Over the past 15 years, I've paid to eat Jonathon Sawyer's cooking at Lolita in Tremont, Parea in New York City, Bar Cento in Ohio City, Greenhouse Tavern on East Fourth Street, Noodlecat downtown and in Westlake, Trentina in University Circle and, most recently, Sawyer's at Van Aken District. If it wasn't for my job title, I could easily be mistaken for a stalker.
In many ways, Sawyer's can be viewed as the culmination of all those places, a culinary composition that represents the James Beard Award-winning chef's experiences with French, Italian, Japanese and American cookery. At the same time, his latest production is nearly impossible to pigeonhole. Less magnum opus than "greatest hits" compilation, the restaurant reprises many fan favorites from years and meals past. While no longer revelatory, dishes like confit chicken wings, beef fat candle, strangolapreti and Tabasco fried chicken are nevertheless worthy of encore performances.
While diverse in its offerings, Sawyer's does possess an over-arching, unifying theme: live-fire cooking. It permeates not simply the foods that exit the grills, griddles and ovens that are fueled exclusively by wood, but also the broader experience. Guests can smell, see and hear the combustible commotion taking place in the open kitchen long before they taste the undeniable benefits of those methods.
There might be no better use for those flames than the 48-ounce dry-aged Ohio beef porterhouse ($101). This voluptuous, hedonistic triumph of the pasture is cooked to rosy-red perfection, sliced and presented with the bone. There's enough to feed a small village, and the crusty steak is just the start of it. Also part of the bargain is a bouquet of fat, firm, grilled asparagus, silky potato puree, copper-colored Lyonnais potatoes and a basket of Sawyer's peerless frites. Sauces range from satiny Hollandaise to perky chimichurri. A less expensive steak frites is also available.
More than half of the double-sided menu is dedicated to small and shareable plates that range from raw bar items to wood-fired snacks. It will never stop being fun to dip hand-torn pieces of warm pita into puddles of melted fat ($6) by tallow candlelight. Those poofy pitas also can be paired with Israeli-style hummus ($7) and milky, stringy burrata ($12). In place of ubiquitous and often bland shishito peppers, Sawyer opts for chubbier padrons ($9), which sport a seductive char, citrus tang and consistent heat level. There's no "bang" to the bang-bang shrimp ($11), but these popcorn-style snacks boast a brittle-crisp tempura-like shell that gives way to plump, succulent morsels of rock shrimp.
The hazard with reprising popular chestnuts like Greenhouse Tavern's famous wings and beef tartare is that diners have prior experiences against which to compare them. We found the wings ($13) to be cottony textured and pale, falling short of both memories and expectations. A more elegant preparation of the tartare ($16), however, featuring finely minced dry-aged beef and garnishes paired with crispy waffle-cut tendon chips, managed to hold true.
With a bit of theater, a server presents the salt-baked fish ($32), the flesh encased in a powdery straightjacket, the tail fin waving proudly out of the vessel. When it returns from its trip back to the kitchen, the fish is once again obscured, this time by a surplus of Hollandaise. Apart from bearing too much sauce, the flaky halibut managed to shine, aided by punchy mustard seeds and many-layered hasselback potato.
A twirl of bucatini ($18) reminds diners that the noodles can be the star of the dish when done right, here gently folded with butter-enriched tomato sauce and showered with grated cheese and fresh basil. Fried chicken lovers will doubtless enjoy the uber-crunchy boneless half bird ($19), especially when it's dunked into ramekins of house-made hot sauce and buttermilk ranch.
Staffers, clad in the sort of ill-fitting white lab coats donned by optometrists, tend to be friendly, attentive and helpful, especially when it comes to describing the food. When the cellar ran dry of our preferred bottle of wine one evening, a more expensive replacement was offered at the same price.
Sawyer's is a quirky little eatery with a love-it-or-loathe-it interior design that somehow feels both hopelessly dated and blindingly contemporary. Guests enter a sharp foyer, where they can hang their coats, order a glass of natural wine, and ostensibly play a quick game of chess. A semi-secluded central dining platform is ringed by various seating areas that nicely partition the room. One corner belongs to a tony little 12-seat bar, where views of the kitchen are enjoyed alongside creative cocktails.
Thanks to perky lighting and an abundance of live plants, Sawyer's feels more like a greenhouse than Greenhouse Tavern. The result is a modern-day fern bar — a warm, welcoming and subtly retro neighborhood bistro that suitably anchors this modern-day town square.