The Big Gamble

Celebrity Chef Marlin Kaplan is back, hoping to erase the bad taste left in creditors' mouths and regain his culinary throne.

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Chef-restaurateur Marlin Kaplan and a few stragglers from a Tuesday-morning construction meeting are standing on the sidewalk at the corner of East Ninth Street and Walnut Avenue, studying the spot where Kaplan hopes to place the sign for his new restaurant, when a well-heeled executive strolls by. Kaplan waves, and the gentleman turns around.

"Marlin Kaplan!" he booms, striding over to grasp Kaplan's hand. "What are you up to?"

"I'm opening a new restaurant here," Kaplan says with a grin.

"Will you be open for lunch?" the man inquires.

"Yes, we will," Kaplan answers.

"Well, sign me up, Marlin!" the man cries. "We've missed you!"

When Kaplan's latest project, One Walnut, opens next week, it will mark the colorful and controversial chef's return to the Cleveland dining scene after more than a year's absence.

During the mid-1990s, Kaplan's creative cuisine, and his proclivity for promoting it, shook up this sleepy meat-and-potatoes town. His namesake bistro, the casual but sophisticated Marlin, drew in the city's "beautiful people," and Kaplan quickly followed its success with the Southern barbecue spot Pig Heaven and the Italian restaurant Lira. But his meteoric rise to glory was quickly followed by an equally spectacular fall, which saw the demise of all three restaurants in the span of just a few months. It's no surprise, then, that Kaplan's imminent return has sparked a flurry of interest among his past customers and members of the local restaurant community.

Kaplan, 47, has spent much of the past year in self-imposed seclusion, trying to make sense of the wild ride that took him from being the city's most visible chef-restaurateur all the way to the verge of bankruptcy in just five short years. It was a trip that also left him in debt to the IRS for more than $120,000 and facing a potentially large judgment in a lawsuit brought by one of his former lenders.

Now, on the eve of his comeback, an older and wiser Kaplan — though in some ways as flamboyant and self-absorbed as ever — says he's ready for a second chance.

Kaplan's new restaurant, on the ground floor of the Ohio Savings Plaza at East Ninth and Walnut, started taking shape this summer, although even the tiniest details of this art-deco-inspired dining room had been palpable realities in Kaplan's mind for months before. When it opens on September 21, the intimate, 2,900-square-foot space will be reminiscent of a 1930s luxury liner, with opulent finishes, sophisticated colors, and sleek shapes. Kaplan himself has been the final arbiter of every decision — no matter how small — that has gone into the project, even going so far as to personally select the period-style lettering that will label the restroom doors.

All of this — approximately a half-million-dollar project — had its beginning late last fall, when David Goldberg, executive vice-president of Ohio Savings Bank, approached Kaplan to discuss the possibility of putting an upscale restaurant in the building, in the spot formerly occupied by Portraits. "They had a need to have a restaurant in their building," Kaplan recalls dryly. "And I had a need to have a restaurant."

Kaplan and Goldberg knew each other from the days when Marlin, Kaplan's downtown bistro, was Ohio Savings' tenant on East Sixth Street. "He ran a great place," says Goldberg. "He had a tremendous following. Everybody liked him, liked his restaurant, and liked his food. I never heard a mixed review, and when we decided to go ahead with plans for a restaurant at Ohio Savings Plaza, we knew he was the one we wanted."

But Kaplan wasn't as confident. After the loss of three restaurants in seven months, he says, he wasn't immediately enthusiastic about the project. At the time, he was working in the kitchen of the popular lunch spot Cole and Wong, which has since closed. Operated by his former employee and current girlfriend, Melissa Cole, and his old colleague, Steven Goebel, Cole and Wong served as a safe harbor for the once and future restaurateur.

"I spent a lot of time soul-searching," he says. "I stopped to think about whether I wanted to do all this again and about whether I should stay [in Cleveland] or leave here. I think there were lots of people who thought I had flown the coop, but in reality I never left here one day. I just spent a lot of time trying to understand what it was that I had done."

The Cook for the Lifestyle

What had he done? That's a question that still sparks a lively debate among local restaurant insiders. On the one hand, Kaplan and some of his former key employees see his business failure as a fairly common tale of an ambitious and innovative entrepreneur who overestimated his abilities and resources, and learned his lesson the hard way.

