The last time I stepped foot inside the ballroom of the Heights Rockefeller Building, I was holding the hand of my newlywed bride. We had just gotten married in the back courtyard and were making our way into the grand second-floor space to celebrate with family and friends.
"So, does it feel strange to come back here to eat at a restaurant?" asked one of our dining companions, who also happened to be a wedding guest five and a half years prior.
It did feel strange. But it also felt pretty cool. This time around we had the luxury of enjoying the room for what it was: a breathtakingly beautiful French Norman gem built in 1931 as part of local millionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s Forest Hill development. We chose this 80-year-old spot for our reception specifically for its splendor, reflected in its 20-foot stone arches, oak-beam rafters, iron chandeliers, and leaded-glass windows.
But a wonderful event space does not necessarily make an ideal restaurant. At 4,700 square feet, the room is no small potatoes. That kind of real estate is easy to fill up with a guest list, but the same cannot be said of a reservation book. If we learned anything from the recent and abrupt closure of Fracas, it's that vast spaces can feel mighty drab when they're less than full.
Wisely, owner and Cleveland Heights resident Michael Adams devoted half the space to a casually elegant bar and lounge area. High-tops, banquettes, sofas, and coffee tables offer a welcome alternative to the more formal dining room, which accommodates an additional 80 or so guests at traditional tables.
Despite its out-of-the-way locale, Rockefeller's is attracting its share of fans. And if chef Jill Vedaa sticks around long enough, those crowds will continue to swell. Vedaa, an artful cook with a long résumé, is turning out some of the most satisfying food of her career. Seasonal American with the occasional Asian kick, the dishes are creative but restrained — and almost always delicious.
Over the course of two separate visits, we devoured all but one of the opening salvos. And some, like the fluffy shrimp fritters, we ordered twice. Like shrimp-flavored beignets, the crisp fritters are light, airy, and fun to eat — and they're set off nicely by a smoky barbecue sauce.
Meatballs should be seared on the outside, wispy within, and jammed with more flavor per square inch than just about any other meat product. That perfectly describes Vedaa's savory lamb meatballs, which get a sweet boost from silky roasted red pepper purée.
We can't get enough of the charred and salted shishito peppers ($7.50), often called Russian roulette because you never know which one will kill you with heat. Equally fun to eat, Southwest-style duck taquitos are filled with tender duck confit and paired with a citrusy cream sauce. Short ribs, rightly popular but desperately trite, are born anew here. Vedaa slices the über-tender meat, aggressively seasons it, and pan-fries it crisp. Killer — especially when spiked with a kicky chimichurri.
Entrées often are a letdown after a few rounds of fun starters, but Rockefeller's manages to keep the momentum going. Then again, we have a soft spot for places that sidestep salmon, chicken, and filet in favor of duck, pork, and hanger steak. The bone-in pork chop is flat-out tasty, bearing a cumin-scented perfume and more than a hint of heat.
Summer is in season thanks to a dish of seared shrimp with creamed corn and crispy polenta. Chipotle and fresh herbs lend a sweet, smoky punch. Our hanger steak needed a re-fire to get it to the right temp, but it and the accompanying haricots verts and root veg mash fired on all cylinders upon return. A smoky tomato chutney and toothsome braised kale flesh out an order of delectable seared scallops.
Thanks to a lounge menu that's served clear up till eleven on weekends, Rockefeller's should top late-night dining lists. Filled with tasty items like fennel-steamed mussels, burgers and fries, and Asian-tweaked calamari, the lounge menu offers a less expensive way to experience an extravagant room built for a Rockefeller.