You couldn't blame folks for thinking chef Tom Szoradi was a little nuts when he decided to open a restaurant in a former auto-parts store on the edge of downtown. Barely squeaking inside Gateway District borders, Juniper Grille was not high on critics' lists of likely success stories. But succeed it did, lasting seven good years until Szoradi elected this past summer to pull the plug on his popular diner.
Taking its place — physically, not figuratively — is Verve, which was launched by another talented and optimistic chef. A respected veteran of the local food wars, Brian Okin most recently was the owner of Benvenuti Ristorante in Broadview Heights. Like Szoradi before him, Okin hopes to quiet the skeptics by delivering a winner in an otherwise challenging location.
But in comparison to the venture that preceded it, Verve's task seems downright Herculean. As a breakfast- and lunch-only spot, Juniper merely had to persuade folks to alter their routine. Verve, which replaces breakfast service with dinner, requires a whole new paradigm. Yes, the restaurant is "near" the Theater District, East 4th Street and Gateway. But it isn't "in" any of those places. For now, Verve is an island.
But as far as islands go, this would be a great one to be marooned on. There is no question that Okin can cook — his playful twists on comfort food often pinpoint the junction of haute and homey. Verve's modern take on beef stroganoff ($17), for example, looks as elegant as it tastes. Tender shreds of braised lamb replace the dowdy beef chunks, and fluffy basmati rice kicks grandma's egg noodles to the curb. In the cleverly named Sloppy Doe ($8), the kitchen improves upon the weeknight staple by filling the bun not with barbecued beef but with woodsy venison stew.
Every restaurant needs to nail chestnuts like roast chicken and seared scallops, and Verve passes both tests with flying colors. Those colors — honey brown on the bird, butterscotch on the bivalves — are what give these dishes their depth. The roasted chicken ($17) boasts mouth-watering juiciness beneath a cracker-crisp skin. All the key elements are present: lemon, garlic, rosemary, potatoes. Okin's fab scallops are available as a starter ($10) — where they are paired with polenta, bacon and truffle — or as an entrée ($18), perked up with fresh fava beans and a zippy vinaigrette.
Chefs know to season every element of a dish. When combined, however, those layers can sometimes add up to overload. On its own, Verve's crispy fried fish ($17) is beer-battered bliss. The fat flanks of blue cod are lush, flakey and ocean sweet. No complaints about the addictive house-sliced potato chips either. What throws off the balance is a lemony garlic sauce, which makes every bite salty and sharp.
I'm all for updating the classics, as long as the 2.0 version is in some way an improvement on the original. While Okin's take on potato skins ($8) looks on paper to be a hit, it lands on the plate as a dud. The combination of sweet potato and figs, even when tempered with bacon and goat cheese, comes off like a candy-coated bar snack. It doesn't help matters that the potato is slightly undercooked. Verve does manage to improve upon fried cheese sticks. In this appealing starter ($8), creamy Italian taleggio takes the place of rubbery mozzarella, simultaneously adding flavor while removing heft. The crisp little curds are served with tomato confit, a sophisticated version of marinara.
Verve really shines at midday. Light streams in through the glass-walled façade, sharpening the edges of an already crisp interior. Black-clad servers offer five-star service at three-star prices, delivering affordable gems like chorizo chili ($4), duck pot pie ($10) and crispy "city chicken" ($11). A pitch-perfect panzanella salad ($8) features mixed greens, feta, chickpeas, bacon, chopped egg and cubes of chewy grilled bread. During busy lunches, the restaurant seems to channel the positive vibes of its predecessor.
Dinner is a different story. Despite the good grub, free parking and proximity to major events and attractions, business has been slow come nightfall. Idle restaurants make for bored staffers, who find themselves with little to do but pester customers. Wine helps, but even here diners are pretty much strong-armed into buying a bottle, given the by-the-glass pricing.
Give diners a compelling enough reason to show up and they will, regardless the location. Only time will tell if Verve can come up with enough incentive for diners to abandon their comfort zone for creative comfort food.