By the time of our second visit to Distill Table, we were wise enough to make reservations. If we learned anything from our first encounter with this 4-month-old Lakewood restaurant, it is that spare seats at prime time can be harder to come by than local produce at the West Side Market. The space feels more compressed than the billed 75 seats, which has the effect of intensifying the energy in the way that pressure can transform matter into gemstones.
Given that a majority of the seats are divvied up between the lengthy bar, a chef's counter and communal high-tops, the restaurant functions more like a spirited gastropub than a dressed-down bistro. Also, it means that only those fortunate few diners seated at the banquette will be truly comfortable; the rest of us are compelled to make do with unforgiving backless wooden stools.
If it feels as though Distill materialized out of thin air, that's because essentially it did. The building it resides in did not exist two years ago; it's a new appendage to the 100-year-old Fridrich building that now houses Western Reserve Distillers. When owners Kevin and Ann Thomas went looking for an operator who shared their farm-to-table — or in their case, grain-to-glass — sensibilities to run the adjoining restaurant, they landed on chef Eddie Tancredi.
The homegrown Tancredi got off to an early start and has yet to slow down. His work at Adega at The 9 demonstrated a knack for technique, honed from years of working in top-notch kitchens around the globe, including the Michelin-starred Fat Duck in London. But fear not, Distill has no ambitions of becoming a temple of gastronomy.
"When I was younger, I wanted to be a Michelin-starred chef, but now I want nothing to do with that," says the 36-year-old chef. "I want regulars who come in two times a week. You can still have good food without being fine-dining."
Distill operates off an all-day menu that is slightly inscrutable in design. Various categories of foodstuffs are sprinkled across the plank-mounted broadsheet. In this corner are the antipasti, over here are Neapolitan-style pizzas, and down there are the "Crispy Cravings." Items like these and the cheese, meat and smoked fish boards are built for sharing. We did just that with tin cups filled with shatter-crisp, spice-dusted pork rinds ($7), honey-drizzled Brussels sprouts ($9) atop ricotta-slicked toasts, and large orbs of fried mozzarella ($9) that wept melted cheese into cream-kissed tomato sauce when sliced.
It's commendable that the kitchen goes all-in on local when it comes to the build-your-own cheese boards, but surly there are more exciting Ohio selections than Miceli's ricotta and mozzarella, which gobble up two out of five spots. We adore Yellow House products, but the manchego ($8) on our plate was hard, dry and unyielding, likely due to improper storage. We also can't get behind the house-smoked shrimp ($8), three limp eels with the texture of raw shrimp and a harsh smoke flavor.
Beefy and delicious Ohio burgers ($12), made from steer that snacked on spent grain from the adjacent distillery, are a literal taste of what's to come from West Salem's Twin Parks Farms. Down the road, that local farm will be supplying pork raised on those same distillation byproducts, which will trickle down to the in-house charcuterie program.
Distill's "Neapolitan-style" pizzas are better than many of the versions served at non-traditional pizza shops, with pleasantly thin crusts that are light on complex flavors and heavy on the cheese. One night we enjoyed the aptly named Plain Jane ($14), on another, the fungi ($15), a tasty pie shellacked with cheese, dotted with roasted shrooms, and sprinkled with fresh parsley.
"There's a lot of repetition here," noted a companion. Indeed, the table was nearly buried by spice-dusted curly fries, which served as a base for egg-topped poutine ($11), a plate-partner to grilled, sliced flank steak ($23), and sides to two separate sandwiches.
Two of the five entrees are nearly identical pasta dishes comprised of fat tubes of al dente noodles covered in sauce, gilded with shavings of Parmesan, and paired with pale, thin slices of bread that were not toasted, let alone grilled as advertised (the bread on the cheese board was equally wan). Meat-lovers should go with the Sunday Sauce ($20), a zesty braise of beef, sausage and pork shoulder. The Bolognese ($19) is still meaty, but it's lightened up with a splash of cream to a blushy hue.
In putting together its all-Ohio wine list, Distill overlooks many quality producers by hitching its wagon to just two local wineries, one of which imports its fruit. The beer program does a much better job showcasing multiple breweries from across the region. Better still is the cocktail program, which is fueled by the booze produced next door. Gin fizz fans will adore the Dead Man's Curve ($12), a festive, frothy and fruity punch that will keep you coming back for more.