"So, will the curse finally be broken?" asked a friend, referring to the revolving-door restaurant situation that has plagued Tremont's notorious park-side bistro for nearly two decades.
I'm not optimistic, I replied. At least, not unless things change.
Like countless other diners, I've been smitten by John McDonnell's charms since the first time I dined at one of his restaurants. That was back in 2000 at the Fulton Bar and Grill. In addition to his convivial demeanor and matchless hosting ability, the guy has a knack for unearthing talent and letting them shine. Chef Steve Parris elevated the Fulton from dive to destination. At Tartine Bistro, Nolan Konkoski help his boss nab this mag's Best New Restaurant award before leaving to open his own successful spot, SoHo, in Ohio City.
Based on all of the above and more, I had high expectations for Merchant Street Eatery, McDonnell's first new venture since handing over Tartine to his partner. The owner is just as warm, gracious and attentive as ever, effortlessly working the room like a seasoned pro. And the space literally has never looked better, a buzzy neighborhood bistro without one iota of pretense or pride.
The food, on the other hand, needs some work. If this were another time and place, perhaps, this review would be more flattering. But this is Tremont, a dining district stacked with the heaviest of hitters when it comes to culinary all-stars. And this is 2017, a year that caps off an era of unprecedented progress in terms of Cleveland's food and cocktail scene. At this price point, in this neighborhood, anything short of exceptional will be a very tough sell — even when it's McDonnell doing the selling.
Starters like baked brie ($11) and crab and manchego-stuffed peppers ($11) could have been salvaged by killer ingredients and top-flight execution. Instead, the brie arrived in a pale and greasy dough wrapper and the piquillo peppers are filled with a tuna fish-like mixture lacking any crab or crab flavor. The soft-on-soft texture of the filling and the roasted peppers screams for something to break the monotony. More than a few bad hombres, a flat wine sauce and stale bread slices sank an uncomplicated bowl of steamed mussels ($10).
There were no complaints in regard to a wild mushroom flatbread ($10), a crisp-crusted oblong pie topped with sweet and sour caponata, punchy ricotta salata, sauteed 'shrooms and micro greens. Tidy stacks of diced cured salmon and apples atop jalapeno corn cakes ($10) would have been so much better had the cakes been hot and crispy instead of cold and stiff.
In advance of my first visit to Merchant Street I perused the menus online as is my habit. I admired the roster of timeless-sounding bistro arrangements. Done right, dishes like roasted cod ($19), served atop a bed of julienned salsify and spinach and drizzled with preserved lemon oil, indeed are classic comforts. So, too, are the easygoing seared scallops ($22), paired with roasted carrots and a heap of braised spinach.
On the flip side are dishes like the mushroom cassoulet ($18), a brothy confluence of soft beans, leeks, tomatoes and greens that feels more like the beginning of a dish rather than the end of one. Similarly unfocused is the inaptly named "stuffed winter squash" ($17), a muddle of chopped vegetables, greens, squash and wheat berries in an oniony sauce. Other flubs over the span of two meals include a skin-on roasted chicken breast ($19) that lacked the mandatory crispy skin and a medium-rare filet of beef ($22) served very, very rare.
The wine list is lovely and reasonably priced, and McDonnell is just the guy to make a recommendation. We enjoyed bottles of an easy-drinking Bordeaux ($36) and jammy Napa Valley red wine blend ($50). Cocktails are a different matter, as evidenced by a tablemate's Manhattan ($8) consisting of little more than chilled straight bourbon.
One of the reasons I was so optimistic about Merchant Street's chances of breaking the spell is that the owner fixed the vexing issues that have for so long plagued the physical space. A tiny bar that forced guests to stare at a rear wall was expanded and relocated to the right side of the room, creating that beloved bar-and-bistro feel. An adjacent Siberia-like dining room was turned into a separate retail market-based business, so guests no longer need dine in isolation.
Given that the heavy lifting already has been done, and given McDonnell's restaurant IQ — Parris wasn't his first chef at the Fulton — I still hold out hope that he will right this ship and sail it into calm and pleasant waters.