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20 Years in, Tremont's Fat Cats is as Good as Ever

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The Scene: A nearly deserted road on the outskirts of town. Behind rusted-out fences sit faded cottages leaning with age and neglect. There is a horrifying lack of vegetation, as if a defoliant recently rained down from the sky. Roving hounds outnumber pedestrians at a post-apocalyptic rate of 10 to one. Over the wailing din of car alarms, a rooster can be heard crowing in the distance.

Curtain rises to reveal an attractive Colonial glowing from within, an oasis in an otherwise desolate landscape. People — human people! — can be seen through the glass in what looks to be jovial moods. Lest it be a trap, we enter with trepidation, holding our breath for what seems like an eternity.

Host: How you guys doing? Table for two?

That pretty much illustrates the memories surrounding my first visit to Fat Cats. I had recently moved back to town after more than 15 years away, and Tremont was about as foreign a place in my mind as Beirut. My friend wanted to take me to his new favorite bistro, but for the life of me I had no idea why we were parking at the terminus of a somber residential street.

It was the late-1990s, and like many Clevelanders, I was just starting to get acquainted with Tremont, a "neighborhood in transition." New-to-me discoveries like Edison's and the Treehouse proved to be lively watering holes, while restaurants like Sokolowski's, Hi & Dry and Grumpy's offered affordable, reliable variety.

Like Michael Symon, who only one month prior had opened Lola, Fat Cats owner Ricardo Sandoval was a pioneer in the Tremont dining scene, helping to lay the groundwork for chefs like Rocco Whalen, Dante Boccuzzi and even Zack Bruell. In the intervening two decades, ambitious restaurants like Kosta's, Mojo, Theory and Sage Bistro all have come and gone, but Fat Cats keeps chugging along.

A recent visit — the first in years, sadly — reminded me how and why Fat Cats has endured for so long in such a challenging and dynamic industry. The setting remains comfortable if not trendy, like a snug tweed blazer with threadbare elbow patches. Carved out of a now-125-year-old house, the restaurant is divided into three intimate spaces. New communal benches in the barroom offer flexible seating while demonstrating management's sustained efforts to both set and respond to trends. Fat Cats was one of the first true farm-to-table restaurants (it even cultivates its own garden plot next door) and it was an early adopter with respect to adding vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dishes.

If you can't find something on the menu that tickles your taste buds, you probably should be eating at home. The Mediterranean-Asian-Latin-American menu, like the room, is just trendy enough, with contemporary hits like Korean steamed buns sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with familiar fare like a fried egg-topped burger and fries. An ever-shifting specials menu nearly doubles the number of options.

Fat Cats absolutely slays a grilled octopus ($10) starter by cooking it perfectly and serving it as a season-defiant salad with ripe avocado, sweet onion and crunchy shaved cauliflower in a lemony vinaigrette. Firm but lush sweetbreads ($10) get a more autumnal preparation thanks to smoky bacon and tender winter squash in a savory tomato-based sauce laced with welcome acidity. A Vietnamese detour nets a trio of crispy sweet potato-wrapped shrimp ($10) served with Asian slaw and sweet and sour dipping sauce.

Servers here are of the kind that can recommend a food-appropriate bottle of wine under $30 (Côtes du Rhône) while clearly and confidently explaining the differences between hangar and bavette steaks, drilling all the way down to flavor, texture and chew. Just this side of bloody, that beefy bavette ($22) landed with a warm, red interior enveloped in a deeply caramelized crust. The plate included blistered green beans and crispy fried potatoes. In the fish stew ($22), plump fin fish, large butterflied shrimp and sweet mussels languished in a rich tomato broth. The wildcard we threw at the kitchen — pancit ($15), a Filipino noodle dish, for heaven's sake — came back and knocked our socks off, thanks to juicy pork meatballs and rim shots of kimchi, jalapeno and radish. You'd have to turn up the house lights to realize that the cashew-crusted tofu in the vegetarian quinoa ($15) wasn't meat. A ginger-heavy dressing gilded the proverbial lily.

While some diners might categorize the portions as small, I think they're spot-on, especially given the menu prices. If four people can enjoy appetizers, entrees and two bottles of wine and escape for $25 per person pre-tip, you're winning dinner. Toss in the complimentary bread service and warm hospitality and you're well on your way to understanding how Fat Cats is still thriving after 20 years.

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