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The Story Behind Alfred Portale's Hamburger at Gotham Bar and Grill

Welcome to Burger Time, the burger-centric column by Eater's resident carnivore Nick Solares. This week he checks out the burger at seminal NYC restaurant Gotham Bar and Grill.

It may seem that Alfred Portale was a little late to the game when he launched a lunch-only burger at Gotham Bar and Grill in 2011. Burger mania was at a sustained fever pitch by then. The economic downturn of 2008 that minced the economy was a boon for chopped beef sales as everyone scrambled to put burgers on their menus. But rewind back to 1985 when a young Portale was enlisted to helm the year-old Gotham Bar and Grill and you will also find a lunch-only burger; though the chef now admits its inclusion was a compromise. This was before Portale garnered three stars from the New York Times (reconfirmed four times). It was before receiving three James Beard Awards. It was before the book deals, and the Michelin star.

Back at the beginning of the Gotham Bar and Grill story Portale’s partners worried that there needed to be some continuity between the old and new menus, while the Portale wanted a clean slate. The young chef gave in and put a burger on the menu to appease them. He dubbed it the Jerry Burger, after partner Jerry Kretchmer who was the one most vocal opponent of the menu overhaul. To be clear, the burger was not made from Jerry, it was just named after him, although Portale does admit that the thought crossed his mind. The burger in question, version 1.0, sticks out most in Portale’s mind because it was served on a custom bun from Tomcat — perhaps one of the first bespoke buns from the now fabled bakery — and because he served it with fried vegetable chips rather than French fries. It barely lasted a year on the menu.

In the ensuing 26 years leading up to 2011 Portale set about blazing a trail for New American cuisine, embracing the nearby farmers market and crafting one of the city’s seminal and consistently top rated restaurants. And yet, over a quarter Century later an older and wiser Portale decided to reintroduce a burger. While the original one was based on compromise, version 2.0 was based on whimsy. "There was a lot of hubbub about burgers at the time and I thought it would be fun," says Portale. Like many fancypants burgers, it featured dry aged beef, using the trimming from Gotham’s prized steaks. But Portale moved away from dry aged when he came out with version 3.0, finding that there was too much variance in the intensity of the flavor and that many guests found it "too funky." Instead he started using a short rib and chuck blend from meat maestro Pat LaFrieda. If things started off whimsically, the chef was soon caught up in the burger craze. Version 3.0 remains a bit of a thorn in Portale’s side: "It should have won the Burger Bash," he states unequivocally of his entry into the annual competition. Topped with bacon jam and a "really good" truffled cheese, the burger was on the menu until about five months ago. Perhaps smarting from the loss, the chef changed the burger once more.

Alfred Portale smiles in front of a sign that says Gotham Bar & Grill Nick Solares/Eater
Gotham Bar & Grill’s dining room in black and white Nick Solares/Eater

Top: Alfred Portale. Bottom: the autopsy shot, the dining room.

And so we arrive at version 4.0: Portale is now serving an eight ounce chuck and short rib patty on a house-baked milk bread bun, blanketed with Cheddar, two thick planks of bacon, a beefsteak tomato, and lashings of a garlic infused aioli. The burger is cooked in the same broilers that crank out the steaks. "I was of the belief that the best burger is cooked on a griddle or a cast iron pan — one of my favorites is JG Melon for example," says the chef. But after experimenting extensively, the chef changed it up: Portale explains: "We ultimately went with our hotel broiler. The effect is the same."
Indeed it is. Even cooked rare, the patty exhibits a cracking sear, imbuing each bite with those rich, savory Maillard evocations. This yields to one of the fluffiest, most tender innards I have encountered. It crumbles with virtually no effort, releasing a torrent of juices. The flavor is a clean and pure beefiness. It doesn’t taste like steak but rather it tastes unequivocally like hamburger, which is to say the flavor of the chuck primal.
I may be a staunch advocate for American cheese on burgers, but I realize that it would be oddly discordant at a place like Gotham Bar and Grill. Portale uses a cheddar that melts almost as well, engulfing the patty in a molten mass, cascading down the sandwich face and forming a gooey skirt of cheese around the base. The flavor of the cheese is pure cheddar — it reminds me of England — evoking a grilled cheese sandwich hot from the farmer’s wife’s Aga oven. In the interests of journalism I attempted to eat the sandwich as it was served, putting aside my reflexive reaction of flinging off tomatoes, bacon and most any topping but cheese. But the burger here is so tall, rising up and up like a winning game of Jenga, that I couldn’t possibly fit all the components into a single bite. Call me old fashioned but I sort of think that’s at least part of the point of a burger. I could have resorted to knife and fork but instead happily lopped off the offending toppings (they make a great side salad by the way) and happily enjoyed what remained: an utterly superb cheeseburger served in one of the grandest restaurants this city has to offer.
Postscript: When interviewing Portale for this review I lamented that the burger was only available at lunch although I understand not wanting to cannibalize steaks sales at dinner. But after the interview I got a lovely note from the chef's publicist: the burger will now be at the bar during dinner service effectively immediately.

Gotham Bar and Grill

12 East 12th Street, Manhattan, NY 10003 (212) 620-4020 Visit Website

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