I've been impressed, disappointed, and wholly unmoved by restaurants. But rarely have I been as confused as I was with Pura Vida, chef Brandt Evans' new bistro on Public Square. My confusion began before the spot even opened, when Evans pulled a last-minute switcheroo on the intended name, swapping the descriptive "Butcher's Block" for something that sounded like a health spa.
The location, too, added to the initial ambiguity. With little more than a sliding wall separating the restaurant from Tri-C's shiny new Hospitality Management Center, I couldn't help but wonder: Was this a teaching restaurant, where culinary students gain experience working alongside a skilled chef?
And don't get me started on the days and hours of operation. When it opened in spring, Pura Vida served only breakfast, lunch, and early-evening snacks. Later, weekday dinners were added, but breakfast was scrapped. Last month, Saturday-night dinner service was added to the lineup. Sure, all new restaurants go through a period of tinkering. But this much can leave a diner feeling dizzy.
It took a stint on jury duty for me to finally get to know — and love — the place. Twice at lunchtime I made the short walk from the gloomy courthouse to the gleaming Pura Vida. Flooded with light and life, the contemporary space felt like the epicenter of downtown. After the snappy service and knockout food, it was deliciously clear that this was no student-run operation.
Brandt Evans may be forever synonymous with pretzel-crusted trout — a mainstay at his Twinsburg-based Blue Canyon — but he will go down in my book as the man behind the World's Best Cobb Salad. It may sound simple, but with a dozen or so moving parts, it's anything but. Yet from the perfectly prepped greens to the house-roasted turkey, every element was flawless. Warm, crisp bacon, hard-cooked eggs, sharp cheddar, roasted tomatoes, shaved red onion, grilled bread ... all of it perfect and artfully arranged.
Like the old man in the joke about super sex, I might be inclined to take the soup — if it was Pura Vida's shrimp and corn chowder. Rich, chunky, and piping hot, the beautiful bisque was studded with seafood, spiced with a hint of Old Bay, and sided by housemade oyster crackers. Alternatively, Asian-inspired "chicken noodle soup" features chewy udon noodles, roasted chicken, slivered snow peas, and shiitake mushrooms in broth fragranced with lemongrass and ginger.
Evans and his team also may have invented the first flank steak sandwich that actually can be eaten as a sandwich. Most are so chewy that one bite annihilates the whole affair. But this one is built around thinly shaved meat as tender as it is flavorful. Essentially a beefy banh mi, the sandwich is loaded with crunchy pickled veggies, fresh herbs, and spicy aioli.
Dining here after sundown is a bit like eating at a discothèque. A stark white backdrop combined with an ever-shifting palette of glowing LED lights ensures that you'll look bad 14 different ways.
Fortunately, the food doesn't. In the nacho starter, Evans piles smoked duck confit, housemade nacho sauce, and crème fraiche onto tortilla chips for a highbrow version of a lowbrow snack. Though I could have done without the overpowering blue cheese, I could not stop devouring crisp ribbons of fried pig ears in spicy sriracha sauce.
Pura Vida's "Earth & Surf" entrée, likewise, is heaven on a plate. Heaps of sweet lobster meat and a forest of savory sautéed mushrooms sit atop a bed of truffled rice in a perfect yin-yang equation. While many shellfish entrées are excessively rich, this one is pleasantly down to Earth.
A meaty double-boned Ohio pork chop may have been the star of one autumnal entrée, but the zesty Vietnamese-style pork spring rolls were the first to vanish. Sautéed Brussels sprout leaves provide the greenery.
With the casino and other ambitious developments taking place all around Pura Vida, it's clear that Evans placed a fat wager on Public Square. With ongoing clarity of purpose, Pura Vida will no doubt reap a handsome payoff.