Michael Longo has been working in Cleveland-area kitchens for nearly 20 years. His Market Square Bistro earned a loyal following in the late 1990s and early 2000s before he ventured into barbecue and Asian-American cuisine.
Today, Longo is back in his comfort zone with a new establishment, Harvest Kitchen & Lounge on Bainbridge Road in Solon, turning out well-prepared dishes reminiscent of his bistro days.
He seems happy at his new place, with its intimate setting that encourages closeness with his customers. Fewer than 20 tables are spaced throughout the small former coffee shop and the open kitchen allows for an up-close view of his customers.
Harvest Kitchen & Lounge's fresh-from-the-farm theme is reflected in the rustic-looking furnishings and Mason jars lined up along a shelf that divides the dining room from the bar and kitchen area.
Yet the modern overhead lighting and white tablecloths, along with the knowledgeable and attentive servers, dress up the rural theme. The menu is a blend of farm-fresh food and a mix of surprises. It's a welcome choice in a town that seems to specialize in chain restaurants.
It's as easy to create a meal from the many substantial appetizers and raw bar items as it is choosing from the array of pasta, steak and fish entrees. That's a plus for a weeknight at a suburban place, and you won't be disappointed by either dining approach.
Longo says he opened Harvest Kitchen & Lounge with the notion that he would use as many sustainable and local products as possible. The goat cheese comes from Mackenzie Creamery in Hiram, and the chicken is purchased from Park Farms in Canton. During the local growing season, Longo says he tries to use as much local produce as he can. He still seeks the best produce during the winter, but the real bounty comes in the summer.
He also lets customers know where the quality ingredients on his menu come from, such as marrowbones from New York meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda and prosciutto from Iowa's artisan La Quercia.
We couldn't resist sampling liberally from the appetizer and raw bar menu, starting with the Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna Sashimi ($9), a generous portion of tender tuna slices with togarashi (hot pepper sauce), wasabi and soy caramel drizzled on the plate alongside a small stack of seaweed salad.
While not exactly raw, the tempura lobster (2 for $14) was perfectly crisp, and the lobster's succulent sweetness went well with the salty ponzu and piquance of the sweet chili dipping sauce. The broiled oysters ($12) were fresh bursts beneath a light, Parmesan breading with a hint of garlic cream.
Don't miss the decadent, roasted marrowbones ($12) — three shin bones split to expose the buttery perfection inside — with Parmesan breading and served with a lightly dressed rocket salad, refreshing salsa verde and grilled buttered toasts.
Harvest also has daily appetizer and entree specials. One recent evening offered beautiful truffled pierogies, tender pockets stuffed with light mashed truffled potatoes, accompanied by crisp Brussells sprouts, pieces of bacon and dressed with a balsamic reduction. The contrasting textures and flavors combined for near perfection.
The entrees also benefit from Longo's experience. The cippolini and fingerling potato hash beneath a tender, boneless, slow-cooked short rib ($24) gave the dish an interesting subtle sweetness that went a long way to complement a depth from the garlic and balsamic jus.
And the Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna ($26) was just as pleasant, as lightly grilled as an entree as it was as sashimi. It arrived on a bed of forbidden rice with wasabi caramel soy that merged to become almost-sweet sticky rice. Tender pieces of baby bok choy and a few raw sprigs of fresh sprouts added a pleasant nuttiness.
The crispiness of the boneless, skinless chicken breast ($19) was a surprise. We tend to think skin is needed for crunch, but the finish was beautifully crisp and flavorful.
Be sure to leave room for dessert, too. Bread pudding ($7), a longtime Longo specialty, is as good as ever. The moist, buttery concoction goes over the top with its caramel flavor, intense dried cherries and a hint of white chocolate. But the star of the dessert menu has to be the whiskey creme brulee ($7) — silky custard with a rich subtle flavor of bourbon. It's without a doubt the best creme brulee I've eaten, and I've eaten a lot of it.