Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Dinner in Gotham

Gotham Bar and Grill a long-established New York restaurant with well-known chef Alfred Portale at its helm, has earned many distinctions over the years. It has the marks of a good restaurant. This was a promising dinner. Besides, my dad has deemed Gotham's steak his baseline against which he measures all other steaks. And I had dined here once before a couple of years ago and found the meal satisfying though not particularly memorable. So, I was eager to try it again.

The cavernous space with an elegant, though simple, black and white decor, suggests a somewhat casual establishment. But the price point here - entrees in the mid $30 to $40 range- boldly states that what you get here should be a fancy meal. In brief, the food wasn't bad (though in my opinion often overpriced), but the lackluster service distracted from almost everything else and made for a mediocre experience.

Service runs a close second to food, and for many the two actually go hand-in-hand. Its impact can compensate for flaws in the food or it can so severely detract from the dining experience that diners won't feel compelled to reward the restaurant nor themselves with a return visit.

Dinner did not begin well. We watched our waiter walk by several times with no acknowledgement that he would be with us any time soon. As we observed the room, dozens of busboys and other waiters looked at us blankly. Gotham also managed to stir one of my pet peeves - not providing food menus for the table until after the wine has been ordered.

Though we may have been somewhat impatient because we were hungry- I can't imagine that most people aren't when they arrive for dinner - we had to request that someone bring bread to the table. Requesting service became the trend for the night. When the waiter finally brought his sleepy demeanor to our tableside, he didn't apologize. Based on my dad's preference for steak that is "pink, but not bloody" he suggested my dad order his steak medium (more on this problem later).

We began with a round of appetizers:

I had the black bass ceviche with coconut, radish, melon, avocado, in a habanero orange broth. The large portion of fish was good, but perhaps overwhelmed by the strong citrus flavor and the spiciness of the broth.

My mom ordered seafood salad - the scallops, squid, japanese octopus and lobster were served chopped up, mixed with herbs, sliced avocado and lemon vinaigrette. The seafood was fresh, but mixed together it was hard to tell what was what.

My sister had the grilled octopus - served in chunky, fairly tender pieces with a nice grilled flavor accompanied by yukon gold potatoes, roasted peppers and capers and a dijon mustard aioli.

And finally my dad went with the pasta special of the day - a rich-tasting spaghetti cooked al dente with deeply earthy porcini mushrooms in mushroom broth & truffle oil.

When our food arrived, the waiter never once stopped by to inquire about our meal.

Post appetizers we waited a long time for the main courses.

I had the crisp soft shell crab with mix of chanterelles, asparagus, sweet corn, brown butter aoili and white verjus. I was worried the crab might be too deeply fried, but this was done perfectly. A minor issue - the aioli had a grittiness to it that I disliked, but it was merely drizzled in spots around the plate so it was easy to avoid.

My mom had the pasta special described above.

My dad and sister both ordered the grilled new york steak, a thick cut covered in bordelaise sauce and served with a tall stack of vidalia onion rings, marrow mustard custard and carrots. The onion rings, rather than potatoes or fries, was a nice variation.

When my dad's steak arrived, it was undercooked and he asked that it be cooked slightly longer. When it was returned, the waiter stood a few feet away, but never asked if it was more to his liking.

After we finished eating, busboys milled around the dining room, while we sat with our plates uncleared. Finally, my dad resorted to asking another waiter to have our table cleared and he, kindly obliged. It might sound like we were rather demanding and snobby, but I take the position that any restaurant charging high prices should at least provide acceptable, if not outstanding, service.

Dessert was mostly unsatisfying. I had ice cream two meager scoops of caramel espresso & vanilla. Though there were more interesting flavors listed with other desserts, the waiter said they could only be served with those desserts. My sister went for the frozen chocolate whiskey parfait with a malted vanilla milkshake, caramelized banana and brittle. This was okay, but not terribly exciting.

The restaurant did serve petits four (chocolate truffles, jellies, strawberry cheesecake-like squares, chocolate domes, mini raspberry macarons) at the end of the meal - these have always struck me as beautifully presented mini desserts that are sadly tasteless.

The steak will keep my dad - and I am sure, other steak lovers -coming back here. But with all the options in New York city, you are better off getting more for your money elsewhere.

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