Having performed my customary due diligence before arriving at a new restaurant, I already knew what I intended to order for dinner. It was my birthday and I had my sights set squarely on the lobster thermidor, an extravagant, celebratory dish that conjures up sepia-toned images of Julia Child. Pictures of the seductive crustacean had all but taken over my social media feeds and — damn it! — the dish would be mine.
Only, it wouldn't, at least not that night. The sole option available during our first visit to Blu in Beachwood was a three-pound leviathan priced north of $100. "Perfect for sharing," our server countered enthusiastically. Perhaps, but not ideal for a "work dinner," when the goal is to sample as many dishes as possible, nor for many diners not willing or able to plunk down a benjamin for a dish. So, back to the drawing board we went.
Judging by the surfeit of steakhouses that populate the suburbs of Cleveland's east side, there exists a real demand for an upmarket seafood spot, where shimmering shellfish towers rise above tabletops like chandeliers. In fact, that's precisely what the owner of one of those steakhouses is banking on. Brad Friedlander, owner of Red, decided to shutter his modern American bistro Moxie after a 20-plus year run so that he could open the seafood-focused Blu. Following a two-and-a-half month metamorphoses, the restaurant reopened with a new name, new look and new menu.
Diners confront that change almost immediately in the form of a raw bar, conspicuously positioned at the front of the restaurant. Behind hills of crushed ice, staffers shuck, slice, crack and shell the items that land on those triumphant seafood platters as well as others available by the piece or portion from the dedicated raw bar menu. Beyond that chilly display lies a reworked dining room that is simultaneously more stylish, comfortable and intimate thanks to new furniture and a reduction in seating.
I firmly agree with the maxim that states, the fresher the seafood, the less meddling that fish needs to succeed. That also appears to be a useful rule of thumb when ordering at Blu, where the most enjoyable items happen to be those that are largely left to their own devices. Freshly shucked East and West Coast oysters ($3.50), simply poached Gulf shrimp ($3) and a ceviche ($16) starring sweet scallops tossed with lime juice, pickled peppers and ripe diced peaches all sparkle with briny vitality. In contrast, another ceviche ($16) entombs perfectly lovely slices of octopus in a heavy, earthy sauce that does more harm than good.
Listed on the menu simply (and vaguely) as "bisque" and "chowder," both soups are worthwhile additions to a meal. That chowder ($10) happens to be a New England-style clam chowder and it's exceptional, studded with smoky bacon, tender potato and savory diced clams. That bisque turns out to be of the lobster variety ($12), served piping-hot and flush with shellfish, which makes up for a broth that lacks the intensity of those made with deep, rich stock.
Like that lobster thermidor, Coquille St. Jacques ($18) is a classic but largely forgotten dish that is worthy of a comeback. Two wide and shallow seashells, balanced atop a mound of salt, are loaded with perfectly cooked scallop meat in a sinfully luscious cream sauce, which bubbles away beneath a crispy bread topping. In a separate appetizer, an aromatic sauce starring loose chorizo, garlic and herbs manages to steal the spotlight from the steamed mussels ($14) it was intended to support. Ask for more crostini when your server sets down the dish because those two thin shingles will never suffice.
Further evidence that supports my less-is-more maxim arrives in the form of two finfish preparations. In one, branzino ($31) filets are simply pan fried to produce a crisp-skinned, delicately fleshed, subtly flavored fish that benefits from a chimichurri-esque garnish. Meanwhile, a whole fried hogfish ($51) with a menacing set of teeth is a bit heavy handed. While the meat itself is roundly satisfying, encased in a crunchy deep-fried crust, it clings to the myriad bones and is buried beneath a thick, syrupy glaze.
It wasn't just the lobster letdown that dampened my big day, it was also a string of snafus that included a server who could not identify our oysters (or even the horseradish!), would not pour our bottle of Riesling (and then overcharged us for the wine!) and did not bother to remove the extra place settings at our four-top until we nudged them aside to make room. A return visit weeks later, however, netted not only a sensible (and delectable!) pound-and-a-half size lobster thermidor ($47), but also the level of service, knowledge and attention that this price point demands. Henceforth, I will be celebrating my birthday on that date.