"He may call it a gastropub, but what Psilakis has really done is open a kick-ass diner that doesn't serve breakfast."
Gus and Gabriel Gastropub
222 West 79th Street, New York NY 10023 (b/n Broadway and Amsterdam; map); 212-362-7470
Service: Professional, friendly, and diner-like in the best possible sense
Setting: Subterranean, windowless room in the original Kefi space
Compare It To: Chat 'n' Chew, Empire Diner, and Bubby's
Must-Haves: Beef brisket French dip, buttered sweet corn and jalapeno soup, Mexi mac and cheese, coffee malt, peanut butter banana shake
Cost: $20 to 25 including tax and tip
Imagine, if you will, your local Greek coffee shop or diner (one that only serves lunch and dinner) being taken over by a hard-working fancypants celebrity chef, who happens to be Greek-American. Sounds promising, doesn't it? Inspired by the pleasure he derived cooking with and for his four year-old son Gabriel and the love he has for his dad Gus, chef Michael Psilakis (of Anthos, Mia Dona, and Kefi) has opened Gus and Gabriel Gastropub. Obsessive, perfectionist mad man that he is, Psilakis had decided that at his Greek coffee shop, everything from the hot dogs to the nachos to the ice cream is going to be made from scratch.
So what could be bad, the serious eaters figured. A talented Greek-American chef ready, willing, and able to take on the challenge of making terrific diner food without feeling the need to reinvent it? Of course, we did worry that Psilakis put "gastropub" in the name, because I, for one, have always associated gastropubs in London with places with greater culinary aspirations than those found at good diners. So we concluded that a lot could go wrong in the execution of this concept, so we descended six strong on Gus and Gabriel one perfect summer-y night to see how Psilakis is faring.
My dream diner (and I guess Psilakis' too) starts with milkshakes, malts, and floats. Psilakis is making his own ice creams and though they could be a little smoother and creamier, they are all vividly flavored. We had a killer peanut butter banana shake and a seriously delicious coffee malt, and were totally blown away by how intensely flavored they were. I am not a float person, but if you are, you can't go wrong with the Purple Cow made with Virgil's ginger beer, grape juice, and vanilla ice cream.
In true diner-style, portions are for the most part huge at Gus and Gabriel's, and most of the food could not be described as spa food (neither is diner food in general), so resist the impulse to over-order. Nonetheless, it is hard not to order the nachos ($9.95), which will feed four as a starter. Psilakis and his crew take fresh tortillas, cut them, and fry them fresh every day. Add chili, refried beans, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa, and you end up with resolutely inauthentic but unmistakeably delicious snack chips. Like just about everything else that we tried on the menu the nachos are well-salted. This is not diner food that suffers from a case of the blahs.
Glazed pork riblets ($7.95) are falling-off-the-bone tender and succulent, but the honey and molasses-laden sauce was a tad too sweet for me.
I have had more watery, floury soup at diners than I care to remember, so it was a thrill to taste the vibrantly seasoned and flavored, sweet, and just hot enough
buttered sweet corn and jalapeno soup ($5.95).
Mexi mac and cheese ($7.50) sounded overwrought (menu description: pork, salsa verde, Monterey Jack and cheddar, jalapeno, sour cream, pico de gallo), but was tangy and, gasp, light.
The bacon and cheddar burger ($12.95) was beefy, juicy, and cooked as ordered medium rare, but the stiff, toasted brioche bun should have been a potato roll. The french fries that came with the burger were properly twice-cooked and crisp, but could have had more tender and creamy insides. Cole slaw was crunchy and blessedly not-too-sweet, thanks to the yogurt Psilakis uses in the dressing.
Hot dogs have been the recent craze for fancypants chefs, even though there are great all-beef natural casing Sabrett hot dogs so readily available. I have to scratch my head and ask, why? Psilakis' hot dogs are actually pretty good, but the big toasted brioche bun overwhelmed the weiner in the chili and cheese hot dog ($12.50 for two).
The single best sandwich I tried was the beef brisket French dip ($11.95). Psilakis brines, rubs, and braises the brisket, so the meat itself is suffused with an almost absurd amount of savory deliciousness even without dipping the sandwich in the ramekin of beef jus. Gruyere and caramelized onions complete the triumvirate of long, deep flavors in this most magnificent sandwich.
The pulled pork Cuban ($12.95) is a mighty tasty pork sandwich that really doesn't have much of the traditional Cuban sandwich flavor profile, thanks to the Monterey jack and the sauerkraut stuffed inside.
"Batter-less" fried chicken ($13.95) is a flawlessly cooked pan-fried half chicken topped with giblet gravy and served with sweet cakey biscuits and mashed potatoes. It is a fine, fine plate of diner food, though it wouldn't make it into my list of top five fried chickens I have eaten.
Desserts are way, way better than the cakes and pies you find rotating in gleaming cases in many Greek coffee shops. The peanut butter and jelly cupcake ($4.95) is not really a cupcake (no paper cup holder here), but who cares when something tastes as good as this. The peanut butter frosting is not too sweet, and the jam-filled mini cake is moist and light.
Just about as good is the ultra-moist, intensely chocolaty iced mint chocolate cake ($5.95) that is accompanied by chocolate ice cream, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream. It's hard to stand out in this berg with a slab of chocolate cake, but this one does.
An oversized ramekin of apple crisp, burnt caramel, and toffee crunch ($6.50) comes with a scoop of maple walnut ice cream.
Psilakis has already much succeeded in bringing a newfound respect to contemporary Greek and Greek-influenced cooking with restaurants like Anthos and Kefi. Now, in a move drenched in inescapable irony, he has done the same for Greek diner food with Gus and Gabriel.
He may call it a gastropub, but what Psilakis has really done is open a kick-ass diner that doesn't serve breakfast. Any serious eater in search of insanely tasty diner classics like French dip sandwiches, french fries, and coffee malts, at mostly diner-like prices, will eat well at Gus and Gabriel Gastropub.