Editor's note: The recent merger of Free Times and Scene sent this paper's award-winning food critic, Elaine Cicora, searching for something new to do. She's already found it: She started recently at Crop Bistro, where she'll help Steve and Jackie Schimoler spread the word about their clever downtown restaurant.
To tide you over, we bring you Cicora's take on four of her current faves from Cleveland's dining scene.
Tremont Tap House
You could make the argument that the Tap House is far more "gastropub" than "tavern." As proof, consider the impressive craft-beer selection — 28 options on tap and 40 more in bottles — enumerated on a long, annotated menu, along with style notes, ABV, and prices. Not only will you search in vain for Pabst or Bud, but even trendy quaffs like Blue Moon, Stella Artois, and Hoegaarden are notable only by their absence.
Together with the lovingly renovated surroundings — a brick Italianate, dating back to the 1890s, now tastefully spruced up with new paint, a poured-concrete bartop, and gleaming oak floors — that exclusive beer list sets the tone of casual sophistication. Owners Chris Lieb and Jason Workman spent nearly two years and $350,000 transforming this former blue-collar bar into a hip watering hole; among other enhancements, an enclosed concrete patio should be a crowd-pleaser, now that the teak furniture has finally arrived.
The real proof, though, is in executive chef Joshua Montague's mouthwatering menu, a contemporary-American roundup of imaginative starters, ample salads, out-of-the-ordinary sandwiches, savory burgers, and surprisingly ambitious mains, which range from ale-braised short ribs and seared sea scallops to a contemporary riff on chicken paprikash that features free-range poultry and haricots verts. Along with a starter of pierogi, the paprikash serves as sly homage to the tavern's historic niche.
One caveat: Pacing can be slow. By and large, though, Montague's moderately priced food is worth waiting for.
2572 Scranton Road, 216-298-4451, www.tremonttaphouse.com
Touch Supper Club
For quality, value, and charm, this little restaurant, bar, and dance club may be the best surprise in town.
Chef Jeff Fisher's small, inexpensive menu glides easily from upscale bar noshes — like burgers, umami-packed pizzas, and skinny pommes frite — straight into the realm of contemporary comfort fare, including braised beef short ribs and classic roast chicken. (Also consider Sunday brunch, featuring omelets, breakfast sandwiches, pancakes, and chicken and waffles.)
Fresh flowers, modern art, and warm, attentive servers give the room unexpected panache. Equally charming is the complimentary, pre-appetizer amuse-bouche, perhaps something like homemade hummus on a crunchy toast point. And post-entrées, there's the intermezzo: a shooter of fruit-studded seltzer, maybe, or a bit of sour-cream sorbet in a tangy berry broth.
Those twice-fried frites are killer, whether as a stand-alone nosh or a side for the heart-stopping burger, which comes topped with crisped coppa (dry-cured pork loin), a glistening fried egg, and a slather of "secret" sauce. They also accompany the tender steamed mussels, balancing briefly atop the jumbo bivalves before tumbling down into the savory broth, an almost effervescent blend of Delirium Tremens, bacon, and garlic.
Fisher also explores the nexus of savory and sweet, particularly in starters like the butternut-squash turnover, a palate-pleasing twofer of frangible puff pastry and caramelized veggies, finished with a Christmas Ale reduction. It's the same with the ample spring roll, stuffed with duck confit, goat cheese, and sun-dried blueberries, drizzled with blueberry Frangelico sauce, and garnished with an Asian-pear-and-pomegranate salad.
If the big flavors generally impressed us, so did the tiny prices. Combined with first-rate service and urbane amenities, they made it easy to overlook the occasional rough patch — the fibrous asparagus in a vegetable medley, say, or the fact that food came out of the kitchen at a more-than-leisurely pace. A word of advice: Take interesting companions.
2710 Lorain Avenue, 216-631-5200, www.touchohiocity.com
Osteria Cedro Rustico
Just as Whole Foods is more than just a grocery store, its tiny Osteria is way more than a bland convenience for hungry, harried shoppers. It's an actual sit-down dining spot, smartly situated between the artfully arranged produce, wine, and gourmet cheese departments. It features thoughtful appointments, friendly service, and a small but appealing menu of freshly prepped Italian fare, including salads, antipasti, pasta, and those just-right short ribs, shimmering in a balsamic and black-cherry glaze.
Is this dining in a trendy trattoria? Of course not. This is still a grocery store, complete with clattering shopping carts and the occasional screaming kid. But there is an assortment of gracious amenities: fresh flowers, substantial flatware, white porcelain plates, and Lucite pepper mills, not to mention the contemporary cast-concrete dining counter, where every seat overlooks the spotless kitchen.
Because that kitchen is tiny — no room for microwaves, deep-fat fryers, and heat lamps — the menu focuses on fresher, easily assembled fare. Crisp, cool salads are made to order, and pastas are sauced à la minute. And when it comes to more labor-intensive foodstuff, the osteria knows how to take advantage of its resources: Rustic breads are culled from the market's in-house bakery; the Asiago, Havarti, and Parrano (a rich, buttery cows' milk cheese from Holland) on the antipasto board are sourced from the nearby cheese shop; and mild Italian pork sausage is crafted by the store's own butchers.
13998 Cedar Road (inside Whole Foods), University Heights, 216-371-5320, www.wholefoodsmarket.com
Dig a little 'tude with your food? Then you've come to the right place. It's true that Dante Boccuzzi — a Parma native and certified rocker, with two CDs to his name, including Parmatown: Where Everything You Need Is at the Mall — can come across as a little intense. But his culinary cred gives him license. He's a Culinary Institute of America grad, two-time James Beard Foundation Rising Star nominee, and former executive chef at Nobu/Milan and New York's award-winning Aureole.
Lucky for regional diners, he's brought the whole package to Dante, located in the former Lockkeepers, where some recent tweaking has rendered the already impressive interior — complete with soaring ceilings, Deco-style lighting, and sumptuous woodwork — more stylish than ever. The dimly lit lounge is now partially separated from the airy dining room, making both spaces feel more intimate and urbane. On the walls, Boccuzzi's own framed and matted food photos — destined to be published in a cookbook — add a tasty personal touch.
But the real showstopper here is the modern-American menu — large but not overwhelming, and so cleverly composed that every food lover, regardless of status or budget, is bound to find a fave. Feeling flush? Feast on foie gras, caviar, and a $34 sirloin. A little light in the wallet? Share a salad, some house-cured charcuterie, and a more-than-ample $4 (yes, four dollars!) pasta tasting, and get out for around 15 bucks a head.
As for the food, the influences are almost as diverse as the prices, with accents ranging from Italian and French to Thai and Japanese. Underlying the eclectic pantry is his use of impeccable seasonal ingredients and painstaking classical technique, resulting in wildly intense yet tightly focused dishes like the glistening tagliatelle carbonara, topped with a trembling poached egg and trailing heady plumes of truffle butter. As with all five fresh pasta dishes — including another knockout in the earthy ricotta cavatelli with sweet garlic, wild mushrooms, and braised beef — the tagliatelle comes in three sizes: tasting, starter, and main. Grazers would do well to order two or three tasting portions as an entrée; but given the dishes' enormous flavor profiles, leftovers still may be inevitable.
8001 Rockside Road, Valley View, 216-524-9404. www.danteboccuzzi.com