On the other hand, there are members of the restaurant industry who see Kaplan as a talented but ego- driven chef who succumbed to greed and ineptitude, and got a well-deserved comeuppance. "I don't wish him any ill," says a former friend, "but I think that you reap what you sow. Sure, he made some major mistakes with taxes, but more than that is fate — it's retribution for his own behavior. I sure hope he learned from his mistakes."

From the beginning, Kaplan's goal was to launch a chain of as many as five or six downtown eateries. In this, he was modeling himself on Chicago restaurant mogul Rich Melman, whose Lettuce Entertain You operation runs a spectacularly successful chain of upscale restaurants. Kaplan hoped, however naively, to emulate Melman's success here in Cleveland.

"I had this idea that we could have lots of different dining venues for people to choose from, that they could all be downtown, and that there would be certain economies of scale to doing that, so I just forged ahead," he says now.

Certainly, the early success of Marlin, which opened in October 1993, gave him no reason to question the feasibility of his plans. In the days when upscale restaurants were still pretty much confined to the suburbs and the notion of downtown "destination" dining was a bad joke, Marlin broke the mold.

"Our little restaurant was booked each day, all day long," says Marlin's former manager, Barrie Shulman. "We had the lawyers, the judges, the CEOs, and the VPs of all the city's biggest companies . . . The place was always hopping."

While the food — homey comfort dishes with a twist, like smoked salmon hash, herbed meatloaf with rough-mashed turnips and potatoes, and roasted chicken with figs and braised leeks — was a big attraction, perhaps even more of a draw was Kaplan himself. Cooking in his open kitchen, greeting regulars by name, and visiting tables to schmooze and joke, the gregarious Kaplan quickly became a celebrity chef in a city starved for culinary recognition.

"I don't really know why people glommed onto me, as opposed to Michael Symon [of Lola Bistro] or some of the other chefs," Kaplan says. "I think there are just a lot of people who are less accessible than I am. I'm willing to talk to anyone who is willing to have a conversation with me. But once you give people access to you like that, you become a public figure."

Besides, Kaplan, a handsome and energetic man, wasn't shy about playing the role of celebrity to the fullest. There was the white Jaguar convertible, a string of relationships that included a three-month marriage to a former waitress followed by a brief fling with local newscaster Dawn Stensland, a fancy penthouse apartment, and a mountain-climbing trip up Mount Kilimanjaro with his buddy, radio personality John Lanigan.

Those obvious trappings of the high life led some observers to assume Kaplan was living far beyond his means, and rumors began to circulate that the restaurateur was sucking funds out of his businesses to support expensive, and maybe even illegal, habits.

"This is the kind of business that throws all your flaws in your face," cautions one source, who still questions Kaplan's behavior. "When there is all that money in the till at the end of the night, it's real tempting to put it in your pocket instead of in the bank. And once you have hold of that $5,000, there is nothing — coke or a woman or booze — you can't get, if you want it bad enough."

Kaplan adamantly dismisses such insinuations, especially that he siphoned off funds from the restaurant to buy drugs, and says his critics are making too much of the details of his personal life. "People forget that you went to work at 6 in the morning and left at 2 the following morning, then got back up the next day and did it again," he says in his defense. "And you often didn't take a paycheck at the end of the week, because there wasn't enough revenue left, but you made sure everyone else got one. But no one sees that part of what you did.

"Did I have the accoutrements [of success]? Yeah, and I worked really hard for them. But keep in mind that I didn't have a country club membership or a mortgage on a big house. I wasn't supporting a family or sending kids through college," he says. "If you look at what I had — a $1,500 rent payment and a $600 car payment — it doesn't even add up to half the salary of a principal at another restaurant. I was working long hours, and those objects were where I put my priorities. Why wouldn't I have something to give me enjoyment in the few hours I'm not working?

"People just want to say the worst," he concludes.

Out of the Frying Pan, Into Debt

Less than three years after opening Marlin to rave reviews, Kaplan and his partner, lawyer Tom Colaluca, opened Pig Heaven. While the new restaurant, also on East Sixth Street, drew a respectable lunch crowd, it never gained a big dinner following, Kaplan says, and it was a financial drain on Marlin from the first.

"I contend until this day that restaurant would have worked if we had had a different location," he says. "That restaurant had a great menu, it was a fun idea, and, if it had been on the West Side, where families could have got to it, it would have done all right. But it was in a hard location. It was busy for lunch, but, at dinner, it just couldn't get a foothold. And I don't know how you can run a business on lunch alone."

