Bobby Flay has an army of vocal detractors. Flay hate is spewed across the internet, seemingly related to his perceived cockiness. He acknowledges as much on his Twitter account, which announces, "This is a no-hater zone."
There's a decent chance that Flay is on television right about now. At least it seems that way from his omnipresence on the Food Network and its sister, the Cooking Channel. Long after Emeril was deported and Rachael Ray and Mario Batali both decamped to broadcast TV land, Flay's face can still be found on at least a half-dozen food channel shows. That says something about his appeal and staying power, somewhat improbable considering the brash persona of a native New Yorker is playing to the mainly middle American, female-skewing demographic of the Food Network. And here he is again, this time hosting yet another new program, temptingly titled Beat Bobby Flay.
But Bobby's hard to beat. It would appear that Flay has performed well in business too, exploiting both his star power and his cooking chops. Together with longtime partner Laurence "Lo" Kretchmer, there are restaurants in New York City, as well as branches in the Bahamas, Connecticut and New Jersey, and a mini-chain of Bobby's Burger Palaces scattered throughout the country.
With his reputation and success firmly established, it takes a certain courage -- chutzpah or cojones as it's alternatively called in New York -- to put himself on the line again. Literally. Bobby is currently cooking in the kitchen at Gato, the team's newly opened and highly anticipated eatery in NYC's Noho neighborhood. Just as he does on the air, he's asking that you judge him and try to beat him.
Kretchmer mentioned on a recent evening at the restaurant that he had been looking for a space like this for about five years. And a great space it is, in a century-old building, ideally situated one block from the very central Broadway-Lafayette subway station. It was designed by David Rockwell, arguably New York's preeminent restaurant designer, who brought disparate elements to the existing structural framework that create a New York theatricality. It is at once classic and contemporary, energized, yet cool, and spacious without sacrificing warmth. Brick, iron and sky high ceilings coalesce with a handsome mosaic floor, funky light fixtures and wood reclaimed from New York water towers (that Rockwell himself proudly pointed out that same night). At the moment, you can also spot Bobby at work in the glass enclosed kitchen, as well as a smattering of food TV celebs (such as Scott Conant and Claire Robinson) lounging at the substantial, rectangular bar.
The menu is broadly appealing, offering multiple sized options of the Ibero-Mediterranean flavors in Flay's wheelhouse. So called "bar" foods come in threes, allowing one to sample morsels of squid with bacon and garlic, a little 11-layer potato with caramelized shallots, and a meatball-like chorizo "crepinette" served with apricot mostarda and pickled Brussels sprouts. For those who like dips, they are also presented as a trio -- yogurt with a charred green chile pesto, a chick pea with Meyer lemon and smoked paprika spread and a white bean puree topped by feta, garlic and a walnut-piquillo relish -- and served against a stack of warm buckwheat pitas.
Among appetizers, roasted octopus with tangerine, bacon and oregano was a standout. If you haven't had the pleasure of enjoying octopus, don't be afraid: This is one to try. Meltingly tender and scented by the smoky perfume given off by the pork, think of it as miniature Portuguese surf and turf. The pizza with lamb sausage, tomato jam, mozzarella and mint is a pleasant melange atop chewy flatbread. Asparagus and fava beans accented with pecorino and pistachios is a tasty and textural springtime treat. A main course of tarragon chicken was fragrant and moist, with crispy potatoes, goat cheese and dandelion. The perfectly piggy Porterhouse Pork Chop with tomato pan juices is a big winner, alongside creamy romesco polenta. Rich chocolate crema catalana and a vibrant Meyer Lemon Tart sweetly topped off a delicious evening improved by an aromatic Rioja 'Reserva' from the well-composed wine list. Service was serviceable, if inconsistent.
You've got to hand it to Bobby Flay. He could have rested on his laurels and certainly shilled more than he has. Instead, he's cooking, boldly and publicly, in the single most competitive restaurant (and media) market in the world, again asking for judgement. Although it's premature to predict its long-term success, and perhaps too early to fairly assess its full potential, Gato is a winner.
Flay wins again.