Tan and lanky, avuncular restaurateur Buck Harris appeared at our booth, palm outstretched, clearly prepared for the worst. Moments before, he had spied the three of us bent over a plate, intently poking and prodding a little piece of unidentified foodstuff. Concluding that we had found something let's just say "unpleasant" lurking in our dinners, he had come to make it right.
He needn't have worried. Foodies that we are, we were simply appreciating the delicious shards of crisp fried leeks that garnished one of our entrées. But Harris's concern was a prime example of the personal care and attentive atmosphere for which his new Ohio City restaurant, Lake Effect, is likely to become well-known.
Of course, the astute observer will note that Lake Effect may not be the spot to celebrate occasions like your parents' fiftieth anniversary, unless you happen to call both of them Dad. Otherwise, it is possible that the striking oil painting that dominates the dining room depicting a backstage troupe of transvestites preparing for a show would give them pause. If not that, then the patrons' occasional spontaneous sing-alongs to the show tunes that pianist Ken Wallace pounds out on the baby grand ("I Am What I Am" being a favorite) might raise an eyebrow. But for most of the rest of us, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, the restaurant is a relaxing spot to gather with friends and to enjoy some remarkably good food.
Take, for example, a recent Saturday-night Surf 'n' Turf special. At $24.95, it was the most expensive item on the menu; still, we didn't expect too much from a steak and lobster dinner that was so reasonably priced. But in this instance, we were the ones who needn't have worried. The rare steak a thick eight-ounce filet was absolutely tender, with a rich and beefy flavor. Perfectly trimmed of any hint of fat or gristle, it alone would have made an ample meal. But instead, it was extravagantly paired with a moderately sized steamed lobster tail that was wonderfully fresh and buttery, with a firm texture that came from just the right amount of cooking. We only wish the lobster's undercarriage had been pre-cracked for us in the kitchen, so we hadn't needed to perform surgery on it right there at the table.
Two other seafood preparations were similarly delightful. A thick, rare filet of maple-glazed salmon literally melted in the mouth. Its smoky grilled flavor was beautifully set off by the understated sweetness of the maple glaze, and it seemed to simply disappear, like cotton candy, on the tongue. The fish came with well-seasoned white and wild rice, and a serving of boring, unseasoned julienned carrots, zucchini, and yellow squash.
Sushi-like yellowfin tuna, prepared very rare as requested, was also sublimely tender and meaty. (What a tragedy, we thought, that some people still think tuna comes in cans.) The fish was drizzled with a slightly sweet and tangy red pepper coulis, and sided by a juicy salsa of fresh chopped pineapple, red and yellow pepper, and onion. The creative accompaniments made what was already a tasty dish into something special. And at $17.95, the meal was surprisingly well-priced.
On an earlier visit, we had been less impressed with an entrée of two plump, moist chicken breasts stuffed with finely chopped shiitake mushrooms and gorgonzola cheese. Despite the savory sound of it, the slight amount of stuffing turned out to be disappointingly dull. However, we adored the accompanying scalloped potatoes slabs of spuds coated with heavy cream and baked until they were puffy and golden and a flavorful batch of chopped carrots, squash, and zucchini.
In addition to full meals, the menu also includes several sandwich selections, teamed up with a mild, lightly dressed red-cabbage slaw and crisp handcut fries. We tucked into a well-done Classic Burger an eight-ounce patty of ground sirloin topped with tomato, lettuce, and a slice of red onion on a fat kaiser roll and found it excellent, with an outdoorsy "fresh from the grill" flavor.
A huge marinated and grilled portobello mushroom cap, covered with a thick layer of melted provolone and snuggled between plump slices of herbed focaccia, was also ship-shape, although its balsamic-vinegar marinade might be a bit on the sharp side for some palates. The sandwich was dribble-down-your-chin juicy, and the cakelike bread was in fine contrast to the earthy taste and meaty texture of the mushroom cap.
