Dining » Dining Lead

Love at Last

Downtown 140 could be the One.

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Crispy organic chicken: It's duded-up fancy, and it is - good. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Crispy organic chicken: It's duded-up fancy, and it is good.

Face it, sweetheart. When it comes to fabulous dishes, these taste buds have been around the block a time or two. From Avon Lake to Painesville, we've forked 'em and left 'em, always on the prowl for the Next Best Thing. But after a recent romp through the menu at Downtown 140, our heart is all aflutter. Maybe we're finally growing up; maybe we're just tired of the chase. But whatever the reason, we suspect we have fallen in love.

Don't be put off by the fact that the object of our affection occupies a basement in Hudson. Once you snuggle into one of the plush banquettes and let your eyes adjust to the dim, dramatic lighting, you might as well be in a sophisticated salon in New York or San Francisco. And don't fear that we've been led astray by a mere tasty morsel or two. We've nibbled our way through roughly half of executive chef-owner Shawn Monday's deliciously seasonal menu without finding a single dud.

Of course, Monday's menu isn't exactly traditional. Instead of divvying it up into the familiar apps and entrées, the exacting chef (a veteran of the nearby Inn at Turner's Mill, as well as Fire on Shaker Square and Three Birds in Lakewood) has designed a tapas-style bill of fare that begins with such tidbits as roasted clams or oysters on the half-shell ("smallest plates"), moves onto salads and fondue ("small plates"), and finishes with indulgences like seared Maine sea scallops and beef filet ("not-so-small plates"). In theory, at least, this allows guests to mix and match from among the offerings to create meals that best suit their palates and their appetites -- anything from a light nosh of artisanal cheeses and wine, perhaps, to a substantial assemblage of soup, salad, and Monday's version of surf 'n' turf, a combo of Kobe strip steak and crab-stuffed shrimp. In practice, though, most of Downtown 140's guests come to dine, not graze; and friendly, well-trained servers do their best to guide diners through the usual "starter, main course, and dessert" routine in a timely but unhurried fashion.

Like a cashmere scarf or a down duvet, the flavors on Monday's autumn menu are comforting, luxurious, yet completely unpretentious. Puréed chestnuts and apples, for example, are transformed into creamy soup. Sleek golden beets, along with goat cheese, arugula, and red-beet "tartare," create an earthy salad, while sweet potato purée lends subtlety to a pancetta-wrapped Niman Ranch pork tenderloin.

What could be more appropriate for swirling through classic Gruyère fondue, at this time of year, than cubes of pumpkin bread, roasted acorn squash, and grilled pear? How better to garnish a November salad of buttery bibb lettuces than with plumped tart cherries and fragrant mace-sugar-and-salt-spiced pecans? And Atkins be damned! While we love sturdy breads at any time of year, what better season than fall for spreading herb-piqued European-style sweet butter on thick slices of artisanal breads from nearby Great Lakes Baking Company?

To complement Monday's robust cuisine, co-owner Kurt Nygaard has put together an impressive international wine list offering more than 360 selections, including nearly 60 by the six-ounce glass or the two-ounce taste. A "taste" of crisp, lemony Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc ($2.75) was spectacular beside a foursome of outrageously plump Snow Creek Pacific oysters on the fluted half-shell, for instance, where a citrusy yuzu mignonette ignited the oysters' natural fruitiness. A full-bodied Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon ($2.75) was just the ticket for balancing the richness of a beef filet topped with a shallot-and-horseradish "jam" and ringed with an intense Burgundy-reduction sauce.

As the above examples might suggest, Monday isn't content to simply present the finest of seasonal ingredients (including, whenever possible, those that are organic and/or locally grown). Rather, like an artist creating a collage, he composes plates that feature layer upon layer of flavor, playing the subtle against the bold and the rustic against the refined. What results are dishes of almost unrestrained flavor and complexity: a quartet of buttery sea scallops seared to opalescence, say, mounted on two slender, spinach-dough "ravioli" filled with truffle-scented puréed potatoes, garnished with fine threads of caramelized onion, and ringed with grassy basil-chive-and-parsley oil; or slices of barely seared duck breast, fanned across a rich au jus, sided with a dainty duck-confit-filled spring roll and a tiny crescent of Hudson Valley foie gras (slightly overcooked, but still scrumptious), with a soupçon of fig paste adding contrapuntal sweetness. (And heads up, vegetarians: Monday's single meat-free offering -- chestnut spaetzle, with porcini mushrooms, squash, shallots, and smoked Brie -- sounds as kickass as anything else on the menu!)

Despite an occasional Asian accent -- some wasabi foam here, a spring roll there -- most of Monday's creations recall the best of French bistro-style fare. We're drooling over memories of his crisp-skinned, boneless organic chicken (both thigh and breast meat), served atop a bed of roasted butternut squash, cipollini onions, fleshy chanterelles, and toasted pepitas in a lush chicken au jus, as slick and indulgent as a demi-glace. An extraordinary dish, although it points up the cuisine's one potential flaw: At times, Monday's flavors are so sumptuous and profound, they threaten to go over the top, making thoughtful diners thankful that portion sizes, even in the "not-so-small plates," are relatively modest!

While the cuisine is obviously the star of the show, Downtown 140's intimate surroundings and elegant appointments play major supporting roles in the restaurant's success. A long, narrow, low-ceilinged rectangle, the below-ground-level room has been given warmth and character though the liberal use of red and gold fabrics, mahogany trim, and old red brick. Cushy crimson banquettes and broad-seated upholstered chairs surround tables double-draped in cream-colored linens and provide seating for only 60 diners. On the south wall, the original sandstone foundation has been exposed and serves as a backdrop for ornately framed oil paintings; on the north, Monday's open kitchen and a small candlelit bar topped with butterscotch limestone draw the eye.

But conversationalists beware. Despite its cozy ambiance, when the room is fully occupied (as it usually is), the noise level can be startling, and carrying on a quiet tête-à-tête across the amply sized tabletops can be out of the question.

Even if you've been forced to communicate through sign language, however, it is essential to stick around for dessert, where the options range from chocolate fondue to a cheese-fruits-and-nuts platter. Like Monday's savory creations, pastry chef Kimberley Horner's sweets are full of the season's signature flavors, with items like moist ginger-molasses cake, topped with cream-cheese ice cream and a compote of apple, pear, and dried plum; or flaky crusted pecan-and-cranberry tart, served with a dollop of cinnamon ice cream.

Of course, to accompany such uncommon sweets, a mere cuppa joe simply will not do. Instead, consider a French press filled with legendary Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, or one of the long list of black, green, and flavored teas, including caffeine-free herbal tisanes. Alternatively, there are 11 dessert wines, by the bottle or the glass, and a dozen ports from which to choose.

So raise that glass of Taylor-Fladgate, and drink a toast to love. We're not saying this will last forever. But at least until the next hot restaurant comes along, Downtown 140 holds the key to our heart.

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