Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: Dante, Grace Under Pressure

Dante: Grace Under Pressure

For a chef with five restaurants, Dante Boccuzzi doesn’t get rattled. Whether he’s observing plates at the pass or instructing his staff on a last-minute seating at the Chef’s Table. He’s got it covered. The logistics of running Ristorante Dante, DBA, DC Pasta, Ginko and Next Door are just not enough of a challenge for Boccuzzi. This may explain why he is putting the finishing touches on his final restaurant/concert hall, Coda—a word that means “tail” in Italian but is also used to signify the end in music.

Though I’d love to talk about the special dinners I’ve enjoyed at the Chef’s Table or at one of his special benefit dinners: “Pranzo alla Romana” for the Cleveland Italian Film Festival, or his “Feast of the Seven Fishes” that benefitted (wife and business partner) Monica Ferrari’s initiative Centro Culturale Leonardo, an Italian cultural group dedicated to the preservation of Italian culture through the study of regional cuisine, Italian language classes, and the promotion and preservation of art and culture. Instead, I’m going to focus on his seasonal menu, which is available to all diners in both dining rooms and on the patio at his flagship restaurant, Ristorante Dante.

Ferrari is from Milan. She adds a distinct flare and rigor to the restaurants, and can best be described in her native tongue as “in gamba” (on the ball/in the know) or “simpaticissima e luminosa” (likeable and bright). For his part, Boccuzzi is beyond being immersed in a culture he embodies what it means to live in one culture while manifesting distinct traits of another. His Italian heritage is easily discerned, but his cuisine is a fusion of French, Italian and Asian influences that are perfectly married and accomplished. He is also a Michelin-starred chef who has been nominated—twice—for a James Beard award in the Rising Star Chef of the Year category, and was invited to cook for the Awards this past May. He has enjoyed many more national and international accolades throughout his career.

Ristorante Dante
The space at Ristorante Dante is mostly determined by the neo-classic structure; a building that that was originally designed as a bank. They have preserved many of these striking elements on their walls, while adding some modern features like a massive chandelier from the Glass Bubble Project. The most distinctive aspect is the vault, which accommodates up to four diners. Another striking hallmark is the Art Deco clock above the bar … frequently, while I enjoy my favorite apertivo, I contemplate whether the clock is Art Deco or Arts and Crafts. All I know for certain is there is something warm and comforting about it, and the scale and placement are perfect. I have dined in each of the dining rooms over the years (and at many of the tables) but when weather permits, nothing beats al fresco dining on the patio. I would include Dante at the top of any patio listing for this city. It is a small, private oasis that feels far off the beaten track.

Aperol Spritz 
Dante’s menu is designed in a unique manner. For one thing, the orientation is horizontal rather than vertical. It is divided into three distinct sections; appetizers, first courses that include pasta, rice and polenta, and second courses such as meat, fish and vegan entrée. Each of the three groupings are broken into four more categories with two or three options in each. The menu is made even more flexible with the first course (pasta/rice/polenta) available in three sizes, which allows diners to choose them as a main course, side dish or just a taste. Or, you can combine three tastings as your entrée.

Hawaiian Tuna Tartare
One of my favorite appetizers is Hawaiian Tuna Tartare, served with a poached egg, olive caper remoulade and a crisp potato nest. The key to this dish is the quality and freshness of the tuna, and it has never been anything less then impeccable. We always include it among our selections. On our most recent visit, we noticed that another of our go-to apps—the Hamachi Sashimi (chilled soba, cucumbers, sesame ponzu)—was no longer on the summer menu. We opted for a Chilled Snow Crab Salad and we weren’t disappointed: crisp-noodles, watercress and mango sorbet complemented the huge chunks of lump crabmeat.

Chilled Snow Crab Salad

As I previously mentioned, one of the best features of the menu is the flexibility of Dante’s courses, especially when it comes to the house-made pasta, polenta and risotto options. Often we find ourselves incapable of limiting our choice to one or two and opt for a trio of tasting portions. It is difficult not to order the Linguine alla Carbonara with a poached egg and house-made pancetta or the Pappardelle Bolognese with a ragu of beef, veal and pork. On this particular occasion, we selected Spaghetti “Aimo E Nadia” with spring onions, chili and crumbled croutons. We also tried a couple of risotto selections: the Carnaroli Rice with saffron squid, rosemary and celery, and the Black Quinoa with tomato chutney and tarragon. Both excellent.

