The wife and I had just returned home from a particularly egregious meal when I spotted something on Facebook that flew me into a rage. A talented Cleveland chef posted a giddy update on his forthcoming restaurant — a concept that was still in need of a home. Why would that optimistic tidbit cause so much angst? Because it was posted by the chef of the very restaurant we had just left in a huff.
The chef and restaurant in question are Jeremy Esterly and Paragon in Euclid, but the situation applies to a far wider subset of young, talented, and overly ambitious chefs. Rather than focus on the task at hand, many would rather dream about what may never come. It is a mounting problem not only for these chefs' bosses, but also the paying diners who are getting cheated out of the kitchen's full attention.
Esterly can cook. Not only was he the former chef de cuisine at Fire Food and Drink (and he very briefly held the same title at Lola), he also was the culinary muscle behind the food truck Dim and Den Sum when it first hit the streets. He was hired by Paragon's owners to help transform a lackluster neighborhood tavern into a bistro worthy of its name. He hasn't done so.
Paragon means "model of excellence," and it's a label that finds its way not only onto the restaurant's nameplate, but also the drinks, food, and damn-near everything else. There is the Paragon martini, Paragon ice tea, Paragon fries, Paragon cheese blend ... You get the picture. None of it, I can assure you, is the model of excellence.
Grilled Caesar salads are a great idea; the char on the romaine adds a woodsy twist to an otherwise familiar taste. Too bad, then, that the lettuce in ours was cool, fresh, and wholly untouched by flames. The anchovy-rich dressing was perfect, but its artsy distribution in shallow pools around the lettuce head meant extra work for us.
On the other hand, a portobello and gruyere flatbread was destroyed by too much flame. The crust was toast — burnt, dry, and teeth-shatteringly tough.
A plump, bone-in pork chop looked amazing in the center of the plate, but when we hacked it open we discovered a salty, leathery, overcooked piece of meat. That chop was perched atop a pile of oily barbecued penne (weird), sided by gray, lifeless braised greens, and garnished with floppy, greasy onion rings. Still, we adored a crock of mac and cheese, enriched with heady gruyere and flush with oven-roasted cauliflower florets.
A second visit netted better, though far from golden results. A pepperoni flatbread arrived appropriately crisp and savory. While misleading, the pulled-pork pierogies — seared potato and cheese pierogies topped with, as opposed to stuffed with, tender meat — drew no complaints from the table. Also good but deceptively named is the chicken pot pie, a "deconstructed" version that features textbook roast chicken atop a creamy carrot-studded gravy.
Sandwiches are usually safe, and that's why we ordered a grilled chicken BLT. We were rewarded for our sensible choice by a finely constructed, appropriately outfitted sammy sided by truly great fries. The same did not hold true for the ahi tuna melt. Billed as tuna confit, the once-lush fish was boiled to a slate-gray color and smothered with melted American cheese and Old Bay mayo.
Paragon's martini list features 30 varieties, every single one of them a fruity abomination. My request for a stiff, non-sweet drink netted me the Paragon martini ($7.50), a grape-juice-infused model of disappointment. Thanks, waiter.
After e-mailing Esterly following both meals, I learned that he was not present on the night of our first, glum visit, but was present and accounted for during our second, more agreeable dinner. It goes without saying that if a kitchen cannot produce great food in a chef's absence, a chef should never be absent.
Will Paragon ever be a model of excellence? No way. Can it rise to the level of beloved neighborhood boite? Yes, but only if all interested parties are genuinely interested.