Batty over Gotham
Gotham is a powerful word, concurrently connoting two potent icons: Manhattan and Batman. In the food world, it bespeaks a third force to be reckoned with: Alfred Portale's Gotham Bar and Grill on New York's West 12th Street, which nearly a quarter-century ago helped redefine the contemporary urban restaurant. Gotham has since become a superhero of that metropolis's dining scene, hugely influential beyond its borough. In 2001, Ruth Reichl wrote in Gourmet magazine: "There is not a large city in America without a restaurant operating in a Gothamesque mode." This became literally true for Miami Beach in December, when Gotham's first spinoff alighted just off the main lobby of the fabulous Fontainebleau — in the process subtly changing its modern grill guise to that of a modern steak house.
Like a certain notable newcomer in Washington, Gotham Steak has assembled a team of seasoned pros to hit the floor running. The executive chef of the Fontainebleau property is Sean O'Connell, who helped orchestrate the opening of The Bellagio in Vegas. Portale is overseeing Gotham as chef/partner, aided by chef de cuisine Dru Schiedell. Some folks might recognize sommelier Jeff Nielsen from the since-departed Fifty Restaurant on Ocean Drive. And when Gotham opened late last year, fans of North One Ten felt secure when they saw Dale LoSasso, Miami's Wonder Woman of general managers, pacing the floor; they won't see her anymore, though, a quick victim of corporate cost-cutting.
Gotham is gorgeous, its two levels cohered by a chandelier of hand-blown glass and a glass-enclosed wine tower flowing through both floors. If possible, aim for a table downstairs — it's more intimate, and diners can view a confederacy of cooks assiduously working the assembly line of comestibles behind the glass of an open exhibition kitchen. The front-of-house staff is equally voluminous, and service was spot on.
Diners are started off with a cake-shaped loaf of warm, freshly baked Parker House bread as buttery as a croissant. After that come appetizers, which are lighter than traditional steak-house classics — tuna takes the place of steak in the tartare, gazpacho substitutes for chowder, and "Rockefeller" and "casino" treatments get stripped to a trio of raw, naked oysters (Kumamoto, Malpeque, and salty/sweet Raspberry Point) and Maine littleneck clams. None of these was tastier than the tender tentacles of char-grilled octopus drizzled with olive oil and paired with peanut-shaped halves of petite, lightly grilled fingerling potatoes, planks of sweet leeks, and tart caperberries.
Then there's a five-stack of crisp hearts of romaine too lightly coated in thick, anchovy-anchored caesar dressing. Though Portale pioneered such soaring vertical cuisine, little attention is paid to it today. What does catch notice in the salad are two delicate white anchovy fillets laced across the top of the lettuce, and a deviled egg on the side.
In fact, the true pleasure of Portale's cooking never derived from the gimmickry of height; only when the constructs collapse into cohesively balanced flavors does the diner appreciate his talents. Gotham's steaks need no such implosion to impress — they are plated as flat as the plains. Whereas the litmus for quality of beef used to lie in categorizations such as prime and dry-aged, cows now being digested require a birth certificate from a prestigious ranch (our 20-ounce rib eye was born on Brandt Farms) and a compelling bio (grass-fed in Imperial Valley, finished off on corn in a small but roomy lot, hormone-and-antibiotic free, great sense of humor). The sizzling center-cut medallion ($52) was easily two inches thick, grilled over hardwood charcoal, and finished on a 1,200-degree broiler. I don't live on a Kobe/Wagyu budget, but this was one of the best under-$100 steaks I have ever had.
A trio of sauces that accompanies each steak includes one tangy with grainy mustard and another with vinegar and cumin, each spoon-lickingly tasty — if too potent for such fine grades of meat. It's difficult to make the same argument against a dark, rich, marrow-sticky bordelaise. This is the ultimate steak sauce: Rather than distract by providing acidic contrast, it seeps into and enriches the beef. Still, the rib eye didn't even require a pinch of English Maldon sea salt, a dish of which gets placed on each table.
The menu has been modified since the restaurant opened, with some of the higher-end cuts getting the ax. Now the sole steak above $52 is a Sher Ranch Australian Wagyu strip ($75). An eight-ounce American Wagyu filet mignon is well-priced at $50, and $28 will lasso you a succulent skirt steak sliced and streaked with Southwestern chile rub; again, you won't find a better bite of beef for the money.
You can encounter any of Gotham's 500-plus global wines at a lower price, assuming you can locate them; this is a serious list that swings from boutique vintners to rare vintages. Hardcore enophiles can ask to peruse the master wine menu for the entire Fontainebleau property, though it would require a superhuman feat to get through it all before dinner. There are also plenty of by-the-glass selections, including a crisp, fruity 2007 Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio ($14) we sipped while supping on octopus, and a woodsy 2003 Schrader Vieux Old Vine Zinfandel ($15) that matched well with the rib eye.
Because Gotham Steak is born of a non-steak-house bar and grill, seafood is not treated as some afterthought for troublesome herbivores. Juicy, pristine flakes of Florida grouper practically melted into a bed of quinoa grains pooled in sprightly vinaigrette dotted with specks of ham and ripe cherry tomatoes. The fantastic fish was gone in a flash.
Customary sidekicks such as creamed spinach and baked potato play their roles — and is it some sort of prerequisite now that every restaurant must serve macaroni and cheese? Go with the hand-cut truffled Parmesan French fries or a generously portioned, textbook-tender "potato cake" of hash browns. Soggy-crusted Vidalia onion rings provided the only dastardly note during our visits.
The most outlandish dessert is a parfait glass tightly layered with peanut butter and vanilla ice creams, pastry cream, chocolate cookie crumbs, chocolate syrup, and espresso candy on top — kid's stuff, yet its decadent delectability is thematically consistent with the preceding comestibles. Rich, too, was pumpkin cheesecake, its allspice aromatics seasonally teamed with cranberry compote and a fantastic quenelle of walnut ice cream. For what it's worth, I overheard a woman at the next table proclaim her modestly portioned piece of carrot cake to be the best she'd ever had.
There are no heroes or villains in Miami Beach's increasingly competitive steak-house story line, but there sure are a lot of contending characters. Gotham is as strong as any.
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