Hotel restaurant: For discriminating diners, the mere words are enough to induce fright. Toss in "airport," and it's no wonder I had a hard time convincing a companion to dine with me at Jack's Steakhouse, in the Cleveland Airport Marriott (4277 West 150th Street; 216-252-5333).
Turns out, though, we were pleasantly surprised: he, by the creative menu and stylish preparations, and I, by the sophisticated surroundings. No one will ever mistake Jack's for an artsy West Side salon, but with well-spaced tables, white linens, softly glowing oil lamps, and silk flowers -- and a gracious greeting from assistant manager Eric Lassiter -- Jack's sure beats the neighborhood Applebee's in the charm department.
As for the food, the sassy fusion menu didn't surprise me in the least, since I knew that talented young chef Brian Doyle was behind it. Doyle's past employers have included such trendy spots as Lure Bistro and the Fulton Bar and Grill, making him a good bet for lending some edginess to the staid steakhouse offerings. As Jack's chef du cuisine since February, Doyle has finally debuted his concept of "progressive steakhouse cuisine."
His globally influenced menu tap-dances from classic Italian linguine arrabbiatta to Asian-inspired strip steak au poivre, with additional fancy footwork provided by apps like coriander-seared rare tuna with wasabi vinaigrette; Mexican shrimp cocktail with chipotle-avocado sauce; and plump coconut-and-shrimp "lollipops," on sugarcane sticks, with a sweet-hot chili sauce for dipping. And don't miss the tomato-ginger jam that accompanies the breadbasket: thick, tangy, and honey-sweet, with a big blast of fresh basil that makes the go-with taste like summer on a plate.
The menu's most expensive item -- a faultlessly tender filet mignon, with mushroom-studded mashed potatoes, slightly overcooked asparagus spears, and a glistening Cabernet demi-glace -- checks in at a reasonable $26.99. But it was the menu's least expensive entrée -- attentively prepared, jerk-seasoned, pan-seared salmon -- that turned out to be the most memorable. At $18.99, the stylish dish contrasted the sass of jerk spices with the unexpected sweetness of vanilla-scented grits and used slender ribbons of fruity Grand Marnier-citrus reduction and emerald-green chive-and-parsley oil to tie the flavors together into one big, savory package.
If only our well-intentioned server had been more polished -- remembering to bring water, say, and practicing the finer points of wine service -- the evening would have been a complete success. But even with service lapses, Jack's goes a long way toward taking the horror out of airport-hotel restaurants, and there's nothing wrong with that.