Kaplan's next move helped dig the hole deeper: He and Colaluca proceeded with plans to open a third downtown restaurant — Lira, in the spot on Public Square where Tuscany 55 is now located. And after a strong start, Lira, too, turned out to be a disappointing performer. After months of falling revenues, Kaplan and Colaluca faced the inevitable and filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy for Pig Heaven. "We continued operating it for a little while, and then we said it's just not worth reorganizing," Kaplan recalls. "There weren't any creditors to be reckoned with besides the landlord, so we turned the space over to him, and the court discharged the bankruptcy."

In November 1997, after 21 months in operation, Pig Heaven closed. Six months later, and after only seventeen months in business, Lira, too, shut its doors. And finally, in July of 1998, after less than five years at the center of the Cleveland dining scene, Marlin bit the dust — and Kaplan's dream of a chain of upscale, downtown eateries was kaput.

By the time the restaurants started closing, Kaplan and Colaluca had run up a fairly impressive amount of debt. Kaplan was the target of two substantial IRS liens for failure to pay withholding taxes (a $60,023 bill for Pig Heaven and a $61,944 lien on Marlin), and he and Colaluca were facing three lawsuits, one of which is still in the courts today.

"We borrowed money to help open Pig Heaven," Kaplan says about two 1995 loans that he and Colaluca, operating under the name Hot Stocks Inc., made from Maxus Leasing Group Inc., a Cleveland company that leases equipment and lends money to commercial ventures. The two loans — one in September 1995 for $31,500 and one in December of that same year for $28,500 — helped defray roll-out costs for the restaurant, which eventually totaled around $300,000, Kaplan says. The balance of the start-up money was to come out of Marlin's cash flow, although Kaplan now says that was probably expecting a lot from a sixty-seat restaurant.

Court records indicate that, in September 1998, Maxus filed a complaint against Kaplan and Colaluca in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, claiming that the loans had not been repaid. Presently, Maxus is seeking more than $98,336 in principal and interest on the loans from the two defendants — who are, in turn, contesting their liability. Maxus's attorney, Dean Gamin, of Thompson, Hine & Flory, declined comment, as did Colaluca.

Is Kaplan worried about the possibility of being socked with a $98,000 judgment in the near future? In a word, no. Although he is reluctant to say much about the pending litigation, he does say he believes the amount of Maxus's claim is in error, and that the evidence will not support the lending company's contentions. But if the judge sees it differently, Kaplan says he will simply deal with it as best he can. The case is scheduled to come to trial this fall.

Documents also show that Colaluca and Kaplan were taken to court in October 1997 for nonpayment of a $20,000 loan they had taken out, under the name of the East Sixth Street Restaurant Corp., from Cleveland businessman and Marlin customer William E. Sopko. That case was dismissed in January 1998, when Kaplan and Colaluca repaid Sopko in full. The loan from Sopko, made in April of 1996, was to pay for replacing Pig Heaven's inoperative air-conditioning system. "We found out the day we opened that the restaurant's air conditioning didn't work, so we got a $25,000 hit right off the bat," Kaplan says.

"Mr. Sopko was a very generous former customer who loaned us the money, but he got upset when we didn't pay him back right when we said we would," Kaplan says. "I understand that. The loan came due, and he got nervous, so we went to court."

Sopko doesn't have much to say about the episode, other than to point out that, while Kaplan and Colaluca eventually made good on the debt, his friendship with the partners was destroyed. "That's about all there is to say, isn't it?" he concludes.

Soon after repaying Sopko in early 1998, the partners took out another loan, this time from Bank One, under the Hot Stocks name, to establish a $22,300 line of credit. By September 1998, they had missed scheduled payments, and Bank One took them to court, where the bank was awarded $22,353 in principal, interest, and penalties, which Kaplan and Colaluca subsequently repaid.

Despite his obvious financial woes — and with Pig Heaven on the brink of collapse — in the fall of 1997 the restaurateur took off to Africa and Mount Kilimanjaro for the trip of a lifetime with John Lanigan.

Was this any way to run a business? "We had planned the trip all the way back in January," he explains. "And you don't always know what the future will bring. By the time we were ready to go, Pig Heaven was already not doing well. We didn't know what else to do." As for the back taxes that he still owes the IRS, Kaplan says he will eventually begin repayment. "They were amenable to us having a plan to work it out," he says. "The debt is in suspension for now, and it will become collectible at some point in the future."

