It was a picture-perfect spring evening in the Flats, with an immaculate blue sky bending down over the much abused, but ever-resilient, Cuyahoga River. Our destination on this Saturday night was the Watermark, an upscale East Bank establishment, where proprietor Hap Gray and Executive Chef Michelle Gaw have been entertaining guests since 1985.
While it was too chilly to eat on the deck, and we didn't get the table we had requested in the enclosed "Garden Room" overlooking the water, we were still seated close enough to the windows to watch an assortment of pleasure- and working-craft ply the river during our meal and to enjoy a spectacular sunset that infused the brick-walled interior of this pre-Civil War warehouse with a magnificent golden glow. Factor in Gaw's generally fine seafood, a bottle of charming chardonnay, and pleasant companionship, and the table was set for fun.
The evening began when our ever-busy but none-too-attentive waiter brought us a basket of crusty, commercially made black-olive and sourdough breads and a cup of smoky tapenade, flavored with tomatoes, red peppers, black olives, capers, and garlic. He also delivered several slices of a housemade apple-spice quick loaf, which we enjoyed with slabs of sweet butter.
Our appetizer selections demonstrated Gaw's propensity for blending sweet and savory flavors into a satisfying whole. A slice of crab-and-wild-mushroom "cheesecake" was outstanding, mixing sweet backfin meat with earthy-flavored wild mushrooms, cream cheese, Parmesan cheese, and smoked Gouda in a sourdough crust. The cheesecake was served with a roasted-red-pepper puree that had been drizzled with squiggles of creamy mayonnaise. Taken together, the assorted tastes merged into a rich but subtle experience that had me scraping my plate to capture the tiniest dribs and drabs.
Spring rolls filled with shredded roast chicken and crimini and chanterelle mushrooms were also a delight. They were set upon a mound of greens and sided by two sauces: one an intense port-beef-and-dried-cherry demi-glace and the other made from cream and pungent Brie. The sauces artfully echoed the flavors of the main ingredients, bringing the tastes together and then supercharging them.
An order of Thai Shrimp was also intensely flavored, although somewhat lighter. Five large tail-on shrimp had been wrapped in thin wonton skins, then expertly deep-fried until the wontons were golden-brown but the shrimp were still succulent and moist. They were served with two piles of shredded fresh carrots and a delicious "Shanghai" dipping sauce that was bursting with ginger, sesame, and hot chili oil.
Our final appetizer was a very pleasant páte of Italian Gorgonzola cheese, sour cream, roasted red peppers, and chopped walnuts on a bed of lightly dressed greens, accompanied by sliced apples and three rectangles of crisp melba toast. While by themselves the apples--fresh from a marinade of Dijon mustard, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, and oil--were painfully sour, they settled down under the influence of the creamy cheese. Likewise, the rich Gorgonzola got a necessary kick in the pants from the bright apples and the slightly bitter greens.
When our bustling waiter removed our appetizer plates, he also whisked away our dinner knives. Although he never
bothered to replace them, we still got by: Our entrees were so tender and delicate that we didn't need them.
A grilled salmon filet glazed with a vanilla-and-maple-flavored veloute and a sprinkle of chopped, spiced pecans was unusual but satisfying. While this sweet treatment might have overwhelmed a less assertively flavored fish, the salmon responded to it enthusiastically: The combination, with its undertone of black pepper, had a playful taste and texture that made it fun to eat. It came with crisp, sauteed sugar-snap peas, which were very tasty, and two unseasoned whole red potatoes that mostly just took up space on the plate.
We were also daffy about a meal of roasted duck breast in a sweet-and-peppery sauce of port, dried cherries, and black peppercorns. The boneless slices of meat were intentionally cooked to medium doneness, but were still fork-tender and paired well with the slightly fruity reduction sauce. The duck came with a deeply grilled half-onion and a large serving of moist, sage-flavored Israeli couscous (which our waiter had insisted was barley).
An entree of two Lake Erie walleye filets, coated in mustard and cracker crumbs, then sauteed until golden brown, was less exciting. While the walleye, a firm, full-flavored white fish, was fine, its breading was undistinguished and lacked crispness. It came with both the sweet sugar-snap peas and sauteed carrots.
