It was approaching the end of autumn and I'd somehow missed every single clambake that had dotted my calendar. During that same period of time I managed to dodge all versions encountered at restaurants because rubbery clams and dried-out chicken never seem to capture the spirit and flavor of the season. But, at the suggestion of our server at Trio, I did succumb to the Clams ($10), one of more than a dozen small plates on the current menu. True to his word, the dish was the embodiment of sweater season, with meaty littleneck clams arranged in a deep bowl of savory broth punctuated with fork-tender fingerlings and summer-fresh corn on the cob.
If that dish helped me shake my clambake jones, it was another that moved me past an irrational fear of beans. We nibbled on gnudi and adored our agnolotti, but it was the humble Beans ($9) that vanished first. With the aromatic appeal of cassoulet, a medley of warm, creamy-centered legumes is gently tossed with bits of smoky bacon and minced fall vegetables and mounded onto a verdant pool of leek puree. A garnish of pickled onion and frilly frisee lends tart crunch to every bite.
It's been a few months since Trio opened its doors in Tremont, and it wouldn't be unfair to say that the restaurant has its work cut out for it. At a time when diners are increasingly opting for more casual environments — if they elect to leave the house at all — Trio is doubling down on "fine." Small plates have always been a tough sell in Cleveland, but Trio goes all in, offering a 15-to-4 ratio of littles to bigs. All this action is taking place in an out-of-the-way location at the hands of an unfamiliar chef.
In the restaurant's back pocket is an abundance of talent in the kitchen, a menu that offers diners choice and value, and a bottom line buoyed by a busy second restaurant. That restaurant is One Eleven Bistro in Medina, the chef is Anthony Scolaro, and the location is on the edge of Tremont, in the former home of Bac Asian Bistro. By planting his second flag here, the chef hopes to push boundaries while rubbing shoulders with Cleveland's culinary elite.
"When this opportunity in Tremont came up, it was kind of a way for us to do all the things that don't necessarily fly down here," Scolaro says of his 4-year-old Medina spot.
At $10, the agnolotti is a steal. We're talking about freshly made, perfectly cooked pasta pillows stuffed with a hearty meat filling in a luxurious but light sauce. If the term "small plate" puts you on edge, consider substituting "half order of pasta" and adding $5 to the price. The same is true of the gnudi ($10), a killer fall dish that features delicate little dumplings and ethereal mini meatballs in a nutty-sweet butternut squash and brown butter sauce.
Trio is currently on its second menu, but crowd faves like the carbonara ($10) persevere for good reason. This classic gets a boost from exotic black-garlic pasta tossed in a silky egg yolk-based sauce enriched with guanciale and salty Italian cheese. Pony up the $7 for bread service and you'll be rewarded with On the Rise bread paired with stracciatella (the creamy inside of burrata), honeycomb and seasonal fruit compotes.
With such a small sample size of entrees, there is zero room for duds. One such dud failed to make the cut on the second menu, a well-prepared but unexciting pork tenderloin ($20) dish with ramp chimichurri and bitter mole. Gone but not forgotten is the Ocean ($33), a resplendent seafood stew flush with lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels and octopus in a deeply concentrated fish broth. Apart from a slight over-doneness, a largely boneless half-chicken ($25) arrives with a lusty-crusty bronzed skin and is perched atop a delightful bread dumpling akin to a contemporary German knödel.
In an unspoken rejoinder to skeptics, the chef recently upped the number of small plates while trimming the entree section, proof that he's tapping into an audience.
"We found that people really enjoy doing the sharing thing, and they like to try a lot more than just one plate," he explains.
As far as fine-dining experiences go, this one falls a little flat. Service is attentive and warm, but also effusive and slightly unpolished. We would have liked more help picking a bottle of wine and less relying on hand-written notes. The white linens are a nice touch but the fake candles do little to set the mood. Menus appear to be printed in the back office on copy paper and the renovations come off as a little too DIY.
Then again, as my wife likes to remind me, I can be a bit of a snob.