The entire sequence of events begs the question of how an apparently bright and talented guy like Kaplan could so misjudge his resources. "I don't know that I misjudged them," he says, sidestepping the question. "I just felt that I could single-handedly do it all."

Kaplan also puts some of the blame on a lack of business perspective and an unshakable, if unsubstantiated, faith in his own abilities. "People talk themselves into doing things," he says now. "We say, "Gee, this is a great idea!' and we talk ourselves into doing it instead of saying, "Well, let's go get another opinion and decide.'

"I didn't have a lot of outside counsel, and the support mechanisms we did have were favorable for us doing it, so we went ahead," he says. "We got some assurances that things would work out, but I guess it takes more than that to build a whole restaurant operation.

"Rich Melman didn't build his empire in three years."

"He Made a Thousand Mistakes"

Kaplan's little empire was a noteworthy, if not unique, casualty in a business well-known for its dangers. As many as 60 percent of all restaurants fail by their fifth anniversary — most often the victims of inadequate planning, poor financial controls, and bad management.

"It takes tons of money to open a restaurant," says Mike Sanson, editor of Restaurant Hospitality, a restaurant trade publication based in Cleveland. "Everybody thinks they can run one, because they eat in them. And a lot of very talented chefs just aren't good business managers."

While Sanson says the industry is "a monster," with sales equivalent to more than 4 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and daily sales averaging a whopping $970 million, not many people end up rich as a result of restaurant work. At the bottom of the heap are Cleveland servers, who earn $2.13 per hour, plus tips. Good servers in fine restaurants around town can expect to pull down another $600 to $800 a week in tips, for an annual salary of around $35,000. Chefs' salaries run from around $35,000 to $70,000, Sanson says, and only chef-owners, at the top of the pecking order, can expect to do much better. At the same time, overhead — costs for food, insurance, taxes, labor, rent, repairs, and supplies — is always going up, catching unwary restaurateurs in a financial squeeze that sends many of them into a spiral of debt and, ultimately, failure.

However, not everyone is willing to let Kaplan off the hook so easily. To a number of industry insiders, Kaplan's fall from grace was a classic example of an ego- driven outsider biting off more than he had any right to try to chew.

"I don't think there is necessarily a dark side to Marlin," says one source. "Just an inept side. He spread himself too thin, and then he capsized."

"He fucked up real good," says another. "He was creative with food, but he wasn't a good businessman. He got some success, and it went to his head. He made a thousand mistakes."

Such slurs on Kaplan's character anger his defenders. "I don't think there are too many people who know him better than I do," says Barrie Shulman. "I started there as a server, and within a year I was managing Marlin. He encouraged me, he mentored me, and he is still one of my best friends.

"He is very bright, very witty, and very charming," she adds. "And I know people say he has a big ego, but he was never once hard to work for."

Similarly, One Walnut's manager, Tom Smerillo, and assistant manager, David Hackley, have known Kaplan for years, and if either of them has any qualms about hitching their stars to Kaplan's wagon, they don't show it.

Smerillo was former owner of the Tuna Club, and he met Kaplan when Marlin opened around the corner. They kept in touch after Smerillo sold his restaurant in 1996 and became a manager at the Diamondback Brewery, a job he recently left to work for Kaplan. "There is no doubt in my mind that we will make this new restaurant a success," Smerillo says.

Hackley was even closer to Kaplan, working as a server at Marlin before leaving in the aftermath of an auto accident. By the time he recovered, the restaurant was closed, and Hackley went on to become a manager at the downtown Hyde Park Grille. He left Hyde Park to accept the job of assistant manager at One Walnut. Hackley says Kaplan was a considerate and caring boss who ended each week by fixing a family-style Saturday-night dinner for his staff after the close of business. "He wanted all of us to feel that we were a part of a family environment," Hackley explains.

Kaplan tells a similar story. "It was a New Year's tradition at Marlin for the staff to write down their goals, personal or professional, for discussion each year," he says. "We would share them, and I told them, if there was anything I could do for them to help make those goals come about, great. I just wanted them to see how much they could get accomplished if they really tried."

Kaplan says his days of trying to be Rich Melman are over. "I have no desire to try to handle more than one restaurant again," he says. "I think the key now is to try to stay focused and to enjoy life a little bit. I don't think more is better anymore."

But ever the entrepreneur, he backpedals in the next breath. "Not that [the chain of venues] was a bad idea," he says, "but I might not have had all the resources and underpinnings that I needed to make it work. And we might not have been in the right environment. And we just might not have had the critical mass to make this work here."

