- Walter Novak
- In the expert hands of Parker Bosley, even liver tastes good.
The food at Parker's New American Bistro (formerly Parker's) speaks to our inner culinary child, the innocent who once would have savored the prospect of a crisp red apple or a mug of warm milk. That's before we learned to crave second-rate foodstuffs hopped up on chemicals and additives, and in-your-face fusions like chipotle-spiked mashed potatoes. Fortunately for diners who can still recall the simple charms of a freshly picked Portage County raspberry, there are chefs like Parker Bosley who have committed themselves to resuscitating jaded palates, preserving the pleasures of fresh, seasonal foods, and clarifying, once and for all, the intimate connection between the table and the earth.
Bosley has been advocating the use of locally grown, seasonal products for most of the past two decades, and he has put considerable effort into building a network of regional farmers and producers to provide the raw materials for his kitchen. Today, in what he says is the summation of his career, the chef has finally developed enough suppliers to offer almost an entire menu of locally grown foods -- no mean feat in a state where family farms are becoming extinct faster than snail darters and the growing season is relatively short.
To best highlight these wholesome products -- chicken from Ashland County, beef liver from Knox County, and microgreens from Columbiana County, say -- Bosley has broadened his approach beyond classics like rack of lamb and rib-eye steaks (which still appear on the menu as specials) to include homey, reasonably priced, bistro-style dishes that change with the seasons. In late February, for instance, the menu featured cold-weather foods like slow-roasted pork belly, on a buttery ragout of lentils, carrots, and leeks; braised short ribs, sinking into a feather bed of pureed celery root; and root-cellar staples like beets, apples, cabbages, and kohlrabi.
To go with the new name and menu focus, Bosley's partner, Jeff Jaskiel, has treated the physical space to a major attitude adjustment, taking it from formal to casually hip. The front room's bar has been replaced by a handsome new one of oak and black granite that is just right for drinks and casual noshing. In the narrow dining room, changes are even more dramatic. Gone are the burgundy damask wall coverings and the lineup of white-linen-draped tables. In their place are the historic building's original brick walls, which provide a rough and ruddy backdrop for bare, leather-look tabletops framed in sleek black wood. Worn plank floors support black Napoleon chairs and a long, upholstered banquette; lustrous copper-colored sateen valances shimmer at the windows. Canister lamps on the black ceiling highlight the brickwork and illuminate the tabletops, yet preserve enough shadowy corners to make the space seem intimate and cozy. And behind the new appointments, a flow of unexpected music -- everything from Anita Baker's sultry stylings to edgy electronica -- adds yet another layer of texture to the restaurant's newfound cool.
The restaurant closed for a month after the holidays, to complete the transition, and reopened on February 1. In the three weeks between the reopening and our visits, Bosley's menu changed at least three times. That's to be expected from a kitchen committed to using only the freshest products; still, it seems likely that at least some of our favorite dishes will be history by the next time we visit.
Besides the constantly evolving menu, it isn't easy describing Bosley's food. What's there to say, for instance, about celery root that tastes like celery root or beets that taste like beets? Perhaps just this: Who knew that celery root was so good or that beets could be so fine? For that matter, who knew that braised beef shin, in a dark, mild onion broth, would literally melt in the mouth, or that a slaw of shredded kohlrabi, fennel, cabbage, and apple could leave one dizzy with its fragrance? Bosley's celery root puree is the very epitome of celery root; his cream of kohlrabi soup, poured around a quivering, almost weightless cabbage flan, is the essence of kohlrabi. Or, to put it another way, if your mother had made beef liver that tasted the way Bosley's does -- intense and earthy, with a texture almost as silken as foie gras -- you would have begged for liver.
This is not to say that everything on the menu is humble or homegrown. High-end ingredients like peekytoe crabmeat and truffle butter make a showing, although sparingly, as a garnish, rather than as a dish's main focus. If you are looking for luxe, it would be hard to improve upon an appetizer of two perfect scallops, expertly seared, topped with a smidgen of peekytoe crabmeat, and served on a scant amount of cream, bacon, and leek sauce so good, a generally civilized companion was observed swabbing the plate with her fingertips to capture every drop.
But despite specials like poached salmon, duck confit, and hanger steak with shallot sauce, the most memorable dishes were the rustic ones. There was roasted farm-raised rabbit (loin and leg), mild, tender, and sliced into juicy morsels, with an intense, naturally sweet rabbit reduction sauce. There was a shiitake-and-oyster-mushroom tart, with leeks and cream, that burst on the tongue with wild, woodsy immediacy. And there was the coarse country-style pork terrine, variegated like a slice of pink marble, its meatiness piqued by a dab of stone-ground mustard, a dollop of jammy red-onion confit, and a marmalade-like compote of dried apricots, plums, and currants. Slices of Bosley's crusty French bread, spread with doubly rich European-style sweet butter, were the perfect way to sop up stray driblets of sauce, catch a spatter of cream, or tease a bit of pâté onto a fork.
As befitting the bistro atmosphere, the wine menu focuses on reasonably priced, late-vintage French wines by the glass, half-bottle, and bottle; a collection of mostly West Coast products rounds out the list. A bottle of Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon from California was a good find at $30; the 1999 red was a bit young, but still showed plenty of style. And speaking of style, our friendly, enthusiastic young waiter also proved to be a pro at wine service, pouring with grace and handling details with confidence.
When it comes to desserts, the bistro has one of the most evocative lists in town. Simply rolling the words around on the tongue -- coconut cream, lemon meringue, soft vanilla, warm chocolate -- evokes mouthwatering, down-home images, although Bosley, true to form, manages to make each presentation both homespun and sophisticated. That warm chocolate cake, for example, was settled in a pool of crème Anglaise and flounced with dense whipped cream. A baked-to-order apple tart? Topped with a tiny ball of intensely vanilla ice cream and drizzled with buttery caramel.
As for complaints, they are minor. An entrée of tender roasted chicken and vegetables only came to life when we asked for and added salt. Coffee could have been stronger and hotter. And the $10 price tag on the two seared scallops, wonderful as they were, could rightly give value-minded diners second thoughts.
In the end, though, it's Bosley's gift to combine the simple with the refined, to bring uncompromising technique to bear on pristine product. In this way, he allows every Brussels sprout, every beet, and every cut of meat to achieve its potential.
Our palates deserve no less.