Carbonara, Pappardelle Bolognese and Carnoroli Rice

Soaghetti "Aimo E Nadia," BlackQuinoa and Papardelle Bolognese
Dante’s second courses have never disappointed either. I’ve enjoyed many fish, seafood and duck entrees over the years. However, if rabbit is on the menu there is no choice to be made. Rabbit it is. As luck would have it, there it was. This dish was so decadent and hearty it would be my idea for a harvest dinner in the fall or a comforting winter repast. Three of us feasted on the perfectly roasted rabbit with au jus served with buttery, house-made gnocchi that were as light and delicate as feathers. Fabulous! Rabbit is not as prevalent in these parts as I would like, but with dishes like this it won’t be long before Boccuzzi cultivates a following. His version is a ringing endorsement for rabbit if ever there was one.

Coniglio Arrostito
We simply did not save room for dessert. Although, desserts are such a major feature at his Chef’sTable and special dinners that I can say with confidence, if you enjoy desserts, dolce lovers won’t be disappointed, whether it’s gelato, a decadent torte or a combination of both. Dante puts as much thought and artistry into his desserts as any other course.

On this particular evening, Phil Hockey, Dante’s affable, capable Front of the House Manager, sent over some Barolo Chinato – a fortified wine that originates from Italy’s northwestern Piedmont region. Originally, Barolo Chinato was used for medicinal purposes, to combat fever and upset stomachs. It has long been enjoyed as an after-dinner digestivo. Dante offers an extensive wine list. My go tos have become their Docetto D’Alba or the house Zephyr but it is hard to avoid their list of expertly mixed cocktails.

Barolo Chinato

Ristorante Dante is a fantastic choice regardless of the occasion. They offer a fantastic Happy Hour Monday through Friday from 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm. We were there recently and enjoyed Edamame, Togarashi French Fries, a Sushi Pop and Miso Mussels. We also feasted on three of Dante’s four Happy Hour Toban Yakis— steaming hot meat and veggie dishes roasted on ceramic plates—which include Vegetarian / Mushrooms, Canadian Salmon, Pork Belly and Hanger Steak. 

Toban Yaki - Vegetarian/Mushrooms

Toban Yaki - Hanger Steak

Toban Yaki - Canadian Salmon
As if this weren’t enough, Boccuzzi also offers Late Night Noodles. Recently, Dante’s ramen noodle bowl was named one of the best in the country. Landing on Thrillist’s ”21 Best Ramen in the Country” list. All Late Night Noodles come with nori, poached egg, pork belly, mustard greens, shiitake and cabbage. Your options are size: half-bowl ($5) or full-bowl ($9); noodle: Ramen, Soba, Somen or Udon; and broth: Beef, Miso, Pork or Shoyu. These late night noodle bowls are sure to please anyone looking for a cost-efficient, warm bowl of comfort.

Late Night Noodles - Half Bowl Udon - Beef 

Ristorante Dante
2247 Professor Avenue
Cleveland, OH  44113
(216) 274-1200


Prices: $$$

Reservations recommended

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cory Hess’s Arcadian: A Neighborhood Restaurant

For the past two years, Chef Cory Hess has been working out the details for Gordon Square Art District’s latest dining destination, Arcadian Food & Drink, located at 6416 Detroit Avenue. “The name works for me on many levels. Arcadia is a word from Greek Mythology meaning ‘utopia.’ Arcadian is in close proximity to the Gordon Square Arcade, and we will have some arcade games along the wall on the first floor.” An updated pizza parlor, Arcadian is Hess’s “version of paradise through a modernized 90s corner pizza joint. It’s the type of place that encourages sharing and conversing, where quality food is served with a smile in a welcoming, communal environment.” To that end, a large communal table is a focal point on the street level. Several times throughout our afternoon together, Hess mentioned the importance of creating a restaurant where those who live in the area can afford to patronize it several times a week if they like; a neighborhood place. He had no interest in creating a place for the exclusive use of suburbanites. “I want it to be a friendly place – the kind of place I would like to hang out at after work,” Hess said. The more he explained his vision, the more I was struck by the notion that the restaurant business is a young person’s profession.

Cory Hess, with the boarded up Arcadian in the background
With the help of Robert Maschke Architects and the financial backing of a silent partner (trust me, silent as the grave on this point), Hess is transforming the old City Grill into a spectacular location: a three-story structure with large floor to ceiling windows making up most of the exterior facade. Hess describes Maschke’s aesthetic as being heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, and his work as “meticulous in detail and timeless in his designs.” Perhaps the greatest transformation will be the conversion from dark to light. In addition to the predominance of glass in the front of the building, natural light will filter through a two-story glass enclosed foyer with a green wall in the center of the room that will be exposed to the elements. Hess is quick to add they intend to have a Christmas Tree on display during the Christmas season. He also went on to explain, “the first year, the work mainly centered around clearing the space of old equipment. Layers were stripped away. Then, we began the process of making the space structurally sound for the build-out and new design. We’re hoping for an October open.” Unfortunately, the day I was there, work came to a complete halt due to the intense afternoon heat inside. There’s no air conditioning yet and little light or ventilation inside the boarded-up structure.