The nautically themed restaurant, which opened in April, is a rather odd addition to a section of Detroit Avenue characterized by light industry, bait-and-tackle stores, and gas stations. But Harris, who had been hoping to find a space to open a gay and lesbian bookstore, says he was immediately taken with the hundred-year-old building's potential for becoming an atmospheric dining spot. After nearly a year of top-to-bottom renovation, the former Meatpackers' Union Hall is now outfitted with beautiful yellow-pine tables, booths, and wainscoting, and a sienna-colored ceiling and walls, all gently illuminated by the glow of flickering votive candles and dimly lit brass-and-glass fixtures. A pine half-wall separates the long bar from the nonsmoking dining room, and a large bay window looks across the busy Shoreway to Lake Erie.
(A double-decker dining deck is also open, in season. Bordered on one side by the dusty gravel parking lot, on another by the dark backside of a giant billboard, and on the third by the bustling highway, the lower portion of the deck wouldn't be my first choice for seating. But the upper level rises above those obstacles and has a great view of downtown and the lake.)
Appetizers, salads, and desserts, if not as inspired as the seafood entrées, are also worth mentioning. Chunky chilled gazpacho, topped with sour cream and chopped onion greens, was bright-flavored and refreshing, and was prettily served in a wine goblet. A portion of cornmeal-crusted and deep-fried calamari was very tasty, although slightly overcooked, and came with three dipping sauces: a run-of-the-mill red cocktail sauce, a lemony aoli, and a piquant horseradish sauce.
À la carte salad selections included a crisp and zingy mix of jicama, cucumber, carrots, and yellow pepper spears, tossed in a citrus dressing with just a hint of cayenne; a plain but satisfactory Caesar-style salad of torn fresh romaine, shredded Pecorino Romano, oversized croutons, and a mild smoked-salmon house dressing; and a perky little blend of baby field greens with sharp and creamy pecan-crusted goat cheese, a piece of roasted red pepper, and a slightly bitter balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
Our salads came with a basket of yeasty white and wheat rolls, sweet butter, and a small crock of savory roasted red pepper-garlic-kalamata olive-and-sun-dried tomato tapenade, which contributed another little grace note to the meal.
Our first visit to the restaurant just happened to be on the evening of the Eleventh Annual Cleveland Lesbian-Gay-Bi-Trans Pride Parade and Festival. It seemed that a good portion of the estimated 1,500 participants were whooping it up at Lake Effect that night, and the kitchen staff was woefully overloaded. This probably accounted for the fact that the thick slices of ciabatta bread that underpinned our order of bruschetta were burnt along the edges and underdone in the middle, and quickly turned to mush beneath the onslaught of watery diced tomatoes, cheese, and herbs.
On that same busy first visit, we also sampled the soup du jour, which was an unusual, unsuccessful cold apple soup. With a sweet taste and a texture much like thinned applesauce, the soup tended to dull, rather than pique, the palate and soon became monotonous.
Desserts include most of the usual suspects: cr&eagrave;me brûlée, flourless chocolate cake, cheesecake, and warm apple pie. Chef Matt Hartman's take on both the cr&eagrave;me brûlée and the flourless chocolate cake is nontraditional, although that is not necessarily a bad thing: Unlike the standard dense cr&eagrave;me brûlée, this caramelized sugar-topped custard had a delicate, almost frothy, texture, while the flourless torte, on a thick raspberry sauce, managed to be sweet but not cloying, and chocolaty without tasting like a piece of fudge. A wedge of cheesecake was perfectly adequate, and although the crust of the apple pie was pasty, the filling was thick, tender, and balanced with just the right amount of cinnamon and sugar.
Servers are consistently friendly and knowledgeable about the food, although the kitchen still seems to have a little trouble pacing its output: Our first meal under admittedly crisis conditions took a whopping three hours to complete, and the second was a still-leisurely two hours. And there continues to be room for improvement in the food, especially desserts (where more creative offerings would be appreciated) and appetizers. But given Harris's obvious concern and commitment, and the generally high quality of the seafood and beef entrées, those are problems that will probably drift away well before the restaurant celebrates its first anniversary.