Short ribs, that popular cut of meat adored for its intense beefy flavor and wallet-friendly price, appear on the Ken Stewart's East Bank menu alongside a figure that would shock the conscience of butchers everywhere. At $50 for the entrée, it is far and away the highest priced version of the dish I've spotted in the region. Still, even that tab is a relative bargain compared to the Wagyu beef sirloin from Kagoshima, Japan, which comes in at $140, or roughly $12 per bite.
These lofty prices won't shock fans of Ken Stewart's other restaurants, namely Ken Stewart's Grille in Akron and Ken Stewart's Lodge in Bath, which have been packing customers in for years despite similar outlays. A reputation that stretches back a quarter century has bestowed upon the operator certain latitude when it comes to extravagance. Just how much only time will tell.
Ken Stewart's East Bank opened this summer along with Willeyville and Lago as part of phase one of the Flats East Bank project. The upscale eatery is Stewart's first play north of Bath, making the move all the more gutsy for the 65-year-old Akron native.
Among the trio of new Flats eateries, Ken Stewart's snags the prize for the most dramatic. It's a big city dining room, with the sort of theatrical features that inform diners that something special is about to go down. Cleveland's industrial past is represented in beefy steel columns that descend from the ceiling to form impressive light fixtures. Below them, sumptuous and generously proportioned half-moon booths face the expansive windows, beyond which lie the bridges, tracks and rivers that helped shape the region. Behind the booths, an open kitchen hums with single-minded purpose.
Holding up its end of the bargain, the menu is flush with lavish starters, elegant soups, creative salads, and heaps upon heaps of prime steaks and seafood. It possesses a staggering variety of options, all of which were cheerfully described by our polished server. With a menu that bounds from caviar and foie gras to pheasant and lamb shanks, with pit stops for bisques and beet salads, guidance is welcome.
We passed on $110 caviar tower in favor of a prime beef tartar ($20), elegantly presented on a lengthy platter with diced onion, grainy mustard and pert capers. An egg yolk capped off the coarsely ground beef, and a small clutch of pale toasts sat beside it. When we requested more toasts and accompaniments, they were promptly delivered.
Ken Stewart's crab cake ($18) is everything a crab cake should be: fat chunks of delicious crab meat, blended with just enough other ingredients to keep it together, sit beneath a deeply caramelized crust. The puck-sized cake is garnished with a fennel and micro-green salad and sided by a pool of creamy aioli. A brief spell on the grill lent a nice char to a split head of romaine ($13), which provided a warm counter to the cool and creamy blue cheese and roasted tomatoes.
In terms of drama it's tough to top the lobster bisque ($12). A wide bowl containing nothing more than a fistful of cooked lobster meat is set down before us. The server upends a small crock of crimson colored broth into the bowl, releasing a small cloud of shellfish scented steam. It is pure theatre, but in this case it's backed up with substance.
Our server explained that Ken Stewart's is just one of a handful of American eateries on the receiving end of true Japanese Wagyu beef, a fact that justifies its exorbitant price. Other luxe entrees are built around prime, dry-aged beef, scallops, lobster, duck and venison. We sprung for that $50 Tomahawk short rib, so named for the handle-like bone that extends a full six inches above the gargantuan portion of meat. The flavorful beef, nestled in a pool of wild mushroom polenta, fell apart like long-simmered pot roast. But its mammoth size prevented the heat from penetrating all the way to the core, leaving it cool to the touch.
We had no such complaints about a gorgeous flank of halibut ($39), encased in crackling crisp shell made from potato. A jalapeno and corn salad, plus a drizzle of spicy aioli, provided some serious heat and textural interest.
For a guy to charge $50 for a short rib requires a healthy dose of chutzpa, something Stewart has in spades. Artistic sketches of the man appear on the doors and windows of the restaurant, on every page of the menu, and even the label of the house wine. What we didn't see was the man himself, who was doubtless south at one of his three other businesses. For theatre this costly, sometimes it's nice to see the leading man.