When a Superhero Disappoints you

In the marketing business, "branding" is everything. Where once a brand implied an assurance of quality, it only now offers familiarity and bragging rights. In recent years, the allegiance to brand has trampled right over actual quality. A strong brand can get people to pay a premium for the brand name alone.

Sadly, both restaurants and the chefs who lead them seem to be falling into a similar trap. Outpost versions of classic restaurants only rarely live up to the the originals. Perhaps it's simply the absence of the famed chef who can't be in all locations at the same time, or maybe a shortage of staff with sufficient passion for food and service, or that some locations simply entertain less finicky clientele. Whatever the case, the disappointment of at such a restaurant can tarnish the original. Such was my case with Gotham Steakhouse in Miami; but first, a bit of history.

When my former chef-girlfriend and I broke up a dozen years ago, I was surprised at how much I had learned about cooking; if not the details, then at least the essentials and general direction. I could cook a meal at home I couldn't afford in a restaurant. While she and I would remain friends, our interaction would never be quite the same. I knew I needed (and wanted) to keep the momentum of my food education going, so I headed over to a local bookstore to see what I could find. (The internet held promise as a resource but was far from ready and broadband was about 5 years away.)

The food section held a dizzying array of regions, styles, chefs (Emeril, Julia, and Wolfgang were about the only "celebrity" chefs), and aversions (vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, etc.) Among these was a single gold-spined tome with clear and concise lettering which simply said "Gotham Bar and Grill". Perhaps it was that glittery spine combined with the mystery of New York, but the attraction made me reached for the book and begin to read.

My first "real" cookbook

While now the content seems modest, the details he gave were exactly what I needed; not just WHAT to do, but WHY you do it. For many of the dishes, he also included variations and wine pairings.

Moments later, it was in a paper bag with a receipt tucked in it (which would serve as a makeshift bookmark for several months.) I took it home and began reading immediately and was cooking from it shortly thereafter. For several months, it was the only book on my "shelf" (microwave oven). It was soon joined by "The Joy of Cooking" with a flood of others to follow, but Gotham Bar and Grill will always be my "first" and I still return to it on occasion.

A year later, on my first trip to New York, I prompted a friend to for dinner options. He rattled off a few... Gramercy Tavern among them, and then he said "Gotham Bar and Grill". Everything he said after was lost on me. Of course! I didn't even make the connection on my own; I'd come to the very city that surrounds and inspired the restaurant and cookbook in my collection. I assured him we'd found our choice of restaurant. Mike met me at my hotel in a suit and tie; a shocking switch having only seen him in jeans and t-shirts for years. Into a taxi, and off we sped through a skyscraper maze, a high-speed chase after motionless prey. We were seated at among the worst tables in the restaurant, and I couldn't have cared less. It was time to find out what the food could taste like; and I was blown away.

I'd return in later years with various guests and usually on an expense account; a luxury equivalent to hiring the author of the cookbook to prepare the dishes for you, and it was worth every penny.

Here I am, a decade later, expectations set long ago and far away, seated in Gotham Steakhouse in Miami hoping that the first part of the name will carry more weight than the second. I pray that, for Alfred Portale - who has mostly shunned media attention - to put his name on something, it would live up to the same standards he set long ago.


The food was good, though it had few deviations from any other steakhouse, the service lacked confidence and polish, the restaurant was open and harsh missing the warmth and softness of the original. The sizable bill landed with a "thud" on the table striking an urge in me to haggle over the results. It wasn't "bad", but it certainly wasn't "Gotham".

If there is one restaurant that can weather an evil twin, it's this one. Given Gotham's longevity in a city of "restaurant churn", I doubt the perception of the original is in jeopardy, but it was an expensive lesson and created the first flaw in a previously flawless history. In short, never dive into water unless you know how deep it is and never "order big" in a restaurant until you've tasted the appetizers; regardless of whose name is on the door.


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