Cory Hess, Interior, Arcadian - street level
The plan for the first level is to have a lively pub atmosphere. People walking past on the sidewalk will have a full view of the pizza ovens and most of the lower level. The bar will seat 20 to 25, with seating for 15 or 20 more on couches in the lounge area and 12 to 16 more at the communal table. The second-level dining room will accommodate between 30 and 35 diners. It will be the perfect sanctuary for those looking for a more private dining experience. The lowest level will mainly be used as a prep room, and will include freezers, a walk-in cooler, employee area and an office.

The past two years have also provided Hess with the time to develop his menu, his business philosophy and an overall plan to bring it to fruition.
His menu is divided into three columns and begins with “Seafood” – a selection of raw oysters and chilled fish, including shrimp and smoked Buffalo fish, oysters and mussels. Offering oysters is a way for Hess to reinforce the inexpensive choices on his menu. He adds, “historically, oysters have been an affordable seafood option but they also reinforce the shared dining experience. You tend to share an order of oysters with your friends at a bar or table.” This communal theme is repeated throughout the menu. “Shared Bar Snacks” include vegan and vegetarian options. “We’ll have a separate fryer exclusively dedicated to vegan menu offerings,” says Hess. They will also take every step to ensure there is no cross contamination.

Nothing says, “shared dining experience” like pizza. It’s no coincidence that the center column of the menu showcases seven pizzas with three categories of toppings. Hess describes the pizza as “square ‘Detroit Style’ pies that will be cooked in Ohio-made Bolling Pizza Ovens.” The “Fish Bait” pizza immediately caught my eye. It includes white anchovies, capers, goat cheese, olive oil, parsley, roasted garlic and leek. An intriguing option for Tex-Mex lovers is the “Nacho Libre,” with chorizo, jalapeno, smoked cheddar, red onion, sour cream, cilantro and smoked tomato. And I know there will be times when nothing but the “Wake & Bake” will do – a pie with hickory smoked bacon, local eggs, potatoes, pepper and provolone. Hopefully, we’ll get an opportunity to sample them all in the near future.

The third column on the menu focuses on “Plates.” First, there are two appetizers: “Hummus” and “Dinosaur Wings” (turkey), along with a couple of salads. “Trays” include some curiously funny offerings: the “Knuckle Sandwich” with beef knuckle and “Steak-um,” a vegan offering made with seitan subbing for steak. And finally, “Desserts,” include house-made pies, lemon ice and he hopes to source a cookie dough ice cream sandwich (consisting of two layers of cookie dough with ice cream center) from Mason’s Creamery.

Arcadian's Menu, a work in progress

Hess plans to add brunch service soon after the open and is also debating whether or not Sunday supper may not be a good idea and in keeping with his communal dining theme. A theme that will be reiterated at Arcadian’s bar as well, with carafes of punch, Bloody Mary, wine, pitchers of beer, etc., all in an effort to emphasize the experience of sharing food with friends. Come to think of it, aren’t food and friends the basis for most fond memories?

What is most impressive about Hess is his extensive résumé. He has worked at some of the best restaurants in northeast Ohio and in Columbus, and has more culinary training and education than his age would suggest. Those experiences have greatly influenced his menu and his philosophies as a chef. He began his career at Don’s Pomeroy House in Strongsville. Later, he was Prep Cook/Line Cook at Blue Point Grille (where he learned to shuck oysters – lots and lots of oysters) and Line Cook at Handke’s Cuisine, where he learned so many of the basics and fundamentals, including that there’s more to life than trying to run a perfect kitchen. More recently, he was Sous Chef at Lola on East Fourth Street, Executive Chef at Bistro at Lincoln Park and Line Cook/Kitchen Manager at Bar Symon, where he met Rebecca Traxler, his significant other/soon to be fiancé. Traxler grew up on a blueberry farm and is currently Sous Chef at Urban Farmer, the new steak house in The Westin, Downtown. Previously, she worked at Spice Kitchen & Bar. Together, they’re active participants in the local farm-to-table scene and are involved in Kentucky Gardens a community garden next to Fairview Park in Ohio City.

Hess’s education includes a year at the prestigious Johnson and Wales University, a Culinary Arts/Chef Training Certificate from Polaris Career Center and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Hospitality Administration/Management from Kent State University.

