- Walter Novak
- Pretty, not pretentious: Welcome to Bass Lake Taverne.
As it winds its way east through Geauga County, Route 322 is a slender ribbon of asphalt, looping in and out of river valleys, threading its way through stands of venerable pines, and bordering broad ditches overflowing with day lilies. Along the way, nurseries, greenhouses, and whimsical garden shoppes are interspersed with tidy little Cape Cods surrounded by white picket fences, the Stars and Stripes lazily twisting on flagpoles in the warm summer breeze. Remnants of forests alternate with fallow fields, pioneer cemeteries, and small steepled churches. In some places, sunshine shimmers off the pavement in waves. In others, rock ledges rise up to embrace the narrow road, plunging travelers into cool, deep pools of shadow.
Relatively brief but profoundly charming, this car trip through the countryside is one of the things we love about heading out to Chardon's Bass Lake Taverne, an upscale but unpretentious restaurant, bar, and patio on the edge of the Chardon Lakes Golf Course. That there is money out here won't come as a surprise to sharp-eyed travelers who spot the tasteful McMansions tucked into the woods. But in case you didn't notice it before, the array of Porsches, Jags, and BMWs in the tavern's parking lot is a final clue that you have entered the high-rent district.
But even out here, nature's charms are free, and another one of Bass Lake Taverne's attractions -- and in fact, what drew us out here in the first place -- is its glorious brick patio, a veritable outdoor dining room nestled beneath towering hardwoods, shaded by green market umbrellas, and edged in a profusion of fragrant blossoms. Sipping Chardonnay on a warm summer's evening in such a beautiful alfresco setting is my idea of heaven. And apparently, it's a shared vision: During both my recent dinner visits to the tavern, the first-come, first-seated patio was filled to capacity, and my companions and I ended up settling for seats inside the restaurant.
Not that being indoors is irksome: Owners Erik Heatwole and Tom Lutz have seen to it that the tavern's interior is comfortable and casual, with much the same type of lodge-like charm that their other restaurants (Gamekeeper's Taverne and Timberfire in Chagrin Falls, and Gamekeeper's Lodge in Rocky River) have perfected. While the space is far from luxurious, it doesn't lack in amenities. The large barroom has a black granite bar top, a couple of TVs, and a two-sided brick fireplace that it shares with the attached dining room, which itself is a cozy space swathed in lustrous wood paneling and accessorized with fishing creels, hunting prints, and stuffed and mounted critters. The space also has its share of endearing quirks. Rustic, hand-hewn posts and beams hold up nothing more fetching than a modern acoustic-tile ceiling. Booth benches are too low for the tabletops, and normal-height guests almost look like ancient children, peering up over the table edge to spy their food. Still, brass oil lamps with hunter-green glass shades cast flattering shadows; heavy white cloth napkins feel classically luxurious; and the cadre of nattily attired waitresses, in khaki shorts and polo shirts, are friendly and accommodating to all.
The simple one-page menu, designed by the restaurant group's executive chef, Chris Johnson, is more casual than the ones at the two Gamekeeper's properties. Here, chi-chi appetizers like sesame-crusted yellow-fin tuna are joined by such pedestrian offerings as chicken tenders, quesadillas, and fried mozzarella wedges; entrées range from routine little numbers like penne pasta, Caesar salad, and barbecued ribs to upscale standards like filet mignon, veal tenderloin medallions, and chargrilled salmon. Main-course portion sizes and prices are generally sensible, the wine list is more or less perfunctory (although those celebrating an under-par round can splurge on a $140 bottle of Moët & Chandon's Dom Perignon), and bottled beers are served in frosty, chilled pilsner glasses.
As a result, simple is typically better at Bass Lake Taverne, and those who get all dolled up and come here expecting a fancy downtown-style dining experience are likely to be disappointed. We found this out on our first dinner visit, when we arrived in some of our best duds and ordered up dainties like coconut-battered shrimp (merely average, and poorly paired with an in-your-face sweet-and-fiery dipping sauce that obliterated the shrimps' subtlety), a sautéed crab-and-shrimp cake (also average, with plenty of meat, little filler, but not much sass), and a New York strip steak (below average: overdone and dry). Better to slip into the Dockers or chinos, as we did on a subsequent visit, grab a couple of friends (or a child or two, if necessary), and then sit back and enjoy a juicy, well-prepared eight-ounce burger on a toasted kaiser roll, with killer handcut fries, crisp homemade coleslaw, and a cold bottle of Sam Adams.
Slabs of good, dense bread and sweet butter accompany all meals, helping dinners off to a fine start. Penne pasta, piled into a big white bowl with strips of chicken breast, roasted red pepper, Roma tomato, basil, garlic, scallions, and olive oil, was uncomplicated, direct, and tasty. Batter-fried perch was crisp and light. Even after that sorry strip steak, we couldn't resist a Saturday-night special of roasted prime rib, and this time, under the guidance of tavern chef Ken Burk, the kitchen did everything right: Thick, succulent, and done to a quivering medium-rare, the meat was exceptionally well trimmed and remarkably flavorful. The generous portion was plated with a mound of creamy, garlic-and-Parmesan-flavored mashed potatoes and a well-seasoned assortment of sautéed summer vegetables. Although the tavern's salads are à la carte, an entrée-sized field greens salad also caught our eye. Sparked with an abundance of goodies (blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, red grapes, crisp apple, toasted walnuts, and crumbs of gorgonzola among them), tossed in a delicate raspberry vinaigrette, and split between two diners, it made a substantial and refreshing first course for a meal that was pleasing in every way.
Desserts -- amply sized and made in-house by chef Linda Martin -- are worth saving room for. While warm bread pudding sounded too heavy for a hot summer night, a wedge of Key lime pie was just the ticket, with a smooth, luscious filling and a cool garnish of whipped cream and sliced lime. Despite its autumnal connotations, fresh fruit cobbler also turned out to be a seasonal treat, made with peaches, plums, cherries, and berries beneath crisp oatmeal topping and melting snowballs of vanilla ice cream. And homemade ice-cream pie was especially pleasing to the younger set, with its towering infrastructure of chocolate ice cream and finely diced Snickers, and its hull of hot fudge and whipped cream.
After dinner, we strolled through the parking lot, past the Audis and the Mercedes, toward our own dusty Ford. "The rich aren't like you and me," whispered a companion as we stopped to watch a crescent moon set over the back nine. "When I want a casual meal, I think Applebee's, but when these folks want some simple chow, they go to Bass Lake Taverne." Here, he sniffed loudly. "No wonder they always look so damn happy."