- The seaworthy captains of Pier W: Kelly Underation, Norbert Peissert, and Todd Thompson.
Now, however, that seems to be changing. Although the city lights twinkle as brightly as ever from across the lake, service under General Manager Kelly Underation (formerly with Beachwood's Napa Valley Grille) has taken a turn for the better, with everyone -- host, servers, assistants, and valets included -- proving gracious and generally well-trained during our most recent visits. And if at first blush the current menu, with its emphasis on fresh seafood, doesn't seem much different from earlier incarnations, rest assured that Executive Chef Norbert Peissert, who was lured on board last September, has added enough modern twists to make it nearly as appealing as the view.
Presumably, the process of guiding this dining room into the 21st century will continue to be a gradual one, since many of the Pier's regulars are of an age where being au courant has lost its luster. In other words, the deep-fried Lake Erie walleye probably will continue to share menu space with the delicious macadamia-crusted sea bass for some time to come. And although we came to understand, from the frequent explosion of flashbulbs around us, that this is a popular spot for special-occasion dining, the crowd generally doesn't seem to be on the cutting edge of any trendy culinary movements. (No offense intended here, most especially to the hulking bodybuilder in those awesome snakeskin pants.)
Still, as things now stand, the restaurant is coming along. As he did in his previous position at Napa Valley Grille, Peissert turns out pretty plates of artfully arranged food that get much of their snap, crackle, and pop from an array of wonderful sauces and reductions. A bit of intensely flavored grapefruit beurre blanc here, a dab of exotic five-spice/port-wine reduction there, helped lift some of the more routine dishes -- the so-so offerings on the broiled Seafood Platter, for instance -- out of the ordinary and into the realm of the memorable. And the go-withs -- sides like nutty basmati rice, lushly topped with roasted red pepper and braised spinach, or an unusually delectable barley risotto, flecked with fresh asparagus tips -- were sometimes even more impressive than the main events.
We wish the kitchen paid more attention to cleaning its shellfish, though. Steamed littleneck clams, served in an irresistible rosemary-scented bouillabaisse broth, were scrumptious, but they would have been even better if several of them hadn't still been full of sand. Plump grilled Georges Bank sea scallops were sweet and succulent, but slightly gritty. And we could have more easily overlooked the tartar-saucy taste and texture of a Maryland crabcake if it hadn't been for the shards of crab shell that came along for the ride.
Seafood entrée prices run from $19 for that deep-fried walleye to $55 for a filet mignon sided with twin lobster tails, but most main courses hover in the $22 to $28 range. Meals come with a modestly sized house salad of mixed greens spiked with thin slices of Granny Smith apple and a subtle housemade poppyseed dressing, a light, creamy concoction that bears no resemblance to those viscous sweet-and-sour versions that show up on Amish-style salad bars. For an extra $3, diners can substitute a larger Caesar salad or -- our recommendation -- the Gold Coast Salad, a tasty toss of iceberg and romaine lettuces, punctuated by crumbs of blue cheese, bacon, cauliflower, and grape tomatoes, in a tart white French dressing that brought to mind summery BLTs.
While the kitchen's focus is clearly on seafood, it caters to fish-phobes with seven dishes built around chicken, pasta, beef, and pork. However, like a former acquaintance who couldn't understand why he got a bad sirloin steak in the neighborhood Chinese restaurant, landlubbers might be advised to tread cautiously: Our luscious-sounding veal strip steak turned out to be a disappointment, with a gamey taste that suggested it had spent too long in storage.
If an appetizer of breaded and fried calamari gave our jaws a workout, we had no such complaints about a first-course batch of coconut shrimp: five fine, fat fellows in a slightly sweet coconut-flecked breading, served with a ginger-scented dipping sauce. And a half-dozen East Coast oysters on the half-shell, with fresh lemon and a peppery mignonette sauce, were impeccable. However, the soup of the day, a thick red tomato purée with bacon, came a bit too close to the fine line separating it from pasta sauce. "Where are the Spaghetti-O's?" quipped an unimpressed companion.
On the other hand, we were all duly impressed with an enormous portion of bouillabaisse: a record-breaking catch of mussels, shrimp, clams, chunks of various fish (the daily assortment usually includes tuna, salmon, cod, and sea bass), and crab claws, all in a fragrant broth that our server ladled out of a cobalt-blue Dutch oven and into our bowl. While some of the seafood -- most notably the fish and the crab -- had become a little overdone by the time we got around to our second and third helpings, the flavor was without compare, and we made an enthusiastic mess of our white tablecloth as we repeatedly dipped our freshly baked bread into the savory stew.
Oenophile and wine-and-beverage manager Todd Thompson has put together an impressive international wine list of both popular and lesser-known reds and whites in a wide range of prices; if you can't find something here that piques your interest, you're way too jaded to be living in Cleveland. To go with one evening's selection of entrées (the veal steak, that hearty bouillabaisse, and coriander-crusted yellowfin tuna), we chose an accommodating 1998 Peter Lehmann Shiraz, an Australian Barossa Valley wine with lots of soft, jammy flavor up front and a slightly peppery finish; at $40, the bottle was a reasonably priced indulgence. Too bad our otherwise polished waitress wasn't skilled at proper wine service: We cringed as she wiped the drips off the side of the bottle with her bare hands, among other offenses.
Underation and Peissert have recently added a pastry chef to their culinary staff, and Darlene Gantar, also a former Napa Valley Griller, delivers the goodies. Voluptuous strawberry shortcake, built around a lighter-than-air biscuit and lavished with both whipped cream and crème Anglaise, was irresistible, and a vanilla-scented crème brûlée, topped with a lemon truffle, hit all the right notes. But the fresh-from-the-oven Liquid Chocolate Center Cake, a shatteringly rich creation settled on raspberry sauce and beckoning from beside a scoop of vanilla ice cream, was simply to die for -- especially when paired with a little pot of French press coffee or a cup of sturdy cappuccino.
As the food and service begin to live up to the potential of Pier W's real estate, Underation & Co.'s next challenge should be updating the decor. The sort of '70s "Ye Olde Salty Dog" motif -- which prompted a companion to suggest the decorator had raided a Red Lobster yard sale -- is glaringly dated and does nothing to complement the food or the view. While we suspect any obvious changes will lead to grumblings among the regulars, it might be worth the risk. With its unsurpassed setting, Pier W deserves a future as fresh and exciting as the view from its lakeside windows.