- Walter Novak
- It may look like brains under a tangle of neural pathways, but it's really beet risotto topped with wilted spinach and carrot gastrique.
It's probably no more than 40 minutes from downtown Cleveland to LaGrange's new Grey Hawk Golf Club. But tooling toward the tiny town, on a two-lane road running past farms, fields, and wood lots, is like a trip into the heart of starkness.
South of Elyria and west of Grafton, little LaGrange is hardly more than a speck on the Lorain County map, attached to the rest of Northeast Ohio by the slender thread of Route 301. Still, sharp-eyed observers will note that while the landscape remains dotted with barns and silos, the real cash crop out here is upscale housing developments -- sprawling webs of brand-new streets, each traversing acres of oversized mansions that tower above the flat former farmland like a fleet of cruise ships on Lake Erie.
Most assuredly, we would not drive out here for just anyone. But to see what Donna Chriszt, GM and executive chef at the golf club's Nine Bistro, is up to? Just try to stop us.
Energetic, ambitious, and mostly self-taught, the nationally recognized Chriszt is one of the region's most talented chefs, possessing the eye of an oil painter, the mind of an engineer, and an Earth Mother's passion. Her gifts reach their fullest expression in her clean, contemporary cuisine, a gentle fusion of comforting American classics and sassy outbursts of Asian, Latino, and Caribbean sizzle, typically as artfully presented as it is smartly conceived.
Unfortunately, the chef has met less success as a restaurant owner: Her three salons -- Jeso (on Clifton Boulevard), J Café (in Woodmere), and OZ (in Tremont) -- all came to untimely ends. After OZ closed, Chriszt accepted a job at an Aurora country club, even representing the exclusive property at a prestigious Beard House Dinner in N.Y.C. So it wasn't entirely surprising when she arrived, earlier this year, at Grey Hawk, where she now serves as both the club's manager and the bistro's executive chef. The July opening was rough, Chriszt says, with construction continuing up to the final moments. Then there was the problem of getting urban servers to schlep out to the sticks -- or, conversely, teaching the finer points of food-and-wine service to a staff of inexperienced locals.
Still, by mid-September, Chriszt declared that she and her crew (including former longtime Watermark staffer Mable Rey as dining-room manager) were ready to rock and roll, and city slickers began saving up gas money for the much-anticipated foray into the wilderness.
Can Nine Bistro possibly be worth this trip?, we wonder as we pull into the parking lot. The silence is almost deafening out here, a fact that prompts a companion to gleefully insist that we have taken a wrong turn and are now somewhere on the Great Plains. Once we step inside, though, the setting is gracious: spare but sophisticated, from the dancing flames inside the double-sided fireplace to the white cloth napkins and votive candles on the undraped tables. The only jarring note, in fact, comes from three big televisions that dominate the rear of the room.
Although golf season is long past, business seems brisk. During a weekday lunch, the diverse clientele includes everyone from well-dressed business types to a portly gent in red suspenders. And on a Saturday night, the capacity crowd ranges from twentysomethings in denim and black leather (West Side urban explorers, we're guessing) to affluent-looking seniors decked out in Dockers and cable-knit sweaters, asking after the chef by name.
Much of both the à la carte lunch and dinner menus is classic Chriszt -- potstickers with a trio of dipping sauces, crab-stuffed trout, Mom's chicken paprikash, and the like -- but as a predictable nod to the less adventurous, calamari, burgers, and strip steak also put in an appearance. About the only surprise, really, is the prices: Most dinner entrées check in at no more than $18. Of course, at these prices, we know better than to expect giant portions.
So far, so good. Ultimately, though, the proof is in the tasting; happily, in this arena, too, we find much to enjoy. Three butternut-squash pierogi, for example? Plump as little goose-down pillows, filled with satiny purée, sided with jammy caramelized onions, and topped with a dab of sour cream and three crisply fried sage leaves. A grilled-pear salad? One of the best versions around, with greens, Saga Blue cheese, candied pecans, and a petite grilled pear that -- for once -- is truly ripe, thoroughly cooked, and buttery enough to spread on bread. And those thick, tender slices of Grandma's meatloaf, made with a blend of veal, pork, beef, and roasted mushrooms, stroked with a ribbon of demiglace? As satisfyingly savory as ever.
At lunch, the choice of a "sloppy José" sandwich, served with thickly sliced onion rings (frozen but tasty), proves providential. A riff on the more down-home sloppy Joe, it showcases a spicy blend of chorizo and Black Angus beef, bound in slightly sweet, homemade tomato sauce, topped with melted smoked cheddar, and ladled onto a tender kaiser roll for high-wattage flavor and satisfying heft. Crisp breaded calamari pleases, too, both for the squid's creamy texture and the dark, dense, and pleasantly tart roasted-tomato sauce that accompanies it. We aren't sorry to see the same sauce, yet again, in a modest serving of handmade, sausage-stuffed tortellini, where it serves as a well-balanced foil for an abundance of sharp and salty kalamata olives.
Yet there are an unsettling number of misses, too. Some of the coarsely smashed potatoes that accompany the meatloaf, for example, are so undercooked that they crunch. On the other hand, skewered barbecue-basted chicken strips and teriyaki-seasoned beef have been overcooked. Sweet-potato risotto, siding a pork chop, is flavorful but gummy. And an open-face turkey sandwich plumbs new depths of blandness, with spongy meat lurking beneath an unappetizing topping of congealed gravy, and more of those rock-hard potatoes.
Clumsy service doesn't help either, especially during a Saturday-night visit. We immediately get off to a bad start when our waitress rushes over to read off the evening's specials -- including a mysterious fish that she calls "mowie mowie" -- and then forgets about us for the next 15 minutes.
After finally being shooed back to our table by a concerned co-worker, she is even more flustered. By way of apology, she interrupts our conversation to give us the TMI version of her life's story, all the while mangling the cork on our half bottle of Merryvale Starmont Cab ($25). Although I placed the wine order, she offers the first taste to my companion. After he gamely declares the wine to be satisfactory, she has to be stopped from emptying the entire half-bottle into his glass!
Most grievously, though, she neglects to ask how we would like our "Autumn-spiced" pork chop prepared. When the thick, fragrant piece of meat finally arrives, the flavor is darkly redolent of cider and smoke, but the texture is dusty and dry. Initially, we hold the kitchen responsible for overcooking the meat. But when our check arrives, we discover the true culprit: Rather than bothering to ask our preference, our server apparently took it upon herself to put in our order as "medium well." Ugh.
On the long drive home, my companions and I admit to one another that we were not wowed. Not that we expected a clubhouse restaurant in LaGrange to meet the same standards of excellence as a happenin' hot spot in Tremont -- even with the same hand guiding the operations. But at this point, Nine Bistro doesn't yet come close.
And that's the catch, isn't it? If Chriszt and her staff expect guests to make the long trip out here, they have some distance to cover themselves.