As for his former expensive playthings, they have given way to more modest tastes.

The Jaguar? "I turned it in," he says. "Now I drive a black Mitsubishi Galant."

The penthouse? "I moved out. I have a pretty humble existence now," he says, adding that he took a considerable personal financial hit with the failure of his restaurants. "I don't have big expectations for my personal life anymore, of having a lot of accoutrements."

Kaplan says his new attitude is a reflection of increased maturity. "Over time, we all accumulate a lot of stuff," he says philosophically. "I've never been married to stuff. I think it's been a good thing to get rid of some of it."

Refining Cleveland's Palate

What with all the new business and construction details, it's easy to forget that Kaplan is first and foremost a chef. But a new pasta dish — which he has whimsically named Kansas Carbonara — has been on his mind and, as lunchtime rolls around, he can no longer contain his enthusiasm.

"Spaghetti, with butter and Parmesan cheese, and bits of bacon," he says dreamily. "Real bacon, because some people don't like pancetta. Then on top of it you slide an over-easy egg — one that's still nice and soft, so the yolk's a little runny — and there you have it! Doesn't it sound good?" he laughs. "I want that! I want that right now!"

The sensual, feel-good dish is pure Kaplan and is bound to take its place on One Walnut's menu, among other voluptuous-sounding meals like a grilled veal chop with pine nuts, artichokes, and citrus sauce, and grilled Maine lobster with vanilla butter and corn flan.

"There are all these food philosophies going around now, this global cuisine and stuff like that, and I don't understand that," Kaplan says. "But what I do understand, and what I've always done best, are foods that taste like what they are, not masked with fancy sauces or disguised as architectural forms. It's just good, wholesome food, like something your mom would make, but with a twist."

Still, in a meat-and-potatoes town like Cleveland — home of the Dawg Pound, heart of the Rust Belt — many of us still don't get fine dining and neither want to nor can afford to eat at restaurants like One Walnut.

Restaurant Hospitality's Mike Sanson chooses his words carefully. "These are generalities, of course," he says. "But to a large extent, Clevelanders just don't have the same level of sophistication as you'll find in some other cities. We didn't grow up eating at places like Lola or Moxie, and many of us still aren't comfortable there.

"In Cleveland, going to a "good' restaurant is still seen as a special-occasion sort of thing," he says. "Unfortunately, a city can't support a fine-dining scene with that type of attitude. You need a large enough population of affluent diners, who eat out on a regular basis, to pull it off. Chicago has it. San Francisco has it. But Cleveland doesn't seem to have it."

A look at 1990 U.S. Census data supports Sanson's suspicions: There just aren't very many Clevelanders with the cash to support a wealth of fine restaurants. The gap in median household incomes between Cleveland ($30,332), Chicago ($35,918), and New York ($38,445) isn't staggering. But the real difference between the three cities shows up in the number of wealthy families living there.

According to the figures, Cleveland has a few more than 13,000 households with incomes greater than $150,000. Chicago is home to 66,086 such households. And in New York City, a whopping 237,145 households have incomes over $150,000. If those are the people who make or break upscale restaurants, no wonder Cleveland has remained a culinary backwater filled with unimaginative eateries, where the few trendy spots that dare to emerge must constantly struggle for success.

"Excuse me, but that's horse shit," responds Michael Symon. The chef-owner of Lola Bistro, which is by most accounts the city's best restaurant, insists that great food doesn't have to be expensive. "The average check here only runs around $38 for a full meal. And at that price, we've developed a lot of "regulars.' In fact, on any given night, I know about 70 percent of the customers in the place."

As for the "meat-and-potatoes" lament, Symon says it's the fallback position for chefs who are too lazy to educate their guests. "It's easy to become ego-driven and say, "If people don't understand my food, they are idiots!'" says the North Olmsted native. "But it's a chef's job to take diners further — in baby steps, if necessary — to teach them about good food."

Symon's new Tremont neighbor, Michael Herschman (who developed a devoted following at his former East Side restaurant, Cena Copa), agrees. "Cleveland is not this big blue-collar town that it used to be," says the chef-owner of the recently opened Mojo. "More and more, jobs in the service industry have replaced the factory jobs, and most of the people in the service industry now are restaurant workers. These people know how to go out and enjoy themselves. They know what is happening."

