It is an incredibly admirable thing that Brandon Chrostowski is doing at EDWINS, his Parisian bistro and training facility at Shaker Square, but at the end of the day it all comes down to the diner experience. All the good intentions in the world won't make up for middling food, uneven service or an unpolished atmosphere.
Who are we kidding? Like Chrostowski would ever let any of those injustices befall his diners.
"The restaurant should look and feel just like any other restaurant to the diner," Chrostowski told me weeks before opening day. "I'll manage that restaurant to the same level, if not higher, than any other during my entire career."
I'll admit that I had my doubts. It's one thing to train ex-cons to work the dining room of a meat-and-three cafeteria, or secret them away in the prep kitchen of a high-end establishment, but Chrostowski is steadfast about fully and unapologetically integrating his charges into all aspects of his fine French bistro. And sure enough, he's done it, birthing one of Cleveland's best new restaurants on the backs of "un-hirable" ex-cons.
EDWINS might sound a bit clinical, but the newly renovated interior is anything but. The team transformed what previously was a showy Italian dining room into a warm, French-themed bistro with a spirited high-ceilinged dining room and bar on one side, and a quieter side room populated by a string of banquettes. At EDWINS, the linens are every bit as crisp, the silver every bit as shiny, and the crystal every bit as spotless as those found at more conventional spots.
Like the setting, the service is refreshingly unceremonious. There's a welcome informality that seems to alleviate the tacit angst between server/student and diner — the one that accompanies the uncontrollable urge to mutter the phrase, "So, what were you in for?" Our server was more than competent; he also was a great sport who put up with more than his share of joie de vivre from our festive four-top. His only hiccup was when he identified a specific cut of beef as "USDA approved."
Chef Gilbert Brenot, a native of France, and longtime chef-owner of Maxi's in Little Italy, is turning out such fantastic food that thoughts of students or training or life-altering second chances are pushed from the mind, replaced, sip by sip and bite by bite, with meditations on lobster bisque, rabbit pie, garlicky frog legs... That lobster bisque ($9) — copper-colored and garnished with heaps of sweet flesh — is staggeringly good. So, too, is the rabbit pie ($7), a woodsy, savory tart in a flaky crust that belongs on every table.
Whatever Chef Brenot is doing to his frog legs ($15), we're huge fans of it. The barely breaded meat falls from the bone with a wayward glance, making eating them a breeze. Gilded with butter, parsley and heaps of golden fried garlic, the platter could have been twice as big and we still would have wanted more.
All the food, it becomes readily apparent, tastes far better than it should. Who orders vegetable soup ($7) at a nice restaurant? My wife does, on the recommendation of another diner, and we get lost in its earthy, herby depths. A dollop of pesto enlivens the whole bowl. Salmon, the "fish for fish haters," takes on new life in a remarkable arrangement of warm horseradish-crusted medallions ($25) served atop cool and crunchy cucumbers in a tangy crème fraiche.
Like many dishes here, Chrostowski tells the table, that recipe was borrowed from the notable chef who made it famous. The polished host also is on hand to open and serve wine, schmooze fawning supporters, and provide the occasional off-hour instruction. He can be spotted behind the bar showing servers how to inspect and polish wine glasses before delivery.
Also on the bill of fare is soul-satisfying braised leg of rabbit ($23), presented in a cast iron pan with sweet potato puree permeated with hints of cinnamon and banana. A crisp duck leg confit ($23) rises high above a creamy mound of mushroom risotto like a mini Tour Eiffel. Flakey white grouper ($28) is clad in a new skin of thin, crispy potatoes and slicked with a red wine butter sauce.
Every now and then a wooden cart rolls by the table, wobbling beneath the weight of so much ripe cheese. We pass on that in favor of a weightless soufflé ($10) that has the flavor and texture of warm, orange-scented clouds. After depositing the picture-perfect cake on the table, our server poked a hole in the cap and poured smooth custard deep inside. Talk about gilding the lily.
Not only is Chrostowski offering his hardworking students a skill, a job and, perhaps, a happy and productive future, he's helping feed a local restaurant scene starved for talent.
And as the song goes: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.