Rare are the occasions that I feel like I've stumbled upon an obscure hot spot. I'm often one of the first through the turnstiles at new restaurants, eager to sneak an anonymous peek at the latest culinary offering.
Trustworthy spies divulge which ones are best saved for a later date. But there has been almost zero intel on Jazz 28, and frankly, the joint wasn't high on my list of must-visits.
Based on its recent track record, the location is a very tough sell. Jazz 28 is in the spot last occupied by Budapest Blue, which had the life span of a mayfly. Before that it was Halite, an absolute gem. Despite a sharp interior, great food and even better value, Halite closed after three and a half years thanks to lackluster traffic. The familiar refrain in this business is "a block away is a mile away," and this locale can feel a bit like Siberia.
It takes a strong concept to drag folks out of their comfort zones; owners Marc and Debora Lynn are hoping that good food and music will do just that. The Lynns are professional jazz musicians, and they're tapping into their network to transform Jazz 28 into a cozy little nightclub. But it is Dr. Lynn's management prowess - he is a professor at John Carroll University - that will likely prove more useful in the short run.
Expecting a skeletal crowd, we are surprised on a recent Friday evening to see a good number of people in the dining room. As the night wears on and the music hits its groove, however, the place damn near fills up. On tap is a fantastic duo, with the volume of the piano and vocals never rising to a level inappropriate for the room. During set breaks the Lynns coolly take over, he on guitar, she at the mic.
Shrewd new operators grasp the concept that everything possible should be done to make customers happy. The ones who don't soon become former operators. At every turn, staffers bend over backward to satisfy requests we never even pose. "Are these three red wines the only ones you offer by the glass?" I ask my server, just to be certain we aren't missing another list. "We'll open any bottle on the list for you," our waiter replies. We settle on a fine Spanish blend by the bottle ($25), because it makes financial sense. You can't run a nightclub without primo cocktails, and Jazz 28 has a captivating list of retro classics and contemporary specialties, all around $10 a pop.
Small plates and live music pair exceptionally well; folks who stop in for a late set may not feel like tucking into an entire entrée. I could polish off a dozen portobello Reuben sliders ($8), mini-sandwiches stacked with meaty roasted 'shrooms, sharp braised red cabbage, melted provolone and tangy mustard sauce. Tucked into crustless rounds of marble rye, the sliders vanish from our plate like UFOs. Top-quality smoked salmon and zippy horseradish crme fra”che dress a pair of sautéed potato-apple pancakes ($11). The cakes could be crispier, but at least they are warm and greaseless.
Our server returns to the table precisely two minutes after delivering our entrées, his speedy reconnaissance uncovering an undercooked steak. The meal is whisked away, re-fired, and returned properly cooked in under three minutes. Good thing, because I was beginning to miss it. Buttery, mushroom-studded Steak Diane sauce bathes a tender flatiron cut ($20). The sauce works even better as gravy for the crispy fries. A side of bland sautéed spinach is a snoozer, though.
Not sure if the Chilean sea bass ($24) is farm-raised as billed on the menu, but the filet is downy white, appropriately fatty and delightfully moist. The simple Mediterranean-style dish features fresh summer vegetables, olives, capers and disappointingly chalky polenta wedges.The look we give our server as he once again asks to clear our plates must have clued him in to the fact that we were beginning to feel a little hurried. "I just want you guys to be more comfortable as you hang out and enjoy the music," he offers, flipping our assumptions on their head.Lunch obviously hasn't caught on, as I was the only soul in the house on a recent weekday. Fortunately, loners can grab a seat at the bar and enjoy the same gracious service. When I ask for a side of mayo to grease my grilled chicken and crispy bacon sandwich ($9), the guy says, "Sure, but you might prefer our house-made mustard-mayo sauce." You know what? He was right on.
Jazz 28, 2800 Clinton Ave., Cleveland, 216.621.2828, www.jazz28.com, Hours: Lunch, 11:30 to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday-FridayDinner, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday.