To keep a cavernous dining room like that of the Oak Barrel in Valley View — an insatiable beast at 400 seats — operating at or near capacity, a chef needs to be flexible. That means a guy like Demetrios Atheneos, whose resume includes an extended entry for time spent at the posh Giovanni's Ristorante, has to make some concessions. The result is a menu that reads a bit disjointed, with chef-y items like house-made pork rillettes and duck confit alongside crowd-pleasers like fish & chips and chicken & waffles.
In fact, since opening Oak Barrel three years ago, Atheneos has dumbed down — my words, not his — the menu even more. That well-stocked charcuterie board featuring terrines and pâtés is now called a "butcher's plate" and is outfitted with more provincial snacks like smoked sausages and jerkys. The burger section of the menu has lengthened like Pinocchio's nose and an entirely new category devoted to barbecue — "Pit Master Smoke House" — was introduced.
"As a business owner, I've learned to adapt my dishes to the demographics," Atheneos says diplomatically.
Now we can see why the chef was so eager to open Forage Public House in Lakewood.
It seemed like it was overnight that Pacers, a popular Lakewood tavern with 25 years under its belt, was shuttered and reopened as Forage. While speedy, the process did manage to expunge most traces of the former pub, though many of the most dramatic changes are yet to come. Diners can look forward to new seating, new bathrooms, and a new entrance dedicated to the restaurant, rather than its landlord, in the coming weeks.
Like many chefs of his generation, Atheneos devotes much of his time to chasing down the best ingredients possible. And like many chefs of his generation, he cites the source of damn near every ingredient on the menu — even when that means noting that the potatoes hail from Idaho. Idaho! But we'll forgive him that blemish because so much else originates from points closer.
For example, the duck fat-fried chicken wings ($12) grew up in Kidron, the pastured beef burgers roamed in Ashland, and the crispy wild yellow perch ($18) was netted in our own Lake Erie (albeit via Ontario, Canada).
Atheneos does more than just pay lip service to the trend; he puts his money where his mouth is (and these days, that ain't cheap to do) to secure naturally, humanely and non-GMO raised poultry, beef, pork, rabbit and spring lamb. One of the best ways to sample a good portion of those meats is to order the Charcuterie Board ($13) or the Sausage Board ($12). Both are overflowing with handcrafted salumi, juicy sausages (Saucisson), pickled vedge (Chef's Garden), and bread (Blackbird).
Forage does a tasty version of poutine ($9), especially after the server delivered more of the dark, rich gravy that coats the fries. The kitchen recently stopped melting the cheese curds (Lake Erie Creamery) on top to retain some of that great squeaky texture. Of course, you can put an egg (Killbuck, Ohio) on it for an extra $2.
Rabbit ($23) has a tendency to dry out — especially the loin — but the bunny (Sullivan, Ohio) here is anything but, with delicate and sweet white-meat medallions paired with wild huckleberries (Portland, Oregon) and toasted grains. I love the pairing, not only because the tart fruit is brilliant with the meat, but because I can picture the little guy nibbling on the very same foods. The chef's unique spin on pork ($22) starts with a whole roasted suckling pig (Delaware, Ohio). The succulent meat is pulled from the bones and tossed with spicy chiles, earthy parsnips, fresh herbs and crispy bits of skin. It's kind of like a dry stew.
A great crust and textbook cooking saves a rainbow trout dish ($16) from its cloying plate partners. Not fans of sweet or cinnamon, we sidestepped the accompanying winter squash puree and maple syrup reduction and stuck to the mild natural spring-raised fish (Fredericktown, Ohio). For the same reason we avoid sweet mains, we admired the bread pudding ($14). It was warm, savory and woodsy, loaded with shrooms (Killbuck Valley), fresh herbs and cheese.
When it opened, Forage's menu didn't differentiate between starters and mains, leaving it up to the diner to decide what to eat when. Fortunately, that's been corrected, with a new section for snacks and starters. Forage also does that one-price-for-all-beers thing where $5 buys you a glass, but it's doubtful it will be a pint glass. Still, it's a great list built for hopheads. Cocktail lovers are in the capable hands of Tommy Mullady, last seen at Bottlehouse.