- Walter Novak
- From Marmalade to Melange: That which we call Chef Joe's would taste as sweet.
Along with savvy management, a deft chef, and a boatload of greenbacks, name recognition is a key factor in getting a new restaurant off the ground. So right from the moment of its mid-October opening, this pretty Beachwood dining room had its work cut out for it, stuck as it was between two monikers, Marmalade and Melange.
"We opened as Marmalade," explains restaurateur Andy Zelenkofske. "Three days later, the letter came." A California chain had trademarked the title; there was nothing to be done but choose another identity and begin a slow rollout of the new designation, Melange.
Which explains the confusing state of affairs we found as recently as a few weeks back, when each name was still being bandied about more or less at random. Also, the pizza ovens were out of order, the entertainment schedule remained a work in progress, and despite the tasty orange-Creamsicle color scheme and fanciful lighting, the decor awaited more tweaking.
Yet despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, visits to this La Place newbie were satisfying, thanks to friendly, attentive service and a mostly mouthwatering menu of modern American comfort food, which executive chef Joe Bemer and his staff pull off with considerable panache.
Bemer, a longtime Cleveland chef, whose résumé includes stints at the former Fulton Bar & Grill, Sinergy, Johnny's, Fire, and Great Lakes Brewing Company, is clearly a guy who digs big flavors. At Melange, he gets to indulge his jones via breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus featuring such luxurious dishes as challah French toast, Kobe beef burgers, braised short ribs, and lobster mac & cheese.
Portions are ample, presentation is artful, and dining-room amenities include candlelight, cloth napkins, and a well-assembled 120-bottle wine list. Prices are reasonable too, given the quality and portion size, with most dinner entrées checking in at less than $22. In keeping with the growing trend toward grazing, it's worth noting that many of the salads and starters can double as petite mains. And when the pizza ovens are finally repaired, look for a couple of inexpensive gourmet 'zas to join the lineup.
Dinner service began with a generously filled bread basket, including Stone Oven's sweet challah and crusty Italian slices, along with a zesty, herb-topped lavash. Slather choices included chive-and-honey butter and black olive tapenade, as well as an olive-oil/balsamic blend for dipping. Then it was on to a shared starter of three perfectly seared sea scallops, sided by a dollop of rich, cheesy, if slightly tepid orzo. In a gracious gesture, the kitchen took the initiative to divide the portion in two for us, plating each one separately.
Also ample enough for sharing was an impeccable salad of full-flavored greens — peppery radicchio, astringent frisée, buttery Belgian endive, and baby spinach among them. It was lightly stroked with dainty champagne vinaigrette, garnished with pink grapefruit segments, and topped with a cashew-crusted disk of creamy goat cheese. This, too, the kitchen prettily apportioned into two separate bowls.
Among entrées, I've probably had more succulent lamb than Melange's six-bone rack. On the other hand, at $24, I've certainly never snagged it at a more value-laden price. And while it's true the meat initially required a dash of salt, out-of-the-ordinary sides of roasted asparagus, buttery homemade spaetzle, and a bright, fruity tomato "ragu" ensured that the overall flavor profile was striking.
Less impressive was a pedestrian tilapia filet, poached and lightly stuffed with a blend of artichoke, crab, corn, and potato, and topped with a tangle of fried sweet-potato threads. Or maybe the mild fish was simply overshadowed by the competition: a very good macaroni and cheese entrée, featuring a saucy blend of firm cavatappi, ample lumps of lobster claw and knuckle meat, and mellow Tillamook cheddar.
Dessert, however, was an unmistakable yawner: a soggy crusted pear tart with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Next time, I think I'll try an order of Linda's Cookies instead: Served warm with a glass of milk, the homemade chocolate-chip cookies are an edible tribute to Zelenkofske's deceased wife, with a portion of the sales proceeds going to support cancer-related causes.
Unlike many upscale dining rooms, Melange opens early on Saturdays and Sundays with a combination breakfast-and-lunch menu featuring an assortment of salads, soups, sandwiches, and entrées, as well as a small but tempting roundup of pancakes, waffles, omelets, and frittatas. Ultimately, my breakfast-lovin' gal pal settled on the challah French toast — six thick slices of moist, custardy bread, griddled to golden glory and served with real Ohio maple syrup. As a side, a generous rasher of thickly sliced, apple-cured bacon added zesty counterpoint.
I went with the soup and sandwich combo, featuring a silken, slightly sweet portion of butternut-squash soup and a mammoth half-sandwich of melt-in-the-mouth braised beef, piled onto a thick slab of toasted Pugliese bread and garnished with a topknot of skinny onion straws.
When a restaurant can dish up food this tasty, does it really matter what it's called?