When Bobby Flay opened Mesa Grill in 1991, he almost literally set New Yorkers on fire. It wasn’t just that the man sure likes his chilies. Flay elevated Southwest cuisine, brought it east, and presented it with bravado unexpected in a chef so unheralded. At Bolo, two years later, he attacked Spanish cuisine with such infectious gusto, it appeared totally unrelated to the fare offered at the sleepy Spanish standbys that still dot the West Village. Flay won James Beard’s Rising Star Award for that one.
And rise he did. Four successful restaurants. Three popular Food Network series. Six cookbooks, including the backyard bible Boy Meets Grill. And a notorious slot on the banzai cookathon Iron Chef America, where his steely, brusque confidence has both stunned opponents and accrued a cult of hate-swilling bloggers (“I want to see Flay go down in flames,” cries one). Bobby Flay is no longer just a chef. He’s a brand.
And a brand is just what father-and-son restaurateurs Jerry and Laurence Kretchmer were looking for to goose the space that once housed JUdson Grill. Though busy at lunch, the Grill was a tough sell at dinner, partly because its resourceful yet underrated chef, Bill Telepan, is a low-radar kind of guy, and partly because one always sat uneasily in this vast, vaulted room, as if waiting to hear which track your commuter train was coming in on. Although Flay is hardly one to walk around a dining room spreading charm and good cheer, the man has nailed the kind of food America loves to eat. Not surprisingly, from the day Bar Americain opened, it’s been feeding a full house.
Kretchmer and Flay haven’t pulled off this transformation completely on their own. David Rockwell has done something remarkable. By painting the interior a rusty Vasquez Rocks orange, shifting the bar to the center back wall, and incorporating a duo of low-standing lighting trees, he’s made the room appear smaller, even warm at first glance. Only when settled in do you acknowledge Bar’s size, but without intimidation. (Tables for two, however, are wide enough to hold a foosball set.)
Forget the restaurant’s deceptive French name (in the thirties, it was the term for a Parisian restaurant with a full bar). Flay’s chosen fare is canny: a y’all-come amalgam of all-American family picnic pleasers, bristling with assertiveness but not necessarily challenging. Whether starting with shrimp in a vibrant tomatillo sauce or crab refreshingly tossed with coconut and mango, Flay’s not interested in subtle seductions. So sweet-potato chowder with clams exudes an inescapable smokiness. Vidalia-onion soup is almost arrogantly sweet, with a neat touch of a toasted Parker House roll and Vermont Cheddar crust. Crispy squash blossoms stuffed with pulled pork sit atop black-peppered vinegar. Tuna tartare could be sharper, and Gulf shrimp and grits might please a southern boy more, but lamb sausage has the right sharp tang, and crawfish and Dungeness-crab cake is sparked by aromatic shards of basil and red-pepper relish.
None of this is especially complex: Flay is pulling punches on the flavors that established his brand. Not surprisingly, the best appetizers—like a smoked-trout salad gently stung by Meyer-lemon vinaigrette, or a trio tasting of artisanal ham with both peach chutney and honey mustard—strive to be brasher. But none are an out-and-out dare.
The menu’s more satisfyingly two-fisted. In fact, some women I dined with hesitated to rally round entrées of tender pink pork on creamed corn and superbly snarky sour mash, or a heavily smoked chicken potpie. I noted the lovely mussels in green-chili broth they could play with, and a wild salmon in Pinot Noir that’s lighter than it sounds. But when roast duck arrives with dirty rice and bourbon, hot potato chips are dipped in blue cheese, and a lunch dish called Kentucky Hot Brown means turkey under a biscuit-and-gravy-thick cupful of Parmesan cream, they’ve got a point.
So does Bar Americain. Its instant popularity makes a solid case for the power of branding on the mainstream. Yet, looking past tables relishing blackberry soufflés, pistachio-chocolate sundaes, or caramel-whiskey éclairs, I spy Flay standing in his open kitchen, looking uncharacteristically complacent. He’s better at swaggering. I like his cockiness. It ignites his food. Franchise all you want, Flay, but next time, come on, Bobby, light my fire.
Address:152 W. 52nd St., nr. Seventh Ave.; 212-265-9700
Hours: Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 P.M. Dinner: Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11:30 P.M., Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11:30 P.M.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $16; entrées, $21 to $34.
Ideal Meal: Crab-coconut cocktail, smoked-trout salad, rack of pork with apple-ginger chutney, pistachio-chocolate sundae.