Ask local dining devotees about the town's top spots, and chances are that AMP 150 will make their list. That diners are still talking about an airport-hotel restaurant after the loss of its gregarious chef, Ellis Cooley, is a testament not only to Cooley, but also to his replacement, Jeff Jarrett. While Cooley's heady legacy — contemporary fare with a locavore mind-set — is still attracting diners long after his departure, it's Jarrett who is making them happy they came.
To catch you up: AMP 150 burst onto the Cleveland dining scene at the end of 2009. Within months, the renovated hotel restaurant was garnering steady buzz. Scene liked the place so much it crowned it 2010's Best New Restaurant. Led by Cooley — who also managed to snag this mag's Best New Chef award that year — AMP 150 quickly went from unknown, out-of-the-way eatery to one of the city's brightest gems.
Losing a high-profile chef like Cooley, who seemed to be everywhere, all the time, can deliver a death blow to a restaurant: Not only have you lost your most vociferous cheerleader; you are giving up the kitchen's guiding light. But like a perfectly executed relay, AMP 150 made as seamless a transition as any operator could hope for.
For starters, Jarrett and Cooley share similar cooking styles and farm-to-table ideologies. And while no longer with the restaurant, AMP 150's second-in-command, Melissa Khoury, stayed on long enough to keep things consistent throughout the transition. Last but not least, consulting chef Dean James Max, of Ft. Lauderdale's 3030 Ocean, still offers his guidance when and where it's needed.
For diners, little about the experience has changed. Plush velvet booths, snazzy banquettes, and beaded-chain dividers remain intact. At first glance the menu, too, looks identical to the original, divided as it is into sections for small plates, shared items, veggie sides, and large plates.
Tinkering with a proven menu is always dicey. But Jarrett was careful with the scalpel, leaving enough customer favorites to not cause an uprising. Others he kept in some guise or another, tweaking the preparation to suit his whim and the season. Still others are full-on Jarrett originals.
One item inherited from his predecessor is the brilliant velvet mushroom soup, a seductively flavored bisque with the texture of clouds. Chives, truffle oil, and essence of mushroom form the heart of this soulful brew. The chicken liver pâté is as light, silky, and pleasantly gamy as ever. This time around, the spread was gilded with an apple-pie-spiced jam.
Local greens supplied by KJ Greens of Andover, Ohio, keep AMP's salads tasting summer fresh. Watercress offsets a sweet, mellow poached pear in a lovely toss with blue cheese, candied nuts, and vanilla bean vinaigrette. At least three varieties of beets brighten up a winter salad garnished with frothy goat cheese foam and those candied nuts.
AMP has always understood the small plate. Boldly flavored, often rich, and slightly adventurous, these dishes are ideal for diners eager to go out on a limb. Acidic pickled ramps add punch to a smoky braised pork and white bean dish, and mustard sauce is the perfect final touch. Land and sea are deftly represented in the pairing of briny seared scallops and earthy eggplant caponata; here, a citrus sauce marries the two.
Larger and equally enjoyable, dishes like crisp-skinned bronzini and grilled flank steak benefit from perfect technique and intriguing accompaniments: a uniquely satisfying sunchoke purée with the lovely fish, and green-tinged, Brussels sprout-infused mashed spuds with the steak.
For dessert, it's tough to beat the sinful milk chocolate panna cotta: a gourmet malt layered with salty caramel and crunchy hazelnuts.
Another feature that hasn't changed at AMP is its value. No dish tops $20, and the bulk of the menu sits squarely in the $9 to $16 range. Better yet: Get the four- or six-course chef's tasting menu. Priced at $35 and $50, respectively, the feast leaves all decisions in Jarrett's more than capable hands.