Like "airline food," "campus dining" is one of those oxymorons that presage the quality of the fare to come. With good cause, students have been poking fun at mess-hall chow for eons. But we don't travel by air for the grub, and we certainly don't matriculate for the macaroni.
But with Elements Bistro, officials at Cleveland State University are hoping to expunge those negative stereotypes. As coeds, faculty and staff head back to school, they have a gleaming-new option when it comes to on-campus dining. Last spring, Elements Bistro opened on the first floor of the snazzy Parker Hannifin Administration Center. Located across Euclid from much of the campus, the restaurant effectively expands the school's footprint while seeding the neighborhood with fresh energy.
Despite being run by the university's dining services provider, Elements looks, feels and tastes like an independent restaurant. The goal all along was to attract not only students and staff, but also the community at large. Apart from a few missteps that would rightly earn a failing grade, Elements is close to competing with almost any casual restaurant, on campus or off.
The name Elements is a reference to the Greek mathematician Euclid's famous geometry treatise of the same name. Far more appealing than calculating the volume of a sphere, the bistro is pleasingly contemporary, with geometric patterns etched in the carpet and curvilinear forms suspended overhead. There are two well-appointed dining rooms outfitted with sumptuous furniture and a wrap-around patio dotted with jumbo umbrellas. French doors and generous windows provide great views of youthful academic activity.
Further distancing themselves from Lunch Lady Land, chefs at Elements strive to use local products when crafting the breakfast and lunch dishes. Items boasting locally sourced ingredients are clearly marked on the menu, perhaps offering an incentive to go that route. Of course, when an item contains a half-dozen main ingredients, it's impossible to discern which are indigenous. I assume that pretty much everything on my West Side Market platter ($8.50) is Cleveland-born. The ethnic smorgasbord contains sliced, grilled kielbasa, a pair of portly potato pierogies and a puddle of good-ol' Stadium Mustard. Caramelized onions and chive sour cream add interest to the doughy dumplings.
While not locally sourced - nor Greek, for that matter - a Caesar side salad ($3.50) is textbook in its preparation, presentation and taste. Crisp, fresh romaine leaves are tossed in garlicky dressing and garnished with buttery croutons, anchovies and shavings of quality parmesan. For five or six bucks more, you can boost the salad to entrée size and add chicken or steak. In all, Elements offers six meal-size salads, some featuring curried chicken salad, others rosemary-scented ham.
The mushrooms floating around my college campus tasted nothing like those in the savory mushroom strudel ($4.50). Wrapped in a flaky phyllo shell, the woodsy 'shrooms tumble out of the crispy package, emitting an autumnal perfume. The sautéed mushroom blend is tweaked with cheese and herbs, while a basil pesto sauce cleverly bridges summer and fall.
Business during our recent lunch was surprisingly brisk, with most tables filled inside and out. Service was commensurately swift, with staffers reliably and cheerfully keeping abreast of the demands at hand. The exact opposite scenario played out on a subsequent breakfast visit, well after the 8 a.m. rush. The dining room was all but empty, but it still took almost 30 minutes to get our food, unacceptable when folks need to head off to work or class. Noticing our growing frustration, our server did her best to avoid us. And when our breakfast did finally arrive, she never bothered to check back to see how things turned out.
As it happens, things turned out just fine. I could begin every day with Elements' breakfast sandwich ($5.50). Stacked into a soft ciabatta roll are two fried eggs and a few folds of thin-sliced rosemary ham. Melted baby Swiss keeps everything in place. I plan on returning for the bagel sandwich, a cultural synthesis of grilled bratwurst, fried egg and peppers. Not quite reaching its potential, a breakfast combo ($6.50) is a hodge-podge of dry-ish scrambled eggs, mealy potato pancakes, bacon and sautéed ham.
I'm hopeful that we simply caught Elements (and our server) on a bad day. After all, our initial visit was nothing short of lovely, and with few great restaurants in that area, diners are keeping their fingers crossed. Free street parking, nearby metered off-street parking and direct access to the RTA Silver Line make eating here a breeze for commuters up and down the Euclid Corridor. The alternatives - sloppy joes and shepherd's pie - are too painful to bear.