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Present at Creation

Trend-setting restaurateurs continue to raise the bar

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Behold the progress of the Cleveland dining scene. As any well-seasoned foodie can tell you, it wasn't all that long ago that our steaks were well done, great seafood was rare, and arugula was an exotic mystery.

Into the culinary wasteland of the early to mid-1990s marched a few brave chefs —innovators like Zach Bruell, Paul Minnillo, Michael Symon, and Ali and Marcie Barker. While those first three names are widely known to northeast Ohioans, the last two are not.

That's too bad, because in their trend-setting Piperade in downtown Cleveland, the Barkers served up a true taste of big-city style, helping usher in what we now think of as the city's restaurant renaissance. The Barkers' newest venture is Radius, a fine-dining restaurant on the campus of South Franklin Circle in Chagrin Falls. Yes, it is a restaurant in a retirement community. But thanks to this talented twosome, the open-to-the-public spot has about as much in common with institutional food service as a Maserati does with a golf cart. "The idea is to rewrite the book on retirement living," says Marcie. "We're creating a new paradigm, with a focus on flavor and nutrition."

Creating new paradigms is old hat for the well-seasoned couple. The Barkers originally came to Cleveland by way of Manhattan, where both Ali and Marcie, a Rocky River native, were budding chefs. Their paths crossed in 1985 at the newly opened Union Square Café, where a 26-year-old Ali was executive chef and Marcie was his sous. Their 1987 marriage made it onto the pages of The New York Times. Meantime, Union Square Café made it into the annals of American culinary history as one of the most influential dining rooms of the past quarter-century.

After three years at Union Square Café, the couple was ready to move on. The demands of a growing family drew them to Marcie's home turf, where they opened Piperade. "We were a little shocked at first by the quality and availability of ingredients in Cleveland in the '90s," recalls Marcie with a chuckle. "The awareness of where food actually comes from was still to come. When we first put a mesclun greens salad on the menu, people complained that the lettuce was too flavorful."

"What I'm most proud of was the 'Consider the Source' program that Marcie started," adds Ali. "We would create a menu and then bring in farmers, growers, and purveyors to contribute to each course. They would talk to the diners about the foods they were eating: 'If you like this, this is where it comes from.'"

Today, of course, local foods are ubiquitous on Cleveland tabletops. And while the Barkers clearly helped open that door, the couple gives high marks to the North Union Farmers Market, which launched on Shaker Square in 1995, for the growth of the region's love affair with local foods. "They've done a great job," says Ali. "They've really helped make it happen for the farmers, while also promoting the notion of sustainable foods."

In 1995, after four years of operation, the couple closed Piperade when family demands again intervened. "The restaurant happened right between the births of our two sons," says Marcie. "I needed to temporarily retire from the business...

"...and then an opportunity came up in Michigan," finishes Ali. That opportunity was opening the Bistro on the Boulevard in the resort town of St. Joseph. "It was wonderful: I could be a chef and a dad, right on the shores of Lake Michigan."

After 12 years in Michigan, the Barkers returned to Cleveland and opened Radius. Today, they have nothing but praise for Cleveland's culinary community. "There's so much more camaraderie among chefs now," says Ali. "It's less cutthroat than it was in the '90s. Now, we all realize we need each other. Spots like East Fourth Street couldn't exist if we all didn't get along. We really admire Paul [Minnillo] and Zack [Bruell]. Steve Schimoler at Crop is another one. Of course, Michael Symon has really charted the course —and his B-Spots can't be beat! And Jonathon Sawyer: Who puts pigs' heads on a menu? It's so gutsy!"

Which is not to say the Radius menu will be sporting pigs' heads, sweetbreads, or other assorted offal anytime soon. With Ali as executive chef and Marcie as food and beverage manager, the restaurant's focus is on familiar, approachable ingredients, precisely assembled with classical technique. While the menu changes every two to three weeks, Ali points to the graham-cracker crusted calamari and crème brulée as items he's been known for throughout his career. Scallops, crab cakes, pan-roasted walleye, and Atlantic salmon are always popular, he adds. And for dessert, "We make all our own ice creams."

As for prices, items on a late-September menu ranged from $14 for pistachio-crusted chicken Dijon to $32 for two four-ounce tournedos of filet mignon served with roasted potatoes, bordelaise, and the veggie du jour. A fully stocked bar features a tap system for wines by the glass. The wine list is a blend of Old World and New World varietals, with a focus on food-friendly styles. Bottle prices are mainly in the $21 to $33 range.

Pegged at just $16, the Sunday brunch buffet has been a particular hit with diners from outside the community, says Ali, with a lineup that includes homemade doughnuts, cheese blintzes, Welsh rarebit, roasted salmon, fresh fruit, challah French toast with local maple syrup, and an omelet station. And while Ali is understandably reluctant to go too far afield with the regular dinner menu offerings, he spreads his creative wings with daily specials like braised short ribs.

"More people are discovering us every week," the chef says. "Both new friends and old fans from Piperade are coming out to see what we are doing."

For a chance to dine with culinary legends, why not?

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