Reinventing American Cheese at The Long Island Bar

Crowning achievement. This burger wears house-made American cheese. Photo by Vicky Wasik
Crowning achievement. This burger wears house-made American cheese. Photo by Vicky Wasik

Chef Gabriel Martinez is “totally, unapologetically in love with American cheese.”

Obsession aside, what he would be able to source for the kitchen he helms at The Long Island Bar would fall heavily to the waxy end of the spectrum, doing a disservice to the not one, but two Fleisher’s beef patties that make up their burger. Which is why Martinez, knives sharpened at institutions like Alinea, decided to take a stab at the high-low staple, for a slice he was equally proud of and enamored with.

On its shiny surface, this spherical version of the cheese, which Amy Zavatto speaks to in her story on LIB in our upcoming holiday issue, is chilled “in a log the same diameter as the burger so each slice melts just so,” might appear familiar. But it’s what’s inside that really changes the game: Murray’s Cheddar and Springbrook’s Reading Raclette, comparable to a Gruyère (backstory here) lend creaminess, minus the head-scratching ingredient mystery, for the “excellent melting quality” that Martinez admires in American. This melding of a mid-century staple with modern sensibility is felt throughout the joint, from their spot-on renovations to the thoughtful menu.

Belly up for a bev or swing in for a snack, you’re sure to find that the libations nicely mix with the larder. “At the forefront we are a bar,” says Martinez. “The food is meant to be complementary to the cocktails, but there are things that just make sense together. If you eat the cheese curds, it seems logical to have a beer, it has that midwestern quality” — a crisp, golden Captain Lawrence Kolsch might do the trick. To Martinez’s delight, just about everything from the spicy merguez sandwich to the trout roe and rye crackers can be washed down with his personal favorite, the Gimlet (A close-second he says, to their signature: The Boulevardier.)

Lauren Ortiz, Martinez’s girlfriend, swoops in a few days a week to whip up some inspired pies and falls right in step with the tongue-in-cheek playfulness: An early favorite at the bar was her riff on a PB&J: a peanut butter cookie crust layered with peanut butter mousse and concord grape jelly, made from the fresh variety procured at Union Square, topped with brioche and peanut brittle “for that sandwich quality.” “There’s definitely a witty element that shines through,” Martinez laughs.

The LIB’s position as neighborhood stalwart is no joke, and Martinez is sure to echo co-owners Toby Cecchini and Joel Tompkin’s sentiment, that “the place isn’t an amusement park.” Still, Martinez admits, “ However, you can’t resist the urge to kind of play into it a little bit. There are plenty of nods to a time and place, I think its good to capture that without being over the top.“

Fortifying dishes like the carrot salad (complete with raisins and orange) is certainly a tip of the hat to a bygone era, which Martinez does with finesse and a bit of personal passion. “That’s just  a product of my career. I’ve worked my way up to a three-star Michelin restaurant, it was an amazing experience. It really gave me a lot of skills and discipline that I use every day, but it was never my intention to own a restaurant of that nature. At the end of the day I enjoy cooking the kind of stuff that would end up at bars.”

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