One of the city’s most respected chefs has lent his talent to the kitchen of a new, high-dollar hotel restaurant in Soho, though in these opening weeks, you’d never know it.
Buffalo native Alfred Portale has long been one of NYC’s most influential chefs, even though he’s resisted reality TV appearances and often managed to stay out of the culinary limelight. He became legendary as the chef of Gotham Bar and Grill beginning in 1985, a restaurant that, with its elegant setting, fabric chandeliers, and lofty culinary aspirations, was unprecedented in the Village of that era.
There, he mentored celebrity chefs, including Bill Telepan, Wylie Dufresne, and Tom Colicchio. More important, he changed the way restaurant food was plated, creating the “big food” movement that turned dishes like tuna tartare, market salads, and the Gotham burger into artfully constructed towers, leading inexorably to the Instagram era decades later through an enhanced concern over food’s appearance.
While Gotham had its twists and turns, Portale left to start his own restaurant on a side street in Chelsea. This time, the menu was Italian rather than New American, showcasing an extensive fish selection, pastas with seasonal vegetables, pork, and duck.
Now, he has taken on the responsibilities of another restaurant. Sartiano’s, named after its nightlife impresario Scott Sartiano, the force behind Mayor Eric Adams’ favorite club, Zero Bond. It replaces Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen that, for 25 years, occupied the Mercer Hotel at 99 Prince Street, right at the corner of Prince and Mercer. Portale’s partner in creating the menu is executive chef Chris Lewnes, formerly of Augustine in the Beekman Hotel. Officially, Portale is styled the culinary director.
The cavelike space is accessed by a branching stairway that is the main focus of the décor; it allows every customer to make a grand entrance. With subdued gold lighting, an equal number of tables in a brick-walled bar and formal dining room are separated by a glass wall — leading one to wonder, which is the right side of the barrier to be on? An open kitchen at the end of the dining room is the restaurant’s only source of bright light.
The most important dish — it stands at the head of the menu in its own box — is caviar cannoli ($48). It’s a sigh of a dish: four miniature cannoli shells filled with mascarpone, the ends of which have been dipped in black fish eggs mixed with green chives. It’s delicious in a forgettable sort of way, with a stingy serving of caviar, and none inside the shells.
The caviar cannoli is the conscious opposite of big food, but it does deliver a recognizable Instagram moment, with the cell phone being the utensil of choice rather than the fork or the fingers, and the pleasure lying more in the appearance than the flavor. Other appetizers are small scale, too, including six baked clams that are a Brooklyn Italian commonplace, here accented with pancetta in an unacknowledged nod to clams casino.
While I loved the clams, a fritto misto ($26) of calamari and rock shrimp was overwhelmed by its zucchini, fennel, and sliced lemon component — too light on the actual seafood — while the coating resembled a rubbery tempura.
We’d requested that the meal be served in three courses, and pasta was next. Here, we avoided the dish most obviously aimed at social media, a paccheri smothered in sauce with short ribs, Italian sausage, and meatballs, its pasta tubes pointing skyward like some exotic underwater coral. Instead we went for agnolotti ($26), a northern Italian pasta stuffed with buffalo milk ricotta with a red sauce accented with basil. Alas, the agnolotti were thick-skinned and undercooked, so that the corners were tough and chewy, the opposite of the gossamer version I’d expect.
Lasagna came next, plated as a boxcar strewn with mushrooms, which made a beautiful picture, but included chanterelles tough as leather breeches, perhaps as a result of reheating. Of course, lasagna should be reheated, but with the mushrooms inside rather than on top to keep them moist and tender. The white bechamel underneath could have been mistaken for library paste.
In addition to five steaks, my friend and I had a choice of six secondi, including chicken Parm and veal Milanese, with three further seafood choices. The most interesting-sounding entree was an Iberian pork chop ($42), name-checking the Spanish and Portuguese peninsula.
It turns out that it reminded us of a dish at Portale called maiale, which features a pork chop, polenta, and peach conserva. Here the ingredients were similar, with mostarda subbing for the peach jam. At Sartiano’s, the pork chop, cut into even slices with the bone thrown over the top, was an excellent piece of meat, but we found it overcooked and dry at the edges; and the fruit-and-yellow-pepper mostarda was too sweet by a country mile. All in all a beautifully plated dish ($42) that underwhelmed in terms of flavor.
Sartiano’s strikes me as the type of restaurant common in Soho that’s more about the scene than the food. Indeed, as we finished up our meal the place developed more of a nightclub atmosphere, with a bartender frenetically mixing drinks at the bar. Who’d be surprised that the food would be a TikTok prop, with no one in the kitchen checking to see if the lasagna mushrooms were dry or the pork chop overcooked?