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A Fistful of Diamonds

Sans Souci is an award-winning restaurant with something to prove.

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A reputation can be tough to live up to. Just ask any gunfighter: Soon as folks start calling you the fastest draw in town, they'll expect you to prove it every time you step outside.

Sans Souci, one of Cleveland's better dining spots, could be in an analogous situation. The French restaurant with a Mediterranean menu has been a Triple-A Four-Diamond Award winner for seven consecutive years (it picked up the 1999 award in March). Along with all those diamonds, it has garnered a reputation for excellence--in service and atmosphere as well as for its food.

Those accolades mean the restaurant has something to prove to expectant diners. But does Sans Souci consistently live up to its highfalutin reputation? If a recent Saturday night visit is any indication, the answer is, "Sorry, pardner."

Not that it doesn't come close. The restaurant, in the historic Renaissance Hotel, offers an unparalleled feast for the eyes, if not always for the belly, and our banquet began as we entered the hotel's sumptuous lobby. High above the marble floors, five stunning crystal chandeliers dripped from a gilt-trimmed, blue-vaulted ceiling. The chandeliers were reflected in plumes of water reaching toward the faux sky from a towering marble fountain in the center of the room. Majestic palms, a grand piano, and an assortment of beautifully dressed guests were set about the fountain like ornaments.

In contrast to the lobby's vastness, the restaurant possesses a welcoming sense of intimacy. Sans Souci's dining space is divided into a series of cozy alcoves, each sheltering a handful of tables. The alcoves are separated by large French country-style sideboards, whitewashed oak posts, and half-walls topped with mammoth bouquets of dried sunflowers. In two of the alcoves, a wall of windows overlooks the activities on Public Square. In the others, floor-to-ceiling murals depicting the sunlight-infused fields and gardens of Provence create commanding focal points.

Things began well enough when our server--a delightful woman whose gleaming smile and alert brown eyes reminded us of a young Geena Davis--brought us a tray of delicious handmade breads.

We loved the thick slabs of rosemary-scented sourdough, the rounds of crisp-crusted baguette, and the slices of dense black-currant bread, all accompanied by sweet butter and a crock of intensely flavored tapenade.

The zesty tapenade--a Provençal blend of black olives, capers, anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, and seasonings--was like the essence of France in a ramekin and got our juices flowing in anticipation of the other delights to come.

Chef de cuisine Mark Morton and the hotel's Executive Chef Claude Rodier introduced their spring menu just a few days before our mid-April visit, and it is clear that they do not aspire to offer simple foods. Rather, Morton allows that he enjoys the challenge of pulling together an assortment of flavors and textures into a harmonious whole. When he succeeds--as in an entree of bacon-wrapped monkfish over spinach, with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts--the results are wonderful; when he doesn't, disappointment is inevitable.

And so it was with our starters.
Probably the most flavorful of the group was a buttery phyllo cup filled with sauteed mushrooms and spinach, and piqued with a drizzle of Madeira reduction sauce. The aromatic dish offered a delightful contrast in textures, with the crunchy phyllo pastry setting off the meaty fungi and tender spinach. But the appetizer lost points for being unforgivably salty, to the point that our tongues felt numb after we ate it.

Also mostly successful was a chilled Maryland "crab cake"--actually a cold, shredded crabmeat salad with chopped apple and celery root bound in a light, slightly sweet mayonnaise and topped with a bright red tomato sauce. The cake-shaped salad was presented prettily and without pretension on a bed of greens and was surrounded by tiny, halved red and yellow pear tomatoes and sections of grapefruit and orange. The citrus fruits and the tomatoes were all brutally sour, but provided some essential zip to the otherwise mild-flavored dish.

More disappointing was a cold vegetable terrine of grilled eggplant, red pepper, yellow squash, zucchini, and fresh mozzarella, sparingly sprinkled with a very mild basil vinaigrette. The colorful layered vegetables, with a fluff of green arugula on the side, were a delight to the eye. But the limp veggies had not been grilled long enough to develop any flavor, and the splash of vinaigrette wasn't enough to help. As a result, the dish was tragically dull.

But the biggest failure--not because it was so bad, but because it should have been so good--was a melange of prosciutto, melon, and greens with a slightly oily vinaigrette.

