Portale in Chelsea is as much an ode to Italy as it is a tableau of suburban riche, a place where stately gourmands in blazers enjoy mushy cod fritto misto while listening to U2’s City of Blinding Lights. Diners will encounter the obligatory branzino, the de rigueur duck breast, the throwback meatball sliders (how very 2007), and other safe preparations that look like the type of things that might be served at a graduation dinner for Georgetown Prep.
But patrons will also come across a list of pastas that show the work of a longtime chef eager to try out new ideas: Alfred Portale, who peppered his New American menu at Gotham Bar & Grill with whimsical noodle dishes for nearly 40 years. And at his first solo restaurant, the excitement and experimentation lies in the promising — albeit unevenly executed — pasta program.
The best is the en brodo preparation. Whereas the traditional dish from Emilia-Romagna involves floating meat-filled pasta in a salty, restorative soup, Portale instead plays flavor Tetris. A waiter pours a dark double chicken stock over five gumdrop-sized tortellini. The broth is so concentrated it almost seems to possess the astringency of a young barolo. It needs something else, just like a tight wine sometimes needs a fatty steak.
Enter the foie gras, which cooks stuff into those tortellini with a bit of chestnut cream. The dumplings explode with a wallop of livery sweetness and tongue-enrobing fat. Portale, of course, is far from the first chef to pipe the French delicacy into a dumpling. Anita Lo used to spike xiaolongbao with foie at her now-closed Annisa, and Scott Conant would blend it with duck at Scarpetta. But while those dishes were fine studies in blissful excess, Portale is the rare chef to use foie in an act of balance. The cream and liver soften the broth, while the sweetness acts as an antidote to its saltiness.
It’s a demonstration of Portale’s strengths. The chef is perhaps best known for advancing the cause of greenmarket cooking and for his studied vertical platings, but he also played a role in helping make idiosyncratic pastas and risottos part of the larger idiom of New American cooking.
New York Times critic Bryan Miller raved about fettuccine with lobster bolognese on a 1985 Gotham menu, while Ruth Reichl wrote that knocking down a tower of parsley-painted noodles with scallops “made me feel like a child playing with my food.” Sam Sifton, in a 2011 column, opined that Gotham’s risotto with ruby red shrimp and bacon wouldn’t have felt out of place at “a pop-up restaurant in some corner of Bushwick, Brooklyn, served by a bearish kitchen poet with a rutabaga tattoo on his forearm.”
Portale still shows off some of that creativity at his eponymous Italian spot. Case in point is his cappellacci, little hats filled with goat cheese. He places them into a buttery broth of shiitakes, chanterelles, and porcinis. The dish feels like a loosely deconstructed riff on cream of mushroom soup, a fanciful preparation wherein the goat cheese will ride into town and tame the rich liquid.
Unfortunately, that tortellini aside, many of these more experimental pastas’ appealing ideas currently fall short of his previous excellence in execution. That cappellacci, despite its promising offbeat construction, lacks subtleties; the tang of the dairy obliterates any sign of nuance.
A cavatelli that arrives with two sauces at once, a spicy arrabbiata and a swath of cilantro pesto, theoretically presents a refined take on a pasta with red sauce and torn herbs. But when delivered, the pesto is so subtle and modestly portioned that it’s almost entirely undetectable, both visually and on the palate. In another case, Portale’s attempt to build flavors is simply sloppy. He slathers lumache, a shell-shaped pasta, in heavy parmesan cream, a bland pile of ground short rib, and a brunoise of carrots so undercooked it’s almost as if the chef wanted this dish to be half salad.
Better is the admittedly more traditional spaghetti. Despite the fact that the noodles occupy a middle ground that’s neither al dente nor mushy, Portale manages to imbue this dish with an array of complex flavors and textures that never seem to overwhelm one another. Razor clams and bites of briny octopus add a wonderfully springy texture that the noodles lack, while ruby red shrimp, no bigger than a penny, collapse on the tongue like firm caviar. A hint of tomato sweetness perfumes each bite, while ‘nduja sausage imparts a mild but unmistakable dose of heat and smoke.
And campanelle, a conical pasta with toothsome ruffles, acts as a decent conveyance mechanism for duck ragu with parmesan. Although the kitchen strips any gamy or earthy nuances from the meat and broccoli rabe, the rustically-inclined dish still manages to sate.
Portale’s noodles do not yet compete at the level of a Rezdôra or Lilia, and judging by the rest of its menu — a dry-aged sirloin with Brussels sprouts, yet another burrata dish with beets — its primary customers don’t need it to be. But the restaurant’s successes, as well as its misses, show that it can still bring some cool pasta ideas to the playing field.