There aren't many conventional bars in the Village of Chagrin Falls. Most folks simply meet for drinks at one of the many casually elegant restaurants that populate the charming hamlet. Oddly, one of the most popular ports of last call is the stick at Aurelia, a petite 50-seat bistro at the far end of Main Street. It's odd because for more than half a century that bar was in fact a soda fountain dispensing egg creams, phosphates and milkshakes, not Manhattans, Sazeracs and Old Fashioneds.
Chef-owner James Balchak spent nearly six months converting the North Main Diner, formerly Dink's, from a dowdy luncheonette to a smart little supper club. Energy from the buzzy bar scene boosts the mood and spirit of the entire space, ensuring that the atmosphere never dips to melancholy. The cocktails that flow from that corner of the room, bearing names like Bee's Knees ($11), No. 25 Manhattan ($12) and Naked & Famous ($12), are bracing, balanced and brilliant.
Given the restaurant's standing as a farm-to-table operation, I intentionally postponed my visit until winter had finally and fully passed. What better way to welcome the arrival of spring than to enjoy its seasonal bounty on a plate. A quick glance at the menu, however, transported me clear back to autumn. On the roster were Brussels sprouts, potatoes, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, cranberries, lentils and apples. Digging deeper, one could spot the occasional ramp, radish and asparagus, but also hydroponic green and hothouse tomato.
Balchak admits that after having been away from Cleveland for 20 years, he's still working to establish the kind of small-farm relationships that will allow him to better utilize the abundance growing just outside his door. The good news, and perhaps more significant in terms of dollars to doughnuts, is that he's sourcing grass-fed beef and pastured pork from nearby farms. Also in his defense, this year's cold, wet spring has tossed up additional roadblocks.
Balchak's Brussels sprouts ($8) would be a delight at any time of year. Served as an appetizer, the attractively charred but firm sprouts are tossed in an intoxicatingly sweet, spicy and smoky glaze. Local mushrooms and ramps make an appearance atop a rustic pepperoni flatbread ($15) that should have possessed a crisper crust, but the flavors work well together. A welcome taste of spring arrives in the form of a verdant green salad ($8), a wide bowl brimming with lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and creamy blue cheese.
Our principal complaint was reserved for the "Farmer's Board" ($16), an infuriatingly sparse arrangement of two meats (from the excellent NaKyrsie Meats in Geneva) and two cheeses, paired with a smattering of pickled carrots, boxed crackers and stadium-style mustard. A two-foot-long cutting board not only amplified the skimpiness of the offerings, it threw the meal into a state of disarray as tablemates struggled to make room for the lumber.
A trim menu swaps broad appeal for integrity of product, with a handful of dishes built around fresh fish, sweet shellfish, pristine pork and first-rate beef. In place of avant-garde concoctions and trendy treatments, Balchak prefers to let the main ingredient shine. He calls it "home-cooking plus" and I'd have to agree. His pot roast ($19) is every bit as satisfying as mom's, but hers never starred fat ribbons of meltingly tender grass-fed beef, braised bok choy and sprightly microgreens.
There are few bells and whistles on the pork chop ($20), unless you call a perfect char from the grill a bell and a sexy strip of glistening fat a whistle. The meat is perfectly cooked, sliced and gilded with a zippy chimichurri. It's paired with baby cauliflower and lentils that had long ago veered off to mushy land. Plump scallops ($22) benefit from a textbook sear and a bright, seasonal ramp pesto. They hover atop a bed of fluffy couscous and are sided by butter-blanched broccoli. Flakey walleye ($20) manages to give the scallops a run for their money, with a pair of sweet, mild filets offset by a streak of red wine reduction sauce. Ramp risotto and baby-fresh asparagus are supporting cast members.
Let the server talk you into the rhubarb crisp a la mode ($8), a homespun and delicious way to cap off the meal, but don't let her rush you out the door. I'd be lying if I said that we didn't feel the occasional nudge, poke and prod to move things along, but when there are this few seats and that many hopeful diners, who can blame them? In addition to dinner, Aurelia offers lunch and a weekend brunch that looks good enough to put pants on for.