Inspired. That is the first word that comes to mind in describing the new Uptown project and its surrounding University Circle neighborhood. This one-of-a-kind development is the first niche neighborhood in Cleveland that combines big-box retail and national restaurant brands with local hospitality. This is a testament not only to the developers — the Maron family — but also to the diversity and density of this rapidly expanding area.
Inspiration in food can be equally rare. As in any industry, when a restaurant introduces something fresh, it is usually mimicked by copycats, leaving the concept destined for extinction, or even worse, franchising.
Accent, the newest culinary addition to Uptown, will be hard to replicate. To understand the depth of inspiration, start with the proprietors. Since 2000, Scott and Brenda Kim have dazzled local diners with their Matsu Japanese Restaurant on Chagrin Blvd. in Shaker Heights. In 2007, they added SASA on Shaker Square, where they introduced "Izakaya," or Japanese pub, by combining tapas-style dishes with a cocktail-focused atmosphere.
Longtime SASA fans, the Maron family partnered with Kim on his next culinary vision, a Pan-Asian restaurant featuring a unique style of cooking called Robata grilling. And Accent was born.
With the menu taking shape, the next move was design. Stanley Saitowitz, who designed the entire Uptown redevelopment, was called on to put his contemporary maverick style to work. The result: An all-glass, half-moon storefront that serves as a beacon radiating down the new Uptown retail corridor.
The chic interior design is sexy; ultramodern furniture with bold red accents and black Corian tabletops make a statement. The industrial concrete floors in the dining area are balanced by the earth-toned slate tile of the bar. The restaurant's name is etched across the wall in a floor-to-ceiling design, illuminated by sleek red lighting. The design aesthetic continues even into the bathrooms, reflecting the careful attention to theming.
The fabulous space is matched by a staff professional in both knowledge and appearance, with one hitch. The cooking staff uniforms — a mix of mismatched chef jackets and jeans — are on display through Accent's open-kitchen concept, and much too casual for the otherwise sophisticated atmosphere.
The menu is rooted in a cooking style previously unknown to Cleveland. Accent introduces us to both Robata grilling and the Josper oven. Both methods combine Old World technique with New World equipment. Robata, popular in Japan for more than 100 years, is considered the Cadillac of grilling. Using Japanese Binchotan charcoal, this 1,000-degree, open-flame process allows the chef to chargrill or sear. The Josper oven, originating in Spain more than 40 years ago, looks like a traditional oven, but uses the same style of charcoal and produces high levels of heat.
I gravitated toward the Robata menu, which features protein selections offered tapas style and priced accordingly. Our knowledgeable server recommended the Pork Belly, served on wooden lollipops, two per order. Masterfully slow roasted, the pork featured smokiness from the charcoal and a delicious caramelization. I immediately decided I want this grill for my home.
Arriving next was the Kim Chee and Beef Bulgogi Flatbread, topped with Goat Cheese. The kim chee and goat cheese were fantastic, but the flatbread seemed too hard, and the beef bulgogi was overcooked by the intense heat. Our server suggested Sriracha sauce, which amped up the dish nicely.
As a french fry fanatic, I had to order the SASA Fries — large-cut, blanched fries coated in cornstarch, fried perfectly in soybean oil, then tossed in a paprika and nori spice blend. The cornstarch added an extra dimension and crunch to the fry, and the spice blend made the potato pop. Complementing the fries were spicy Aioli and sweet-and-spicy Katsu sauce, which provided another great balance.
Usually seen at theme parks, Smoked Turkey Leg works well on this menu. Especially after being cooked Sous-vide, which left the meat sliding off the bone. The texture was moist, while the flavor from the charcoal and the marinated chimichurri sauce ran deep. The Asian slaw underneath provided a nice East-meets-West balance.
A surprise sleeper for me was the Ribeye. I watched as the 14-ounce prime cut of beef was put into the Josper oven. Within literally minutes, it was cooked to a perfect medium. At first bite, I felt like I was dining at a world-class steak house. One thousand degrees did its job well, particularly with the charring and caramelization. The Katsu demi-glace added a delicate touch to this carnivore lover's dish. The mixed vegetables and roasted potatoes underneath were also smoked in the oven, and had a nice punch of garlic throughout.
With all the charcoal and open fire, why not try the Accent S'mores? Diverting from the treat's usual messy style, these are clean and exploding with flavor. Each marshmallow is coated in a chocolate ganache, dusted with crushed graham crackers, drizzled with hot caramel, and finished with a slight charcoal taste from the Josper oven that you can't even get toasting marshmallows outdoors over an open fire. Hands-down, this is one of the best desserts in Cleveland.
On our way out, we joined in a chef-suggested tour of the open kitchen. For a moment, I considered distracting the cooks and wheeling the Josper oven and Robata grill out to my car. But the tour itself was enough to provide a satisfying ending to a great dining experience. The service was strong. The space is cool and trendy. And the menu is hotter than that Robata..