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A Mentor Marvel

Molinari's menu is full of magic.

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Savory dishes can be paired with wine from Molinari's retail inventory. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Savory dishes can be paired with wine from Molinari's retail inventory.

Mmm . . . duck livers.

The rich, creamy little morsels don't show up on area menus very often, although they should. When properly prepared, they are mild-flavored and melt-in-your-mouth tender, as well as delicious and nutritious. So when a dinner companion and I recently spotted not one but two tantalizing duck-liver appetizers on Molinari's menu, we knew we had to have them.

Thanks to chef-owner Randal Johnson, my friend and I are still arguing, good-naturedly of course, over whose appetizer was the most wonderful. I say it was mine: a firm, dense rectangle of duck-liver mousse laced with cognac, shallots, and apple-smoked bacon. Slightly earthy, with a gentle touch of sweetness, the mousse was wonderful spread upon the five big, buttery bread crisps that accompanied it. A tiny mound of zesty whole-grain mustard, a spoonful of finely chopped vanilla-and-port-wine-infused dried cherries, and a tangle of thinly sliced pickled onions provided even more alternatives for mixing and matching sweet, rich, and tangy flavors to my heart's content.

My companion, of course, insists her appetizer was better: six perfectly delicate portions of liver that had been double-dredged in seasoned flour and deep-fried until they developed a thin, crisp exterior. Still tender and moist within, with a mildly exotic taste, the livers were served with a gingery Asian dipping sauce and a portion of crisp, cool, and spicy shredded daikon radish -- additions which, once again, made for plenty of flavorful options for combining tastes and textures.

I'm afraid the only way that we'll ever settle our argument is to go back to this eight-year-old Mentor restaurant again and again, until one or the other of us tires of those delectable dishes and graciously accedes to the other.

In fact, there isn't much on Johnson's menu I wouldn't be happy to sample repeatedly. His eclectic style takes its basic flavor vocabulary from classic Italian and French kitchens, throws in a phrase or two of Asian and Caribbean tastes, mixes it up with some contemporary American culinary idiom, and puts it all at the service of tender meats, fresh seafood, and pasta creations, most of which are unqualified winners.

Despite the apparent intensity of what takes place in the kitchen, the front of the house is casual and sophisticated, with an understated, almost theatrical black-and-white decor. Located in a strip mall, Molinari's started life as a food and wine shop, and, even after an expansion in January, it still has the sense of a restaurant dropped into the middle of a retail store. For non-smokers, a large, multilevel dining room is broken into three trellised "garden rooms" that almost feel like stage sets, placed as they are on risers and illuminated with halogen spotlights. For the smokers, the fun comes from being seated next to the tiny but relentlessly busy bar and in the midst of the retail wine selection. (As proof of the bar's eclectic clientele, consider this: One recent Saturday night we spotted a blushing bride, in full ceremonial regalia, planted on a barstool nursing a drink. No word as to whether she was coming or going.)

The staff at Molinari's got us off to a good start by presenting a bowl of marinated black and green olives topped with a bouquet of dainty breadsticks even before our order was placed. This pleasant diversion quelled our hunger while we studied the small list of modestly priced red and white wines. In addition to these choices, which change seasonally, Johnson maintains a "private select" collection of rare vintages; diners can ask their server for that list. And if that isn't enough, all 700 bottles in Johnson's retail inventory are available tableside, at retail price plus a $5 corking fee.

In addition to the duck-liver delights, another standout appetizer was Pancetta Shrimp: four big, tail-on shrimp, each swaddled in a thin slice of pancetta (Italian pork-belly bacon cured with salt, pepper, and spices) and then grilled until the pancetta turned crisp. The combination of moist, nutty shrimp and crunchy, salty bacon was divine and made for a bold and meaty taste that we found particularly satisfying.

Salads are also super at Molinari's, with our hands-down favorite being the beautiful and luscious Warm Pear and Pecan Salad: a large portion of deep-green baby spinach tossed with pecans, chunks of yellow pear, and cubes of golden-fried polenta, and bathed in a warm, sweet-and-sour Spanish-sherry-and-brown-sugar dressing. Almost as mouthwatering was a delightful Walnut and Blue Salad: a platter of mixed greens dotted with loads of toasted walnut pieces and big crumbles of creamy blue cheese, all dressed up in a mild, vaguely fruity raspberry-walnut vinaigrette.