Cleveland restaurateur Carl Quagliata has been a part of the city's dining scene since 1967, and his own empire now includes Piccolo Mondo and Tuscany restaurants, and partial ownership of Tuscany 55, Posto Vecchio, Giovanni's, and the Spaghetti Company. Quagliata says he's inclined to blame the media for Cleveland's image as a culinary zero.

"We don't promote what is good about the city," he says. "The media portray Cleveland as a negative place to be. I don't know why that has been the case. But fortunately, that seems to be changing." There are, indeed, signs that the city's image is improving. While even five years ago, an out-of-town visitor would have been hard-pressed to locate a single area restaurant or chef with a national reputation, that is no longer the case.

Three local chefs, including Donna Chriszt (J Café), Doug Katz (Moxie), and Gregg Korney (Giovanni's), have been tapped by the prestigious James Beard Foundation as some of the nation's top talent, and each has been invited to display his or her skills at Beard House events in New York City.

Bon Appétit's website now includes enthusiastic reviews of six Cleveland restaurants: Lola, Fat Cats, Harry Corvairs, Blue Point Grille, Tutto a Posto, and Watermark. And just last year, Esquire magazine's influential food critic John Mariani picked Moxie as one of the top 25 new restaurants in the nation.

"We need to be out there telling people that Cleveland isn't just a bunch of chain restaurants," Kaplan says. "We have some very talented young chefs here and some really great restaurant operators, running restaurants that compare with anything in any other city in the country. So I really don't understand why Cleveland doesn't get more recognition. But I'm going to do my best to raise the stakes."

A Tough 'Nut to Crack

If, in his failure, Marlin Kaplan resembles countless other failed restaurateurs, there is still one big difference: Kaplan is getting a second chance. And not just any second chance, but the opportunity to run what could easily become one of the best restaurants in town. Can he handle it? Ohio Savings Bank's David Goldberg, who represents the ownership of the building, sees nothing but blue skies. Although he declined to comment directly on the reasons for the failure of Kaplan's former spots, he says the restaurateur's history is irrelevant to the new venture.

"We have complete confidence that Marlin will be successful here," Goldberg says. "The reasons that gave him trouble in the past are unrelated to the present situation, and we expect One Walnut to do very well."

Goldberg says that, under the terms of the agreement between Kaplan and the bank, the space occupied by One Walnut will continue to be owned by Ohio Savings, which has also bankrolled the remodeling. Kaplan is expected to draw his salary, pay rent, and to repay the half-million-dollar cost of the remodeling from the restaurant's eventual profits. Neither Kaplan nor Goldberg would discuss the details of the agreement.

And what if there are no profits? "That's the risk we take for doing business," Goldberg says. "We have a normal lease agreement with him that gives us access to his books and records, but this is Marlin's restaurant. It's up to him to run it."

Vice President Mark D. Larkman, Ohio Savings Management's director of property management, agrees. "As Marlin's landlord, we were on the front line of his former financial troubles," he says. "We know all about it. But we were still keen to get him, because he has a good vision, and he knows how to run a restaurant. We are very optimistic that this new restaurant will do very, very well."

Barrie Shulman also expects the best. "I believe One Walnut will be the most successful restaurant downtown," says the present manager of J Café in Woodmere. "There was always such an energy in his restaurants — an L.A. or New York kind of thing. People who work downtown have missed him desperately."

And, not surprisingly, Kaplan himself expects the restaurant to be a hit, although he admits he has his worries. "Absolutely," he says. "And as we get closer to the day we open, there are more and more issues you have to deal with. You have to control the ones you have some control over and let the other ones fall where they may.

"I'm just nervous about who's going to show up. Are they going to show up? Are the customers going to like this restaurant as much as they liked the other places? One Walnut is totally different than the others, you know. It has some obvious ties to Marlin, but it's really a much more elegant concept. I hope the customers like it."

To this day, Kaplan refuses to call the crash of his mini-empire a failure, saying he prefers to think of it as an evolution. "There is some sense of loss to it," he admits, "but I don't know how I could have gone on [operating the three spots]. We all reinvent ourselves in some ways, and this has been an evolution for me. I took the best elements of the other places, and I thought about them until I can't think about them anymore, and I'm trying to make this restaurant just a little bit better.

"I've learned an enormous amount over the past few years about being in the limelight and how one is presented and what you do," he says. "I am surely a much more humble individual today than I was three years ago. And what you want at twenty is not the same thing that you want at fifty."

And in the end, Kaplan says he's learned that he doesn't need to have all the marbles.

"Sometimes," he says, "it's enough just to get to play the game."

Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at [email protected].

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