There is no such thing as a cursed location. There are only unsound business concepts, undercapitalized owners, uncooperative landlords, and the occasional dose of bad luck. But mention the space at 10427 Clifton Boulevard, and just try to put the brakes on the voodoo chatter.
Granted, that spot has seen more than its fair share of tenants (seven in 20 years!), evictions, lawsuits, and physical disasters — from floods to fires to vandalism. But isn't that pretty much the restaurant biz in a nutshell?
Only time will tell if some biblical plague will befall the Clifton Martini & Wine Bar, but the early reports are downright rosy. Nearly five months into his run, owner Jeff Rumplik — fingers crossed — is enjoying brisk crowds and robust sales. On warm nights, Clifton's roomy front patio transforms into the neighborhood village green, with diners buzzing from table to table like eager bees. Inside, the historically contemporary space has been mellowed a bit with warm woods, dim lighting, and new soft seating.
Rumplik, who for years ran the Fairmount Martini & Wine Bar in Cleveland Heights, seems to have settled on the ol' keep-it-simple formula ignored by so many of his predecessors. Most of the prior restaurants failed because they promised too much, delivered too little, and charged an arm and a leg to do it. One operator after another doggedly tried to make the place a destination restaurant, when all it ever wanted to be was a neighborhood bistro.
These days, diners don't want to think too hard about what to order — and they certainly don't want to empty their wallets doing it. Clifton's menu may not be the most creative in town, but the options are both appealing and reasonably priced. Unlike its progenitor, Fairmount Martini, which prepared food in a utility closet, Clifton boasts a full-scale professional kitchen and a full-time professional chef in Brad Cubbal. So in addition to the ubiquitous room temperature cheese-and-meat boards, bruschetta and flatbreads, there are deep-fried, steamed, sautéed, and grilled items.
Clifton's calamari ($10) is so good that I couldn't help ordering it on two separate visits. We twice went with "angry-style," a spicy preparation that tosses the thick, tender rings with olives and banana pepper rings; the flash-fried squid is mounded atop a slick of thick tomato sauce. More zesty than spicy but no less enjoyable are Clifton's stuffed peppers ($9). Here, three large mild peppers are jam-packed with sausage, fire-roasted, and laid to rest on a chunky marinara. Grated cheese and fresh herbs finish the dish. Fans of steamed mussels ($10) will find no fault with those served here, bathed as they are in a fragrant and buttery wine sauce. The kitchen includes fat slices of grilled ciabatta to mop up the juice.
Including the aforementioned starters, there are some two dozen dishes perfect for sharing with friends. Jumbo chilled shrimp ($12) are served classically, dangling over a cocktail sauce-filled martini glass. Lamb lollipops ($12), sold four or five to an order, are pan-seared and paired with an Israeli couscous pilaf and mint pesto. We've certainly enjoyed crab cakes ($11) with less filler and more fish than the ones here, but we admired the cakes' flavor and soufflé-like texture.
For diners with more robust appetites — or those who abhor sharing — the menu includes a handful of composed entrées. Most are less than thrilling, being of the standard meat-starch-veg variety. A tender, beefy flatiron steak ($16) is grilled, sliced, and plated with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus. There's also steak au poivre, braised short ribs, and chicken picatta. For a neighborhood wine bar, Clifton knocks out a pretty tasty pizza. A group of us devoured an extra large white Italian ($13) topped with sausage, banana peppers, and asiago cheese.
To go with those fly pies, Clifton stocks a formidable selection of craft beers, including a handful on the restaurant's freshly minted draft system. Ironically, it's the "martini and wine" portion of the menu that lacks luster. The cocktail list feels dated, with too many '90s-style flavored martinis, and the wines, while of fine quality, are a little predictable for a wine bar.
Even I can't quibble about Clifton's killer patio, a spacious oasis on a leafy boulevard. It has been the one element to receive consistent praise throughout what seems like decades of doomed eateries. Has the spell been broken with Clifton Martini? Quick — somebody knock on wood.
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