Ask anyone who has stopped by my hearthless home over the holidays to find me mesmerized by the flickering images on "The Fireplace Channel"--our public access cable station that, during December, shows nothing but a close-up of an actual wood fire.
How much more satisfying, then, to bask in the warmth of a real fireplace while sipping a glass of fruity Merlot and nibbling on a juicy filet. Throw in some candlelight, a steady beat of smoky techno-pop, and friendly service, and what you have is an experience worth savoring.
Which is exactly what I did during a recent Saturday night visit to Gillespie's Snicker's, a sweet little restaurant and bar on Cleveland's West Side.
Snicker's was purchased last June by brothers Tom, Matt, and Pat Gillespie, and although it continues to be a comfortable spot for its many gay guests, it is now a welcoming destination for straight diners, too.
Although Snicker's tiny outdoor patio attracts plenty of al fresco fans in the warmer months, business can be slow during the rest of the year, says General Manager Cheryl DeStefano. In an effort to extend Snicker's year-round appeal, a cozy upstairs dining room, complete with that lovely oak-manteled fireplace, was recently renovated to create a mecca for cold-weather patrons. Guests now have their choice of dining upstairs or in the clubby main-floor area, with its ornate walnut bar, high tin ceiling, and brick walls.
Not that the simple but attentively prepared food alone isn't enough to warrant a trip. The menu includes everything from cheeseburgers to vegetarian lasagna to tasty beef filets. Prices are right, too, with nothing on the menu topping $17.95.
The restaurant offers a small but comprehensive list of reasonably priced red, white, and sparkling wines by the bottle or glass. My generous portion of California's Domaine St. George Merlot (1997) was a bargain at $4. A martini menu offers more than a dozen permutations of that classic drink at $5.50. Many of the concoctions--like the rainbow-hued Snickertini with grenadine, curacao, Benedictine, and Stoli-- can be considered martinis only because they arrive in a martini glass, our amiable waiter joked.
At his suggestion, we began our meal with Snicker's signature appetizer, Stuffed Artichoke Hearts. Although we've enjoyed this deep-fried treat at other restaurants, Snicker's version was among the best we've sampled. The four large, perfectly tender artichoke hearts had been stuffed with a generous amount of herb-flavored cream cheese, coated in a delicate batter, and deep-fried until crisp and golden. They were served with a tangy sweet-and-hot dipping mustard that really caught our attention.
We augmented the artichoke hearts with a big crock of hot Spinach-Artichoke Dip, a creamy concoction of mayonnaise, spices, and vegetables served with tortilla chips. Again, although it is a fairly commonplace menu item, it was tasty and well-prepared. It packed a slight punch from cayenne pepper, which kept it from seeming too rich and made it a good match for an aggressive Sapphire-gin martini.
Soup selections vary daily; we chose a bowl of French Onion. Beneath its crust of golden broiled cheese, the broth had a deep, beefy flavor. While it was chock-full of tender onion slices, we soon discovered that a few pieces of tough, fibrous onion skin had also found their way into the pot. Once we fished them out, the rest of the soup was just fine.
It was hard to decide among the many relatively simple but delicious-sounding main dishes on the menu. Specialty sandwiches like a Crab Cake Club or Bacon Bearnaise Burger called out to us, as did entrees like Pecan Chicken, Veal Oscar, Parmesan Encrusted Tuna, and Potato Latkes. After some debate, we settled on a straightforward cheeseburger, Winter Pasta, Winter Lasagna, and the Snicker's Favorite--that grilled beef filet.
The hearty eight-ounce burger was tender and juicy despite being well-done, as ordered. It was topped with not one, not two, but three kinds of cheese--mozzarella, Swiss, and cheddar--for an abundance of flavor, and was served on a big Kaiser roll that was heavy with sesame seeds. We enjoyed a generous portion of crunchy seasoned fries on the side for an extra $1.
Our entrees came with a mundane loaf of soft, warm white bread served with a crock of sweet honey-cinnamon butter. Dinner salads, which were included with the meal, were a satisfactory, if pedestrian, mix of crisp romaine lettuce and carrots, topped with a wedge of tomato and a slice of cucumber. We tried two of the housemade dressings--creamy peppercorn and blue-cheese--and declared them both flavorful.
We were a little disappointed in the Winter Pasta--spinach fettuccine with pieces of artichoke hearts, capers, and sun-dried tomatoes in a creamy roasted-garlic sauce. While the delectable toppings were generously applied, and the sauce was robustly seasoned, the fettuccine was overcooked and mushy.
Much better was my Snicker's Favorite filet mignon, a thick, juicy eight-ounce piece of beef napped with a buttery, crabmeat-studded Bearnaise sauce. The filet arrived rare, as ordered, and had a meltingly tender texture and a savory grilled taste. The rich sauce and the flakes of crab were classic complements to the beef. The filet was accompanied by four perfectly roasted potato wedges and a big bouquet of steamed broccoli, which had been touched with a soupçon of butter. The dish was a bargain at $17.95.
We were also delighted with a big portion of Winter Lasagna, multiple layers of Ohio City Pasta noodles interspersed with pieces of steamed butternut, acorn, and yellow squash, and sliced zucchini, and smothered in a complex, spicy marinara. The thick red sauce--with its blend of sweet and peppery flavors--made this dish really sparkle. DeStefano says chef Efran Rodriguez considers his recipe top-secret, but she did allow that a batch contains several cups of sugar as well as lemon juice, Parmesan cheese, and spices.
For dessert, we bypassed Rodriguez's carrot cake and chose the more unusual, although commercially produced, ice cream truffles. Mine--a Turtle Truffle--featured a ball of creamy coffee ice cream cloaked in a thin semi-sweet chocolate shell and topped with chopped pecans. A companion chose the Grand Marnier Truffle--a ball of liqueur-flavored ice cream with a raspberry sorbet center, which was also cloaked in chocolate. The ice-cream balls were prettily ringed with whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. The modest portion delivered just enough sugary goodness to make a satisfying end to our meal.
We also enjoyed Ro-driguez's handmade chocolate-and-Frangelica truffle candies, rolled in roasted, chopped pecans and set on a dab of chocolate sauce. The light, buttery truffles were intensely flavored with cocoa, but were not overly sweet or cloying.
Throughout the evening, our waiter proved friendly and knowledgeable about the food, steering us toward some fine selections. As the dining room filled up, however, the little niceties of service--quick removal of empty plates, frequent refills of our water glasses, and clean flatware with each new course--were increasingly overlooked. The otherwise-pleasant service would have been improved if some helpers had been around to attend to those details and take the pressure off our busy waiter.
But, then again, I wasn't in any great hurry to give up my seat before the fire. Summer or winter, Snicker's is a friendly place to relax among a diverse group of people and, for a few hours, just let the world go by.
Gillespie's Snicker's. 1261 West 76th Street, Cleveland. 216-631-7555. Lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. Call for hours.
Stuffed Artichoke Hearts $6.95
Spinach and Artichoke Dip $6.95
French Onion Soup $3.25
Winter Pasta $15.95
Winter Lasagna $10.95
Snicker's Favorite Beef Filet $17.95
Ice Cream Truffles $3.95
Handrolled Pecan Truffles $3.95