But as the sun set, our meal reached its zenith with an entree of yellow-fin tuna that had been thoroughly coated with black poppyseeds and white sesame seeds, and then seared in a cast-iron skillet until the seeds were fragrant and crisp. Accompanied by a tiny dipping-bowl of soy sauce, a timbale of herbed rice, and a mound of roughly chopped, sauteed carrots so intensely sweet and tender they almost could have passed for yams, the dappled filet was beautifully presented on a flame-red plate. But although it was lovely to look at and smelled divine, the best part was the satisfying crunch of those oily, aromatic little seeds--a thrilling, mouth-pleasuring sensation not soon forgotten. The only imperfection was that the tuna itself, which the menu promised would be prepared medium rare, arrived just a touch overdone.
Watermark has a moderate-sized, annotated list of reasonably priced wines that has earned the restaurant recognition from Wine Spectator magazine for several years running. We chose a bottle of 1995 W.B. Bridgman chardonnay ($23) from Washington to accompany our meals and were pleased to find that the wine list's description of the white as "intensely fruity," with the flavors of "smoky oak and butterscotch," was absolutely on the mark.
Regrettably, desserts at Watermark don't reach the same high standards as the appetizers and entrees. Most of them, including New York Cheesecake, Lemon-Lime Cheesecake, "To Die For" Chocolate Cake, and the "Chocolate Trio"--a combination of chocolate sponge cake topped with chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache, and whipped cream--are not made in-house. Others, like a housemade creme brulee and vanilla ice cream topped with a housemade Amaretto fudge, were disappointing.
The teensy portion of creme brulee was thin and weak, and was topped with a shell of caramelized sugar so scant as to be nearly nonexistent. Perhaps to camouflage its shortcomings, it was then buried beneath a mound of whipped cream and finished off with mango sauce and whole blueberries.
The commercial vanilla-bean ice cream in an Amaretto-brandy-fudge sundae was good and rich, with a clean, fresh flavor. But we were disappointed that the boozy "fudge" sauce was more like thin chocolate syrup.
An ample portion of dry French-bread pudding was barely rescued by the addition of lots of plump rehydrated dried cherries and a bright red cherry-brandy sauce. While the dessert was certainly sweet, we missed the taste and texture of eggy custard that makes for a great bread pudding.
However, an "imported" fresh-fruit tart was beautiful as well as tasty, if outrageously priced at $8.50. A tender, crumbly angel-food-cake-like crust (rather than the meringue described on the menu--a minor complaint) had been topped with a soupçon of moist vanilla custard, trimmed around the perimeter with rosettes of chocolate ganache, and then layered with glazed mandarin orange segments, blueberries, raspberries, and sliced kiwis. Surrounded by little puddles of thick mango and kiwi sauces, the tart was a refreshing combo of flavors and textures, from the tart berries to the creamy custard to the sweet chocolate.
Our preoccupied waiter brought us our coffee with dessert, but had to be flagged down to fetch us more cream. Even more dreadful, he didn't stop back with the coffeepot again until we had paid the bill and were ready to leave. Given the atmosphere that Watermark is trying to create, more professional and considerate service throughout the evening would have been appreciated.
We forgave him, though. As all experienced diners know, sometimes a perfect experience can emerge from less-than-perfect details. On this particular night, perhaps our cares had been swept away by the wine, the river, or the springtime breeze. All I know is that, on such a beautiful evening in Cleveland, we could never hold a grudge.
Watermark, 1250 Old River Road (East Bank of the Flats). 216-241-1600. Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m.- 10 p.m.; until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Sunday dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
Crab-and-Wild-Mushroom Cheesecake $8.50
Gorgonzola-Walnut Terrine $8.00
Thai Shrimp $10.00
Spring Rolls With Chicken and Chanterelles $8.50
Vanilla-Maple-Glazed Salmon $18.95
Lake Erie Walleye $21.50
Roast Duck with Cherry-Port-Black-Peppercorn Sauce $19.00
Poppycrusted Tuna $21.95
Bread Pudding $5.95
Creme Brulee $5.95
Vanilla Ice Cream With Amaretto Fudge $5.