By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Even locals, who might have heard that Gotham City is south Palm Beach County's hottest new restaurant, can be misguided. Pictures of the design elements show Brazilian hardwood floors, sheer flowing draperies, goth candelabra, oversize banquettes, and light fixtures that look like dozens of dinosaur eggs glued together. You might suspect the lounge to be a cozy den for Korn-worshiping club kids. Or if you saw only the nip-tuck clientele, whose facial skin is as tight as their clothes and who parade as if in search of serial spouses, you might think of Gotham City less as a scene than a place to be reseen. Or had you merely considered its pedigree -- owner David Manero is a restaurant-industry magnate whose other projects have included Sopra -- you might aim, as I did, for trendy Atlantic Avenue. Then you'd be, as I was, lost... literally and metaphorically.
Gotham City is actually on the west side of town, located in the Addison Shoppes in an area colloquially labeled "country club row," just north of the Boca Raton border. Directly across is Henry's, restaurateur Burt Rapoport's well-populated neighborhood spot. These aren't likely environs for an establishment that could be a doppelgänger for South Beach's Tantra.
Yet Gotham City doesn't merely exist here -- it makes "here" exist. The customers seek, but they also find. Prices are high, but portions are big. The saxophone player who roams the bar area, playing tableside whether you want him to or not, may have money clipped to his belt -- hint, hint -- but his honeyed tone and quick riffs are worth the fiver necessary to impress your date. And while the menu is a virtual blog of geographically oriented appellations -- San Marzano tomatoes, Chicago Stockyard beef, black Canadian mussels -- it's also rife with the promise of items like house-made mozzarella and just-picked basil.
Quality is the follow-through for such billed assurances. We scored with dramatically presented appetizers that included a pair of gargantuan stone crab claws served with a key lime mustard sauce. I'm not such a fan that I make every effort to source the claws on the very first day of season; indeed, in late October and November, I've often been disappointed by specimens that had been left lingering in someone's freezer from the previous season. But providence brought us to Gotham at the launch of season, when our obviously well-trained server smartly declaimed the claws wonder near the top of a lengthy list of specials (that she was clearly delighted to have memorized and delivered without pause). Mild and sweet, without the extra squeeze of water that comes from being defrosted, these claws tasted as if we might, unlike in 2002-03, be in for a good year. The mustard sauce, however, could have used an extra notch of flavor.
More novelty arrived in the form of a Kobe beef "sizzler" plate. An aside might be necessary here. Kobe beef is the highly prized stuff from Japan that is gleaned from a breed of cattle called Wagyu. Though technically only beef that is imported from that island nation should be called this, ranches in other countries also raise Wagyu cattle and designate the flesh as Kobe. In the American West, there are at least four large companies that have begun to purvey to private restaurants as well as the mail-order public. Thus, while Publix probably won't be carrying this particular grade and breed of meat, we are beginning to see an increase in meat from Wagyu cattle on the menus of high-end restaurants like Gotham City.
Whether Gotham's Kobe is "authentic" as the menu states, which implies that it was imported from Japan, or raised domestically, as our server acknowledged, doesn't really matter. What does? Cost versus taste, because regardless of a bit of newfound availability, this stuff is still truly tony. For $20, we were brought four centimeter-thin slices of supple raw beef along with a chili-peanut dipping sauce and a flaming konro (Japanese for stove). On top, a large stone was heated and waiting to sear the meat, which we did. Cooking carpaccio on rocks isn't easy, as we discovered by peeling the first slice of seared meat morsel by morsel. If you do the math, that's about a buck per molarful.
For the remaining pieces, I greased the rock with oil from the ramekin that accompanied the basket of crusty European breads and thin flatbreads, and for my resulting cook-and-release efforts, I was rewarded with a compliment from the waitress. "Most people don't know how to do it," she confided. Given her statement, the strength of the breezes from the constantly swinging doors, and the length of the curtains that enclose many of the tables, if I were Manero, I'd keep the Kobe but skip the fiery prep. Surely culinary director Bobby Lane and his kitchen can come up with a quickly seared Kobe beef dish that isn't an invitation to a lawsuit.
For instance, there's the "chophouse" steak salad, deliciously fattening and satisfying on every level, from flavor to texture. The salad takes on a timbale shape, with a succulent slice of strip steak wrapping an interior of chopped greens, bacon, chopped tomato, and lumps of sharp and savory blue cheese. The whole thing was united by a creamy garlic dressing and festooned with crisp tobacco onions, which added a crunch as if to a casserole. Best of all, perhaps, because the serving was large and the proportion of lettuce as compared to the sturdier ingredients was minimal, the leftover salad kept beautifully in the fridge for lunch the next day.
In fact, no matter what you order, you're bound to have much more than enough. A bowl of linguine with little-neck clams partnered with garlic crostini was a marathon runner's dream. Juiced with a garlic, parsley, and white-wine broth, the pasta tasted homemade, and the dozen clams that rimmed the bowl had been carefully poached to open like just-perfumed invitations.
We didn't have as much success with a newer menu item, the veal "telephono." The pounded meat was fork tine-tender, and the mozzarella that melted over it was as smooth as a con man. But the tomato sauce that also dressed the veal had too much of an herbal kick, and the fresh fettuccine under it had been overcooked. The addition of "oak fire" peppers, though, offset the too-bright basil with some smoky robustness.
The adjectives "oak fired" and "wood oven" are sprinkled liberally throughout the menu, referring to the restaurant's extensive hardwood- and coal-burning appliance, which is featured in the theater kitchen. The treatment is applied to items ranging from side dishes like asparagus with ricotta salata to rotisserie chicken to roasted mushrooms or beets. Most notably, the grill is utilized for steak house-styled cuts of meat, including a bone-in rib eye and center-cut filet mignon.
When it's not Italian or steak house, the menu is a mixture of contemporary dining favorites including caramelized onion-crusted sea bass and mustard-glazed salmon cooked on a cedar plank. No doubt these are house favorites. But Manero and company might want to start experimenting with some bolder dishes, for two reasons. For one, some of the fish on the menu is once again close to endangerment, such as the line-caught swordfish, or even extinction, such as the sea bass. For another, as word about this posh quality spot spreads further than Palm Beach County limits, those who are willing to hit the highway for a good meal will undoubtedly prove to have more adventurous palates. Indeed, our server, who was wonderfully trained and extremely personable and energetic, told us that the average age of the clientele has been steadily dropping, directly opposite the collective distances of their travels, since the restaurant opened in June.
Crème brûlée, as windowpane-in-winter perfect as it is here, might not be the ideal choice for those who have gone out of their way, but it certainly will appeal to the devout. To my mind, the raspberry yogurt and angel food cake parfait was far more interesting, not to mention pleasantly light and tangy after such a rich and filling meal. But of course, the choice of how to end one's meal is as open to interpretation as the name of the restaurant. Which is why next time, I'll probably close with the wedge of rich, oven-baked, truffle macaroni and cheese, a donation to my own particular cause -- sleeping it off.