles-and-pedestrians-over-cars planner Jan Gehls. (When the Question Lady and I visited Madison Square Eats, it was located right here.)
- Eddie Pensier chowed down at Umami Burger and at NYC’s legendary Keen’s Steakhouse.
- Fenster devoted some serious thought to the very nature of umami: here and here.
- I did some great eating in Louisville, KY, and raved about Jeepney, an offbeat Filipino gastropub.
- The New York Times’ Pete Wells didn’t love Gato, but he does a great job of describing how scrumptious — and maybe over-scrumptious — the food is.
- Speaking of the decentralized and the local … I found Bill Kauffman’s latest very moving and inspiring. Doesn’t hurt that I agree with almost every word of it.