“You can be the best chef in the world, but until you understand the numbers and can make it work as a business, you can’t get anywhere.” Hess also said the only way to make it in this business is to rely on others. He has been overwhelmed by the amount of people who have picked up the phone to offer their congratulations and assistance. Hess believes in the Buddhist teaching that says, “no one goes anywhere on their own.” Incorporating this in his business plan he has thought long and hard about how to get his workers to realize their dreams while he achieves his. He prefers to measure success by the number of people he can help.

It is no wonder then there is someone willing to invest so heavily in this impressive young talent. For me, this year, Fall cannot come soon enough.

Maschke Architects, Exterior Plan - Arcadian Food & Drink

Photos of Chef Cory Hess taken by Dale Dong

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Trentina's Modern Opulence

Trentina's front entrance

Last Friday evening, we were fortunate to be invited to Trentina’s “soft opening.” It has been a long time coming, but Chef/Owner Jonathon Sawyer is just about ready for his July 8th open. The final details are being fine-tuned, but we were told that Trentina will offer a 12-course tasting menu for 100 dollars per person, plus optional wine pairings for an additional charge. With Trentina’s proximity to Severance Hall and everything else that the University Circle area has to offer, I can’t imagine a better location for a high-end, “haute cuisine” restaurant with a prix-fixe tasting menu. Sawyer plans to introduce some lighter fare and wood-fired pizzas for patio patrons, and a la carte options for the dining room, later this summer. 

The following are pictures of the 12 course-tasting menu we sampled. Most of the courses were served with two different variations of the theme per couple.

Celebratory Bubbles
Primi Assagio - Crusto di Polenta, Carne Salata alla Trentina, Cured Sable, Celerry Vegetables from our Larder & Fields

Caviar + Ciccoli - Sumac, Latte, Cucumber & Puffed Pasta
Danieli Soave

Crustaceo Crudo - Vintage Ohio Apple & Citrus

Sable Fish Al Cartoccio - Caltuce, Wild Ohio Crown Tipped Coral Mushroom, TNT Larder Yogurt & Fumet

Sable Fish Al Cartoccio - Caltuce, Wild Ohio Crown Tipped Coral Mushroom, TNT Larder Yogurt & Fumet

Edible Candle - 24K Gold Honey, Aged Beef Suet, Crunchy Salt & Fresh Bread

Cabbage Dish

Marco Cecchini Tove

Pasta Alla Chitarra

Pasta Cuscino

Game Birds

Game Birds

Beasts Roasted Over Embers

Beasts Roasted Over Embers

Primi Dolce

Strudel Alla Trentina

More Dolci

Chef Jonathon Sawyer, Tom Futey & Kathleen Morgan Futey 

Commemorative signed menu

There was a final "Grazia" dessert course consisting of two gold chocolates. How's that for opulence?

Our reservation was for 8:30 PM, which was the final seating of the evening. It was one of those rare summer nights where the humidity was low and the temperature was warm. Perfect. We enjoyed our first course on the patio and the rest of our dinner in Trentina’s cozy, avant-garde dining room. Modern opulence was not only expressed in the interior design of the room but in every fabulous creation that came out of the kitchen. We enjoyed the company of friends and wished everyone involved nothing but the best. 

As you may know, soft openings are a first chance for chefs to test their creations in a new kitchen where all the logistics have yet to be worked out. Keeping that in mind, I’d say Sawyer and his crew are off to a blazing start. 

The meal was nicely executed and mostly kept to the traditions of Trento – an autonomous region of Italy with a unique blend of cultures. The lone exception being the Edible Candle with 24K gold honey, aged beef suet, crunchy salt & French bread. It’s possible that there is nothing more opulent than 24K gold honey (!). The melted beef suet – presented as a spread and served with bread – is an old English tradition rather than one associated with the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol region. That aside, it was rich and decadent, and integrated seamlessly with the overall menu.

Cleveland has a well-earned reputation for the quantity and consistent quality of its food scene, although some who follow the trends bemoan the lack of truly daring, inventive fare. Frankly, it remains to be seen if this market is ready for prix fixe exotic dining. 

Jonathon Sawyer has enjoyed a steady rise in local and national dining circles. His dishes are rarely boring and they’re always prepared with élan, and despite the occasional quirks and odd menu spellings, we should all applaud his audacity and wish Trentina much success. Bravo, Chef!

Trentina is located at: 

1903 Ford Dr, Cleveland, OH 44106
(216) 421-2900

Prices: Spendy $$$

Reservations strongly suggested