- Walter Novak
- Epiq: Big-city style in little Concord Township.
By big-city standards, modest little Epiq might not win rave reviews. But out here, in the fields and forests of Concord Township, chef-owner Tom Quick's bistro and wine bar is the toast of the town.
As has been the case in many of the once-rural communities surrounding Cleveland, Concord's former farmers have given up on soybeans and now raise upscale housing developments in their fertile fields. The 23.1-square-mile Lake County township, which still doesn't show up on some Ohio road maps, already has a population of 15,000 and is growing rapidly from an influx of white-collar workers drawn to the as-yet-pastoral setting, the low crime rate, and the abundance of area golf courses. And after a week's worth of commuting to and from the city, these new residents want nothing more than a chance to eat, drink, and make merry right in their own backyard.
This is, of course, the demographic secret to Epiq's success, and it was not something that escaped Quick, who trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and toiled for seven years as executive chef at the Warehouse District's Piccolo Mondo, when he decided to launch a restaurant of his own last August. And judging by the happy crush of merrymakers that now packs Epiq on Saturday nights, Quick's thinking paid off.
This is despite Epiq's inauspicious location in the crook of a weary-looking strip plaza in the metaphorical Middle of Nowhere. Once inside, however, the atmosphere takes a turn for the better, with white linens and votive candles on each table, a small bar, and Quick's open kitchen, which he shares with Sous Chef Rocco Piscioneri. Although the restaurant can seat a lively crowd of 70, the process isn't painless. The packed-in tables can make getting in and out of one's seat a trial, and at the peak of the evening, the noise level can be ear-splitting.
But while the dining room may be small, the same can't be said of the wine menu -- an impressive, well-written list of moderately priced French, Italian, German, and domestic reds and whites, including several selections from the shores of Lake Erie. Like the wine, the cheese board selection was a happy surprise, with a round of remarkably smooth pistachio-crusted chèvre, wedges of Saint-André triple-cream, smoked white cheddar, and black truffle cheeses; a scattering of kalamata olives, cornichons, and pepperoncini; shelled hazelnuts, perhaps a half-dozen thin pear slices, a few blueberries (including several that had long since passed their prime), and four types of crackers. The contents of our breadbasket -- warm, crusty whole-grain rolls and a delicious homemade olive-and-sun-dried-tomato tapenade -- rounded out the (mostly) enticing assortment of goodies and made a friendly start to the evening.
Other first-course options on Quick's winter menu include a smoked fish board, three à la carte salads, and a half-dozen appetizers. A Bosc Pear and Endive Salad, tossed with toasted hazelnuts, crumbled blue cheese, and a full-bodied vinaigrette, was a nice starter, with a good balance of sweet and salty flavors, and a welcome bit of crunch. For the most part, we also liked an arugula salad ringed with thin slices of intensely flavorful prosciutto ham and topped with a disk of pistachio-crusted goat cheese like the one on our cheese platter. The downside was the greens themselves, which were gritty.
Three small, lightly grilled oysters, each perched on a little round hominy cake, topped with a bit of black caviar, and ringed with a sharp leek vinaigrette, were another good choice. And the Lobster Monte Cristo -- a few big chunks of luscious lobster claw meat layered with a touch of prosciutto, Amish Swiss cheese, and roasted pepper, and sandwiched between two small slices of egg-dipped, pan-fried challah bread -- was hearty in flavor, but petite enough to preserve our appetites.
We liked the presentation of Quick's mildly sweet pumpkin soup, accented by small cubes of very spicy Andouille sausage, a swirl of cumin-flavored crème frâiche, and a smattering of toasted pumpkin seeds, served in a rustic-looking pumpkin-colored pottery bowl. But in another troubling example of the kitchen's occasional inability to reliably hit the mark, it came to the table lukewarm.