The unsurpassed taste sensation of sun-ripened melon wedges wrapped in tissue-thin shavings of salty prosciutto probably served as a starting point for this dish, which began with slices of delicious, chewy Parma ham arranged on a large plate. The prosciutto was then topped with a finely chopped, salsa-like blend of honeydew, cantaloupe, onion, and mint, which was juicy and vaguely sweet, but couldn't begin to compare to the voluptuous taste of real summer melon.

Finally, on top of the ham-and-melon combo was piled a tossed salad of mixed greens, slices of acidic pear tomatoes, and that oily dressing. All those dueling flavors and textures were then expected to duke it out for supremacy. Unfortunately, they never managed to come together in anything like a coherent flavor experience.

An entree of individually boiled asparagus stalks; chunks of fennel bulb, kohlrabi, turnip, beet, zucchini, and onion; and whole baby carrots and pattypan squash had a similar problem. The vegetables were arranged in and around a large puff pastry cup and topped with beurre blanc. While they all had good flavors individually, the oily sauce never managed to pull the veggies together into anything more than the sum of their parts. Contributing to the problem was the fact that the more tender items were slightly overdone. Overall, it made for a lifeless, even boring, dish.

Much better were entrees of angel hair pasta with chunks of flavorful lobster meat in a rich lobster-basil cream, and a succulent grilled veal chop with three crescent-shaped semolina gnocchi on a savory brunoise of perfectly cooked celery root, turnip, carrot, and onion, with a profound veal-and-sage reduction sauce.

The bacon-wrapped monkfish was the best of the entrees, though. Sometimes called "poor man's lobster" because of its wonderfully meaty flesh, the monkfish had been completely enrobed in thinly sliced bacon, briefly pan-fried, and roasted. It was nestled on a bed of salty sauteed spinach and surrounded by fat slices of sun-dried tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, and a drizzle of garlic oil. While the salty spinach could have been toned down, the blend of flavors and ingredients was otherwise ideal, with each item adding its own distinctive personality to the greater flavor "community."

Desserts included an outstanding warm, bittersweet-chocolate flourless cake, surrounded by creme Anglaise and topped with vanilla ice cream; a delicate lemon custard on a round of angelfood cake, punctuated with fresh raspberries, and sauced with raspberry coulis and creme Anglaise; and a substantial apple tart, with plenty of chewy, caramelized baked apples, topped with vanilla ice cream, creme Anglaise, and caramel sauce.

However, our final dessert selection was another example of why too much of a good thing is . . . well, too much. A tiny shortbread crust had been filled with three different fillings--chunky lemon curd and both light and dark chocolate mousse--topped with a layer of chocolate ganache and a latticework of orange-flavored meringue, and garnished with two wafers of white chocolate. If that wasn't enough, the plate was then finished with big dollops of banana-rum sauce. While it was the smallest of the desserts, the battling flavors made it overwhelming.

Meanwhile, between the time we ordered dessert and it finally arrived, our beloved "Geena" headed for the hills. After providing professional, attentive, and wonderfully unobtrusive service during the first two-thirds of the meal, she disappeared for nearly half an hour before reappearing with our coffee and sweets. She made one final fly-by to drop off our bill and a plate of out-of-season strawberries, sweet grapes, and two fat dates, and that was the last we laid eyes on her.

It's like them gunslingers up on Boot Hill found out: If you can't live up to your reputation, eventually you won't have to.

And when that day comes, Sans Souci may find that all the diamonds in the world won't make any difference.

Sans Souci. 24 Public Square, in the Renaissance Hotel, Cleveland. 216-696-5600. Lunch, Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, daily 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Chilled Maryland Crab Cake $9.95

Parma Prosciutto with Cantaloupe and Honeydew $9.75

Grilled Vegetable Terrine with Fresh Mozzarella $8.50

Sauteed Mushrooms and Spinach in Phyllo Cup $8.95

Angel Hair Pasta with Lobster-Basil Cream $18.25

Bacon-Wrapped Monkfish over Spinach $17.95

Grilled Veal Chop $24.50

Mixed Baby Vegetables with Herbed Beurre Blanc $16.95

Lemon Curd and Chocolate Mousse Tart $5.75

Apple Tart $5.75

Flourless Chocolate Cake $5.75

Lemon Custard $5.75

(add a scoop of ice cream to desserts for $1.

50)

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