"Eating well is about submission. It's about giving up all vestiges of control, about entrusting your fate entirely to someone else. It's about turning off the mean, manipulative, calculating and shrewd person inside you and slipping heedlessly into a new experience as if it were a warm bath."
— Anthony Bourdain
At no restaurant in Cleveland do those words more aptly apply than Trentina, a restaurant designed from the start to surprise, gratify and pamper willing guests. At a time when so much control has shifted from the chef to the diner — think vegans, special requests, substitutions, fear of mushrooms! — Trentina functions on the premise that there still are people out there eager to surrender control to those who deserve it.
Over the course of three or so hours, the only decision we had to make was whether or not to order beverages a la carte or leave those pairings to the beverage director. Instead, we allowed the experience to wash over us like an impromptu stroll in a foreign land, where around every corner lay another unfamiliar sight, smell and taste. It's a journey best taken with friends, preferably ones who are agreeable to sharing plates — and even glasses — with tablemates. Trentina is not for every diner, but rather foodies with a capital "F" who seek out once-in-a-lifetime meals flush with one-of-a-kind creations.
When owners Jonathon and Amelia Sawyer transformed the former Sergio's in University Circle to a gilded, shimmering jewel box of a restaurant, they actually trimmed the number of seats from an already scant 50 to just 32. That move shortens gaps between courses, ups the chef-to-diner ratio, and allows for more personal attention. Both Sawyer and executive chef Matt Danko spend considerable time in the dining room with guests recounting origin stories for dishes or explaining the machinations required to produce a single component on a plate of many. Unlike other intimate, often somber tasting menu-only temples of haute cuisine, this one manages to remain light, fun and effervescent.
The tasting menu, here dubbed "Menu Bianco," consists of 15 or so courses. But considering that during most courses, no two diners at the table receive the same dish, that number increases exponentially. Sure, the courses are small, but they are not so small as to prohibit sharing with companions.
The food at Trentina is inspired by the cuisine of Northern Italy's Trentino province, but at the very start of the meal, Sawyer makes it clear that inspiration and replication are two very different concepts. Our meal begins with a primi assaggio, or "first taste," plates of pickled, foraged veggies, house-cured meats and sausages, and dried polenta parchment garnished with salt-cured egg yolks. Those nibbles are paired with a round of cocktails, each person's different from the next.
To describe in excruciating detail every course we so thoroughly enjoyed would diminish your enjoyment of experiencing it from zero base. That said, some secrets are too good not to share. Scallop crudo is served in its shell alongside its roe, which has been smoked both on wood and over wood. Raw oysters are served two ways, one with a shallot and prosecco mignonette, the other with a sauce made from smoked seafood. The bread course consists of a burning candle molded out of aged beef fat, which melts into a dipping sauce for the crusty baguette. Nubbins of firm pasta are fortified with local mushrooms collected by Jeremy Umansky, the on-staff forager, and topped with an egg cooked in a spoon over embers. Hay-smoked beef is served on a plate painted with dehydrated beef jus. There's shrimp and mushrooms and gnocchi and cuttlefish and squab and rabbit and lamb and just when you think it's time for dessert, you're granted one final wish: the opportunity to repeat your favorite course or that of a tablemate.
The price for the tasting menu is $100, $140 with alcohol pairings. Our pairings included cocktails, bubbles, white wine, beer and red wine, each selected to complement the course or courses it accompanied. There is a pasta tasting menu for $60, but the entire table needs to be on the same page. Prices are different when paid in advance or "at the door," and the times that appear on OpenTable don't match up with those on the restaurant website. My suggestion? Call ahead so there's no confusion.
Trentina offers a more casual a la carte dinner experience on the patio featuring house-made pastas and wood-fired meats, and on Sept. 9, the restaurant launches weekday lunch service indoors and out with dishes inspired by those on the tasting menu. But in terms of drama and delight, neither can hold a beef-fat candle to Menu Bianco.
1902 Ford Dr., 216-421-2900, restauranttrentina.com.