Three months ago, longtime fans of the Standard in Collinwood awoke to the disquieting news that their beloved neighborhood tavern had been sold to a new owner. In lieu of that timeworn pledge "to not fix anything that isn't broken," this brash operator declared that he had no desire to follow the script of the previous five years. Considering that the only thing humans abhor more than going to the dentist is change, it's a good bet that loyal customers burned the place to the ground, right?
"I thought people would be like, 'who is this guy changing everything around,' but it was totally the opposite," says new owner Said Ouaddaadaa. "That shocked the hell out of me. This is my eighth restaurant and I've never owned a place where people care so much about their neighborhood and about their restaurants."
Given that sales are up 30 percent, the numbers appear to bear him out. That uptick could be credited to the general buzz that envelops a fresh concept, Ouaddaadaa's supporters amassed over three decades in the industry, or likely a combination thereof. Whatever he's doing seems to be working, as evidenced by brisk lunches and even busier dinners.
Faithful Standard supporters were gifted a reprieve in the form of a "Standards" section of the menu containing popular comfort-food holdovers like shrimp and grits, spaghetti Bolognese and roasted cauliflower with brown butter. But those items are nearly buried beneath an avalanche of new entries, many of which will look familiar to fans of Bodega on Coventry, the Mediterranean restaurant that Ouaddaadaa ran for a decade before selling last year.
Aromatic, elaborate constructions like Valencian paella, Provençal bouillabaisse and North African tagine reflect the owner's childhood in Casablanca, where the foods of France, Spain, Italy and North Africa regularly graced his kitchen table. Here, they largely succeed. That paella ($30), served in a wide-brimmed, two-handled skillet, elicits audible gasps when delivered. Nudge aside the large pink shrimp, unfurled clams and slippery mussels and you'll uncover a split lobster tail, zesty sausage and pretty peas, all nestled into a bed of flavorful rice.
You could thumb through the couscous for days without finding a single clump. The impossibly fluffy grains make the ideal base for slow-simmered vegetables and a choice of proteins that includes lamb, beef, chicken and sausage. Go with that aggressively seasoned Merguez sausage ($20) if you adore earthy spice. Forgive the metaphor, but it wouldn't be hyperbole to call the lamb mrouzia ($22) the Barry White of the bill of fare. Dark, soulful and sexy, this Moroccan stew stars meltingly tender lamb in a complex sauce kissed with honey, fruit and spice, the last courtesy of the fragrant blend ras el hanout.
Given the chef's pedigree, we had high hopes for the chicken tagine ($19), but it proved to be the lone clunker of the table. The white meat chicken didn't stand a chance against the lengthy cook time, despite a seductive saffron and preserved lemon sauce. One doesn't expect a certain level of service in a so-called neighborhood saloon, but a seamless tableside deboning of a crisp-skinned bronzino ($24) upended that assumption. The delicate fish was accompanied by a sunny Mediterranean salad of tomatoes, peppers and red onion.
Kick off your meal with some raw or baked oysters, French onion soup or lobster bisque. An appetizer portion of two twin-bone lamb chops ($13) was so perfect — perfectly seasoned, perfectly grilled — that I'll likely upgrade to a full rack on my next visit. If you don't mind working past a few wee bones (and you shouldn't), consider the quail ($15), which co-stars an indulgent truffle- and gruyere-steeped creamed corn.
The Standard was always an attractive spot, a slick tavern that rises an echelon or two above the pedestrian pub. But now it's more comfortable, too, thanks to the swapping out of high-tops for linen-topped tables throughout the bar, effectively doubling the size of the dining room. Wine service and selection has improved as well. Live music, a nightly occurrence, kicks off around 8:30, meaning that if you enjoy quiet conversation, consider that your cutoff.
In the weeks to come, the owner vows to trim the lengthy menu based on consumer feedback. As it stands, it's a tad bulky and intimidating. But few customers appear to be looking this gift horse in the mouth. After recently losing Bistro 185 down the street, neighbors are more than willing to toss their support to the new guy, who isn't taking that support for granted, even after seven other restaurants.
"I'm not going anywhere," the peripatetic chef promises.