Every time it looks as if the West Park neighborhood is growing fit for foodies, another few chains and sports bars come in to spoil the momentum. The latest volley in the ongoing battle has been lobbed by Cory Rowland and his partners, who this past March opened Red Lantern Kitchen and Bar. We should more accurately say "reopen," because the restaurant revived a long-standing neighborhood institution that closed two years prior after more than 30 years in business.
"The Red Lantern had so much value in the neighborhood that we decided to keep the name," Rowland explains.
Wisely, the name is all that the team preserved. Gone is the dark, dated and chopped-up space with drop ceilings. In its place is one massive, open room the size of an airplane hangar. It's so big, in fact, that the furnishings are dwarfed by the sheer volume of the space. The fixtures are clean and contemporary but also a bit cold and sterile.
"Our inspiration is Ohio City and Tremont," adds Rowland. "You go down there and you have that sexy atmosphere. There wasn't anything like that in this neighborhood."
The menu, too, seems inspired by those food-flush 'hoods, where upscale pub grub merges with bistro fare in a formula that's almost cliché elsewhere but still completely unique in West Park. In true "gastropub" fashion, the roster of chow hops from mussels and flatbreads to tacos and Po' Boys to ribs and grilled chops. The treatments are trendy, the presentations stylish, and the execution largely commendable.
"We have these two great chefs, and we wanted to unleash their culinary creativity," Rowland says, referring to in-house chef Chris McCarthy and corporate chef Brian McNeff, who spends most of his time managing the fare at the partners' other growing concern, Two Bucks.
Too bad for us that neither chef managed to make it to work during one of our visits, making for what can best be described as night-and-day experiences. The B Team on that night thought it was a fine idea to send out a bowl of mussels ($10) with an alarming percentage of tightly closed specimens. That's not a mussel problem; that's a chef problem. A platter of calamari ($10) that same night managed to be at once undercooked and overcooked, with rings that were pale and pasty but chewy as hell.
The good news is that when the kitchen is properly staffed, the food does indeed call to mind that found in far hipper neighborhoods. A warm and cheesy spinach and artichoke dip ($9) is made with goat cheese, fresh greens and actual, recognizable pieces of artichoke hearts. We particularly enjoyed the marbled rye toast for dipping, which had so much more personality than bland crostini. Thick-cut, rosemary scented fries ($6) — served in a sculptural tower with a pair of dipping sauces — are golden brown outside, pillowy within.
Steak tacos ($10/2) contain strips of grilled Certified Angus Beef strip steak — a prefect medium rare at that. The flour shells are grilled and filled with ripe avocado, chive cream sauce and fresh herbs. Vegetarian tacos ($9/2) contain grilled and sliced portobellos, roasted red peppers, raw onion and fresh greens.
Had the kitchen taken the time to brown the top of the crawfish mac and cheese ($12), it would have ranked as one the tastiest versions of the comfort classic we've enjoyed all year. The pasta is firm, the creamy sauce aggressively spiced, and there are tender pieces of crawfish meat in almost every bite. For tavern ribs, Red Lantern's version ($15/half slab) are very good. While not smoked or even smoky, the meaty St. Louis style ribs aren't steamed into submission like many kitchen ribs. We could do without the bed of mashed potatoes though, which stick to the ribs like paste.
For decades, the Red Lantern was the place to go for Friday fish fries. Red Lantern II tries to honor but update that tradition with its fried fish dinner ($13), but misses the point. This healthier version is breaded not battered, lacking the fatty golden brown shell that makes fish fries so much fun to eat.
Craft beer snobs won't drive across town to drink at the Red Lantern, but if they find themselves here for dinner, they won't die of thirst either. There are enough Founders, Lagunitas and Rogues to keep things rolling. A respectable wine-on-tap program offers three whites and three reds by the glass — all but one of which are priced at $6 or $7.
With service this good, they'll continue to make new friends and hopefully take a run at the longevity of its namesake. Not only were those mussels and calamari removed from our tab without so much as a request, our server offered up a gift card along with her sincere apologies. That gesture sure does make it easy to give a place like Red Lantern a second chance, and we're sure glad we did.
red lantern kitchen & bar
17446 Lorain Ave., 216-331-1458, redlantern.us.