- Walter Novak
- Showstopper? Ciao!'s more often just a stop on the way to the show.
Almost from the day it opened in 1998, Playhouse Square's restaurant in the former lobby of the Ohio Theatre has been trying to find its niche. A name change, from Ciao Cucina to the present exclamatory Ciao!, and culinary rewrites (from Italian to "regional American with an Asian twist" to contemporary American) have been part of its struggle to develop a strong identity, separate from simply serving as a nicety for theatergoers.
Late last summer, General Manager Tim Maguire, Executive Chef Michael Fadel, and Chef du Cuisine Nick DeCocco premiered their fall menu amid bold assurances that the restaurant was now poised to become a major player. A big boast, to be certain, and one that puts Ciao! up against some pretty stiff competition, both for upscale downtown workers during the lunch hour and for destination diners during the evening. After a winter's worth of work, has the staff in fact pulled it off? Not if our experiences there are typical. While the restaurant clearly has potential, so far neither the food, the service, nor the ambiance at Ciao! seems good enough to qualify it for a leading role on the Cleveland dining stage.
That was demonstrated on a recent Saturday night, when we found the cavernous dining room packed with theatergoers at seven o'clock and nearly deserted by eight, an hour when the crowds at nearby Warehouse District restaurants are just revving up. We made the mistake of telling our waiter that we didn't need to make an 8 p.m. curtain; as a result, he seemed to put us at the bottom of his to-do list, leaving us to fend for ourselves for nearly a half-hour. When he finally returned to take our orders and drop off a basket of bread, the kitchen was already sold out of our first choice of entrées. And service didn't improve as the restaurant emptied. Although he couldn't have had more than two other tables to look after by then (and we had already spotted several of his co-workers heading for home), our waiter continued to make himself scarce. As a result, the tablecloth went uncrumbed and water glasses went unfilled, and we feared we would have to set off flares to get someone to bring us a desperately needed salt shaker. This, at a spot where appetizers go for as much as $11 and several entrées hover at or near the $30 mark.
As for the food itself, much of it was quite good. For instance, among the appetizers, a succulent sauté of shrimp and scallop, nestled into a perfect puff pastry shell and napped with a tasty Boursin cream sauce, was well constructed and flavorful. And two big burrito-style root vegetable crêpes, wrapped around a filling of hickory-smoked chicken, oyster mushrooms, and shredded carrot, rutabaga, and parsnip, then set into a pool of zippy tasso cream sauce, was a creative interplay of tastes and textures.
A generous rack of grilled Australian lamb -- three medium-rare single-boned chops and one double-boned chop, along with coarsely diced roasted sweet potato, smoky grilled asparagus, and a kiss of Cabernet Sauvignon reduction -- was, if not extraordinary, at least competently prepared and flavorful. Likewise, a thick slab of pearly pan-roasted sea bass had been gently handled and attentively seasoned. And while the kitchen took a chance by pairing the delicate fish with a bit of fiery red Thai sauce and bedding it down on assertively flavored coconut-curry basmati rice, the flavors came together remarkably well.
We found the restaurant to be mostly empty during a weekday lunch visit. Too bad, because the kitchen had done a fine job with the day's luncheon special of slow-cooked flank steak: a homey assemblage of firm, flavorful meat dabbed with an excellent sun-dried tomato demi-glace and fanned around buttery garlic-and-artichoke-studded smashed potatoes. Finished with a few slender spears of that aromatic grilled asparagus, the meal left us feeling so fortified and refreshed that we hardly minded going back to the office.
But despite those successes, too many other dishes were flubbed by a lack of attention to detail. An excess of clove and allspice overwhelmed a one-note sweet-potato bisque. A thick filet mignon of certified Angus beef was lusciously textured but dully seasoned. Ironically, the cooks then went to the other extreme, dousing an accompanying side dish of cheesy cheddar potatoes au gratin with so much garlic that it tasted bitter and off-kilter. An entrée of slightly overdone grilled pork tenderloin, accompanied by vibrant maple-baked Great Northern and kidney beans and a portion of delicate jasmine rice, also had some balance problems. While the pork and beans were a merry pairing, their bold flavors shouted down the rice, to the point that it ended up just filling space on the plate. And a pricey salad of mixed greens with sliced fingerling potatoes, pear, and Stilton cheese, in a port vinaigrette, fell short on several fronts: The steamed potato was bland and underseasoned, the pear was unripe, the dressing was on the acidic side, and the Stilton -- which might have balanced the tart vinaigrette -- was in short supply.
If the restaurant's service is not quite attentive and the food not uniformly first-rate, the physical facility itself also suffers in comparison to other more stylish downtown dining rooms. Long, narrow, and windowless, the main dining room is frankly dreary. Although designers wisely employed several enormous mirrors to try to open up the space, it's not enough to overcome the muddy plum and gray-green color scheme. While the room contains some charming vintage touches, like a beautiful vaulted ceiling and fanciful plaster medallions, all the architectural detailing is painted over in the same dull colors so that it fades, unappreciated, into the background. (By contrast, the smallish lounge in the front of the restaurant has large windows, light-colored walls, and an intricately painted ceiling treatment, and is a much more cheerful spot in which to while away the time.) And although the restaurant employs hefty white linens, no flowers or candles brighten the tableaux.
Except for a slice of decidedly dry Ciao! Signature Layer Cake, which, we suspect, had been languishing in the cooler a bit too long, Pastry Chef Bridget Waite's desserts were a relative high point. Warm bourbon-pecan pie was neither too boozy nor too sweet. Thick slices of firm French toast, in a fruity sauce of strawberries, raspberries, and diced pear, with a mound of whipped cream, gave classic strawberry shortcake a tasty tweaking. And a tall goblet of sleek, buttery chocolate gelato (from a commercial source), sided with a massive housemade dark-chocolate biscotti and paired with an oversized mug of creamy cappuccino, was simple and unpretentious. For those who favor a nightcap after an evening of theater, the large wine menu also includes a solid selection of dessert wine, port, and scotch.
But while Ciao!'s convenience for playgoers is not to be minimized, it's not enough to turn the pricey restaurant into a dinnertime destination on par with some of the other nearby hotspots. Before the curtain can rise on that scenario, the culinary staff must increase its commitment to consistent quality, service standards must be tightened so that diners still feel welcomed after the 8 p.m. show time, and the decor must be lent some sparkle. Until then, it seems likely that the only roars of approval heard on Playhouse Square will be coming from inside its theaters.