When it's time to select an entrée, diners at Molinari's have to pick sides: A side of the menu, that is. The left side ("Your Way") lets guests select from among an assortment of simply grilled meats and then choose a sauce (buttery béarnaise, onion-port demiglace, or tomato coulis, among others) and a side dish (portable rice pilaf, flavored mashed potatoes, or penne marinara, for example) to accompany them. The right side of the menu ("Our Way") lists nine meals already paired with the chef's selection of side dishes and sauces. Our confidence in Johnson's good taste being absolute, we have been more than happy to let him do it his way.

Perhaps the most sumptuous among an array of boldly flavored entrées on Johnson's side of the menu was the luscious Veal and Crab Foresti&eagrave;re. Layer upon layer of taste and texture, the dish combined thin medallions of fork-tender veal with shreds of sweet crabmeat and slices of exotic mushrooms in a light, lemon-flavored cream sauce, and then settled it atop a deep-fried cake of firm and creamy risotto. The enticing aroma, full, round flavor, and textural contrasts of this marvelous dish left no sense unstimulated.

A thick center-cut filet mignon, stuffed with Gorgonzola, grilled to a juicy medium-rare, and topped with rich basil and walnut pesto, was another delight. As intensely flavorful a dish as you could hope to find, the filet was sided with steamed summer vegetables and a large portion of thick and creamy mashed potatoes spiked with smoked-apple bacon, sour cream, and cheddar cheese.

Not that we could eat like that every day. A lighter but still satisfying portion of grilled halibut (a dinner special) made a nice change of pace from the richer dishes Johnson does so well. The large filet was perfectly cooked -- moist, sublimely delicate, with shimmering white flesh -- and topped with about a tablespoon of crisp red caviar that lent a slightly salty flavor note to the mild fish.

In the seafood department, we also relished an entrée of two large crab cakes, blended with scallions and sweet pepper, and baked until crisp and firm. No nasty fillers here, nor even the tiniest speck of shell. Instead, the shredded Maine rock crab and specks of colorful vegetables were sweet and light, with a bit of a bite from the small amount of fiery chipotle-pepper butter that had been drizzled on the plate.

The only dishes that have been less than notable were two pasta entrées. An unremarkable Pasta Putanesca, a house specialty that combined penne pasta with arugula, chicken, mushrooms, and mild Italian sausage, suffered from a thin, bland red sauce that failed to pull the diverse ingredients together.

In contrast, the rich, creamy brown sauce -- a blend of red wine, broth, and Gorgonzola cheese -- was the star of Tenderloin Orecchiette Pasta, adorable "little ear" pasta tossed with slices of sautéed red onion, portobello mushroom, and beef tenderloin. Unfortunately, the numerous pieces of beef, while still slightly pink in the center, had a dry, chewy texture and slightly musty, beef-liver flavor that detracted from our delight.

Johnson's menu warns diners to save room for dessert: Next time, we promise to obey. While we've done our best to tackle an assortment of Molinari's mammoth sweets, we've been too full to do them justice. In our admittedly bloated opinion, the best of the lot is a classic tiramisu: sweet and silky, with mascarpone, whipped cream, and espresso; and a Granny Smith apple tart in a puff pastry, topped with cinnamon ice cream, and triple-sauced with caramel, chocolate, and cr&eagrave;me Anglaise. We were taken aback, however, by a poorly prepared Cr&eagrave;me Brûlée, served in a large, shallow oval ramekin. While the thin layer of custard was fine, the brown sugar topping had not been properly caramelized and remained, for the most part, a collection of crunchy sugar granules.

Despite those minor disappointments, I would go back to Molinari's in a heartbeat, to revisit my favorite dishes and to explore all the wonders I have not yet tried. Boldly flavored and reasonably priced meals, served in a relaxed but urbane setting by a friendly staff, are always a pleasure. And at Molinari's, that's exactly what you get.

Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at ecicora@clevescene.com.

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