Cleveland may consider itself bigger, wealthier, and more urbane. But bustling little Cincinnati, wedged between the Ohio River and miles of rolling farmland, still has one thing we don't: Maisonette, a classic French restaurant that is, by some measures, Ohio's best dining spot.
Mike and Nat Comisar's downtown dining room has been bringing home Mobil Travel Guide five-star ratings since 1964, outshining any Cleveland restaurant (the most recent guide gives three stars to the Baricelli Inn, Parker's, and Sans Souci) and putting it in the same league as Chicago's Charlie Trotter's, Napa Valley's French Laundry, and Le Cirque 2000 in New York City.
The rating criteria take into consideration the quality of food and ingredients, preparation, presentation, service, decor, and ambience; according to the guide, a five-star rating translates into an "unforgettable" dining experience, one that is "near perfection" in every detail. Because the Mobil rankings are based on the input of surveyors, rather than chefs, critics, or other culinary professionals, snubbed Clevelanders might be tempted to take them with a grain or two of salt. But it's harder to discount the fact that Maisonette's executive chef, Jean-Robert de Cavel, was a nominee for this year's coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest, making the native Frenchman the first Ohio chef to be so honored.
De Cavel didn't win (the award went to Arun Sampanthavivat of Arun's, in Chicago), but the question still stands: Why hasn't any Cleveland restaurant garnered such accolades?
It's a situation that has also puzzled restaurateur Paul Minnillo. The chef-owner of one of Cleveland's finest establishments, the Baricelli Inn, is also past president of the Greater Cleveland Restaurant Association and consulting chef for Continental Airlines, as well as a personal friend of de Cavel's. "He's a great guy and a great chef," Minnillo says. "But overall, I have to say Cleveland is a better restaurant city than Cincinnati, and I can name five to ten restaurants here that serve food every bit as good as the Maisonette's. But for some reason, we just don't get the recognition."
Another of Cleveland's top-notch chefs, Michael Symon, would appear to be a case in point. Despite catching the eye of reviewers for a number of national publications, and appearing regularly on the Food Network, the energetic chef-owner of Lola Bistro and Wine Bar has been overlooked repeatedly for a Beard Award nomination. "The only thing I can tell you," says his wife and partner, Liz, "is that the Midwest includes some bigger cities than Cleveland. And until all the chefs from Chicago are exhausted, it doesn't seem like Cleveland chefs have much of a shot."
Maisonette's admirable continuity could certainly be part of what draws it such favorable attention. In the 51 years since its inception, the family-owned and -operated spot has had only four chefs and six mâitre d's, resulting in what co-owner Mike Comisar calls "a long love affair with this city" unequaled by any place in Cleveland. For his part, Comisar is willing to share the glory with his northern brethren. After years of being ignored by the coast-based culinary movers and shakers, he notes, Ohio as a whole is finally starting to make its mark on the national scene. "Whether we are in Cincinnati or Dayton or Columbus or Cleveland," says the restaurateur, "the recognition sets the tone for the entire state."
But even at Maisonette, where a four-course meal (appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert) with wine will almost certainly approach the $100 mark, Comisar admits that chef de Cavel walks a thin line between creativity and comfort. "This is the Midwest, after all," he chuckles. "We can't go too far afield."
Instead, de Cavel's menu is a lengthy listing of classic French technique applied to contemporary ingredients. Six exquisite escargot sit in a pool of garlic broth, surrounding a mound of fresh tomato confit capped with a single, delicate, goat-cheese ravioli. A lone veal medallion is sauced with a sweet port-and-grape reduction and served on a bed of finely julienned summer vegetables, sided by strands of linguini. A thick salmon filet -- good, if not the most succulent we've ever tasted -- is coated in crushed black pepper and settled on a galette of sliced potato and goat cheese, drifted with a fondue of bell pepper and red onion, and drizzled with a rich brown balsamic reduction.
Caesar Salad for two -- anchovies, raw egg yolk, a vinaigrette, and Parmesan cheese, blended tableside, then tossed with torn romaine and given a dusting of freshly toasted, melt-in-your-mouth croutons -- is perfection. But flambéed Bananas Foster disappoints: Although the sliced bananas, caramelized in butter and brown sugar, then basted with rum and banana liqueur, are fine, the vanilla ice cream beneath them is thin and undistinguished.
We count ourselves among the younger guests in this well-groomed weeknight crowd that includes a preponderance of silver-haired gentlefolk hosting assorted celebrations. One table compares notes on their recent European vacations; another toasts an adult child's medical school graduation.
The formal French service by our team of waiters is generally attentive and well paced, although too much time elapses between cocktails and our appetizer, and again before our check finally arrives. As for the decor, the three dining rooms are beautifully appointed with fine linens, crystal, and oil paintings, but the saturated salmon color scheme, extending from the floor to the painted acoustic-tile ceiling, seems vaguely passé. (In fact, the restaurant closed during the final week in July for an interior update and facelift.) In the end, we have to agree with Minnillo: We have had more thrilling food, and more fun, at some of our own hometown restaurants.
So what's with this five-star rating, anyway?
"The [restaurant rating] system is tired," says Minnillo, noting that it rewards formality and tradition, not innovation. The restaurateur says he became aware of the changing mood in his own clientele a few years ago and has done what he can to lighten the ambience at his restaurant. "Today's diners are looking for something more contemporary, less stuffy," he contends -- where, for example, the decor is striking but casual, service is professional but friendly, and dress codes are a thing of the past.
Mike Sanson, editor of Restaurant Hospitality, a restaurant trade publication based in Cleveland, goes even further, calling the rating process dated and saying that what catches the raters' eyes is too often "the dainty and the precious." As a result, five-star restaurants can seem stuck in the past, out of step with the needs and desires of today's youthful, sophisticated diners.
In fact, Sanson suggests that Cleveland's recent dining resurgence -- which has seen an explosion of exciting but relaxed dining rooms featuring innovative chefs whipping up first-rate foods -- is part and parcel of why we don't have a five-star spot. And, he says, that's not necessarily bad.
"For far too long, Clevelanders saw dining out as a special-occasion kind of thing," Sanson says. "And it's impossible to create a healthy restaurant scene when people only go out once or twice a year." Over the past decade, however, with the region's increased affluence, dining out has been catching on. It just so happens that many of today's diners would rather sit at the bar in a friendly, lively spot, drinking a martini and watching the chef put on a show, than have waiters in white gloves and tuxedoes fussing over them at a traditional five-star restaurant.
"I, for one, don't lose any sleep over the fact that Cleveland doesn't have a five-star restaurant," Sanson says. "If you're a restaurateur who wants to create a vibrant dining experience, you're going to go after a different niche, anyway.
"From a business perspective -- and sometimes people forget that restaurants are a business -- there will always be a place for the five-star, special-occasion experience . . . Just not for very many of them."
And if Ohio's happens to be in Cincinnati, why, then, God save the Queen City.