- Walter Novak
- Dina Tsarnas, with what may be the world's largest pork chops.
I was languishing in the cozy dining room of the Cleveland Grill on a recent weeknight, waiting for my tardy companion to join me, when my phone rang. "Where the hell is this place?" L.J. sputtered into the phone. "I've been driving up and down West 117th Street for the last five minutes, but I just can't seem to spot the sign!"
The reason for that is simple: Other than some unlighted window stenciling, the Cleveland Grill doesn't have a sign. It's not that chef-owner Konstantinos "Dino" Tsarnas is playing it cool, eschewing signage in favor of upscale cachet. And no, it's not that business is so brisk that he no longer needs to advertise: On this particular evening, in fact, the intimate neighborhood bistro was scarcely half full.
Just accept it as one more element of the restaurant's quirky charm -- and maybe take it as evidence of why, after more than six years in operation, the Cleveland Grill continues to feel like a work in progress. In fact, Tsarnas and his staff always seem to be tinkering with something, whether it's the hours, the decor, or the menu. Then again, that's one of the qualities that has turned this restaurant into a minor Cleveland legend, as fondly regarded for its one-of-a-kind character as for its value-laden eats.
For his latest project, Tsarnas has recently unveiled an ambitious, labor-intensive "concept" menu, one that allows diners to choose from among 15 different proteins -- anything from chicken breast and pork chops to beef filet and trout -- and then pair the selection with one of nine fanciful "international" sides. Go French, for instance, with savory bread pudding and a tangle of haricots verts; or Polish, perhaps, with pierogies and sauerkraut on the side. (Vegetarians are welcome to make a meal from the side dishes.)
Should the resulting possibilities somehow not provide enough diversity, a "build your own pasta" option expands upon the basic format. Here, diners choose a pasta shape, a sauce, and a grouping of "international" add-ons, like the "Roman," which translates into Italian sausage, spinach, and prosciutto; or the "Sicilian," with Parmesan-crusted chicken breast, spinach, eggplant, and tomatoes.
All entrées come with a choice of soup or salad, warm bread, and an herb-and-kalamata-olive spread. And with tariffs ranging from $10 (for herbed chicken breast) to $22 (for a 10-oz. filet with mushroom demi-glace), the full-meal deals are certainly priced to sell. Also, as has ever been the case here, portion sizes are enormous: If you don't depart with leftovers, your work clothes must include shoulder pads and a face mask.
Take our entrée of grilled pork chops: Moist and tender beneath a thick crust of well-seasoned char, the duo of thick-cut chops anchored an ample platter of at least nominally Greek sides that included a creamy potato pancake, roasted gigantes (large, meaty dried lima beans), and golden semicircles of sweet acorn-squash "ratatouille." A little heavy on the carbs, yes -- but hearty, satisfying, and as tasty the next day as on the night of our visit.
"Good and plenty" was the hallmark of a pasta entrée too. For the shape, we chose the long, hollow bucatini; for sauce, we picked what the menu called an "olive tapenade butter," and for our add-on, once again we went Greek, which now entailed fistfuls of kalamatas and pistachios, as well as a sturdy portion of medium-rare beef filet. While the tapenade "sauce" was surprisingly understated, the whole olives and nuts added mouth-watering dimension; and like all of the kitchen's best works, the overall effect was bold, yet thoroughly comforting.
Probably, it was vaguely hyperbolic to call the four meaty Australian chops in our third entrée a "rack" of lamb; still, we can't complain about their lush texture and wholesome flavor. The weak link in this dish turned out to be the "French" sides -- in particular the moist but very oily savory bread pudding. We would have preferred a portion of plain and simple mashed potatoes; alas, nothing so mundane is currently on the menu.
An entrée of ahi tuna was disappointing too. Not only did the tuna have a slightly fishy odor, but the Asian-style sides -- mushy rice, a bit of wakame, "Asian" slaw, and fried noodles -- seemed bland and indistinct. Making matters worse, two cloyingly sweet sauces (honey-ginger and "sticky sweet soy") had been drizzled over everything, drowning out whatever nuances otherwise might have been present.
Given entrée sizes, starters are hardly required. Still, there are standouts here that shouldn't be missed, including creamy Bulgarian feta with dark cured olives; buttery garlic-laced hummus; and tiropita, a quintet of crisp phyllo turnovers filled with a blend of feta, ricotta, Asiago, parmesan, and cream cheeses. Order all three apps, and a couple can feast for a mere $15. Or cough up another $4 for a glass of Australian Shiraz or a bottle of crisp Mythos Greek lager, from the moderately priced beer and wine menu, and call it a night on the town.
Desserts, too, may well seem like overkill, after such large entrées; still, we couldn't throw in the napkin before sampling some baklava. Unfortunately, the enormous portion had been reheated in the microwave before serving, destroying the phyllo's signature crunch and reducing the pastry to a limp, sugary afterthought.
As for his signage problem, Tsarnas says he is waiting for a city grant to come through with some funding. Until then, potential diners would do well to take the advice L.J. was given: Look for the Sahara Supermarket sign; the restaurant is the next door down.
Not even Mapquest will steer you better than that.