Not that the staff didn't stand ready to rectify problems, once they were brought to their attention. On one visit, having dispatched of our appetizers, we chose a few red wines by the glass to accompany our entrées. One of them had a head of tiny white bubbles and a bitter taste that made us suspect an improperly rinsed glass. When we shared our suspicions with our sincere young server, he never missed a beat, replacing the glass without question. Indeed, during both of our visits, service by the cadre of mostly youthful, black-garbed staffers was reliably friendly, helpful, and eager to please, if not entirely polished. For example, on our first visit, the server never bothered to crumb our messy table; on the second, we seemed to throw off our waiter's timing by requesting the chance to unwind over our cheese plate before making other menu selections.
We've managed to try five of the winter menu's seven entrées, including one dish -- Sautéed Jumbo Scampi With Andouille Sausage and Creamy Stone-Milled Grits -- twice. Choices have ranged from a very well-assembled main course of juicy filet mignon, topped with a pile of braised spinach, blue cheese crumbles, and savory bits of apple-smoked bacon, on a mound of lovely garlic-mashed potatoes, to a stunningly bland assemblage of spiral pasta tossed with spinach, shreds of roasted chicken, and chunks of portobello mushroom, in a thin, dull white sauce. Even salt wasn't sufficient to perk up this disappointing dish, although we were clearly on to something when we thought to stir the remaining spoonful of our tapenade into the otherwise tasteless mix.
The shrimp dish drew our attention twice because, on the first try -- when it turned out that Quick was enjoying a family vacation and Piscioneri was left alone to hold down the fort -- the three jumbo crustaceans that formed the heart of the meal were notably overcooked and tasteless. And indeed, on the second try, with Quick back in control, the shellfish were considerably more tender. Still, the broiled scampi, settled on a portion of typically bland but properly cooked grits and surrounded by a big, bold sauce of spicy Cajun-style sausage and red pepper, had little flavor of their own and cried out for some butter or other seasoning to give them a fighting chance against the aggressive Andouille.
Our final two selections, Potato-Crusted Arctic Cod and a Grilled New Zealand Lamb Loin, were better. The large cod filet was perfectly cooked inside its crunchy crust and came served over a moist mélange of chopped fennel, onions, peppers, and tiny rock shrimp. A garnish of cold, crisp red cabbage slaw in a light ginger vinaigrette was tasty, but might have been more appropriately served beside, rather than on top of, the warm fish. Likewise, the lamb loin -- slices of tender meat with a pleasant hint of freshly ground pepper, arranged on a fat potato-and-parsnip pancake flavored with a whisper of sharp horseradish and sauced with a soupçon of intensely flavored demi-glace -- was quite good, although the garnish was an odd take on ratatouille, with threads of zucchini, onion, red and green pepper, specks of red tomato, and some singularly tough eggplant, all vaguely seasoned with a slight amount of fresh mint and garlic, which did nothing to enhance the dish.
Dessert selections have been generally satisfactory if not rave-worthy. Best was a toasted pecan and hazelnut tart -- a crisp, rich, and buttery shortbread-like crust filled with crunchy nuts in a thick, sweet syrup, served hot with a scoop of creamy vanilla-bean ice cream. On another night, the same yummy crust served as a base for a passable lemon tart, garnished with watery whipped cream and a flavorless, pale, out-of-season strawberry. A portion of thick, custardy crème brûlée was well-made and tasty, and a chocolate éclair -- a large cream-puff shell filled with dense, sweet chocolate mousse and sided by crème Anglaise -- satisfied our chocolate freak. A cup of cappuccino took forever to arrive, and with its short head of thin, watery froth, it hardly seemed worth the wait.
Despite such relatively minor missteps, Epiq has developed a crowd of devoted regulars -- diners who are simply delighted to be able to score some good wine and decent food within a short drive of their own newly landscaped and tastefully designed homes. In fact, one regular -- who had learned, by way of a circuitous set of circumstances, that I was reviewing the restaurant -- demonstrated that point forcibly by grabbing my hand as I prepared to leave. "Please give this place a good review," he whispered fiercely. "We need it. When it comes to nice restaurants around here, this is the only game in town."
Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.