I don't know if the tale is true, but I've heard John D. Rockefeller tested the judgment of potential hires by dining with them. Those who salted their food before tasting it never got the job.
It's easy to avoid that misstep at Rockefeller's, the new Cleveland Heights restaurant that takes its name and location — a building constructed by the oil tycoon's son John Jr. in 1930 — from this famous family. There are no saltshakers on the tables, and you won't need one because executive chef Jill Vedaa's dishes are wonderfully seasoned.
I thought about that John D. Rockefeller story while perched on a long-legged stool in Rockefeller's lounge, munching on Vedaa's excellent kale chips ($6). Flash-fried and dusted with Cajun spice, they offered a fragile, melt-in-your-mouth pleasure, and I enjoyed them with a glass of chilled Crios Rose malbec ($9), an unusual wine handpicked by Vedaa.
The chips were followed with a delicious salad of pickled golden beets scattered on matchstick slivers of white Belgian endive with goat cheese and walnuts in a citrus vinaigrette. A seasonal menu change has swapped this dish for an equally fine salad of baby arugula, marinated wild mushrooms, pink pickled onions (Vedaa makes them herself with red wine vinegar), toasted pine nuts and tangy Maytag blue cheese dressed in a truffle vinaigrette (both $9). It's a deft balancing of sweetness, bitterness, sourness and acidity.
I had a similar experience with a shellfish entree. On one visit, grilled shrimp ($23) were served with chipotle cream corn and a crisped round of polenta topped with cucumber slices and red chile threads. The next time, taking its place were pan-seared scampi ($24) finished with curry paste. A brown rice cake made with panko and egg yielded intriguing hints of cardamom. Jalapeno and tamarind chutney made the combination sing.
The more I eat at Rockefeller's, the better I understand the specific pieces and parts of any dish are less important than Vedaa's idiosyncratic style and sensibility. Her preparations are creative and intelligent, balanced and textured, never over-the-top crazy.
"I don't want to be pigeon-holed," she says. "I draw on everything I've ever tasted, using flavors and ingredients from all over the map."
Rockefeller's owner Mike Adams, a former attorney, gives her free rein in the kitchen. It's a thrilling opportunity, and after many years spent working under and learning from highly regarded local chefs such as Michael Symon, Karen Small and Jeff Uniatowski, Vedaa is thriving.
Duck is one of her favorite proteins. She gets the birds in whole and breaks them down. Legs are for confit, wings get a chili garlic glaze. Currently, the breasts ($22) are seared and served with a tomato jam for a standout entree that also includes greens and her interpretation of cassoulet featuring slow-cooked black-eyed peas.
Vedaa's menu emphasizes small plates ideal for sharing and swapping, but pair up a couple and you've got an interesting, multi-flavored main course for one. The calamari ($9) has developed such a fan base since the restaurant opened seven months ago that it has never been taken off the menu. The flour-dusted and fried rings are irresistible. The secret is the glaze, a reduction of coconut milk, sambal (a chile-based Southeast Asian condiment), orange zest and coriander.
Pulled pork tacos ($10) are the chef's go-to dish whenever hunger hits on the job, and it's no wonder. She dry rubs and beer braises a butt roast then lights up the shredded meat with her mojo: a sauce of pureed chipotle and adobo peppers, roasted tomatoes, orange juice, honey and cilantro. Vedaa tosses on a few slices of pickled onions and adds a cooling contrast with creme fraiche.
All of this is served in an eye-catching building. The style is French Norman, a sort of country farmhouse meets chateau. The restaurant is on the second floor in what was once a Cleveland Trust bank. The massive steel vault doors are still here. Original decorative metalwork, iron chandeliers, a gorgeous stained-glass window and gleaming wood trim remain. With its soaring stone arches and triple-story windows, coffered-and-stenciled ceiling, and huge stone hearth, the space is reminiscent of the great hall in a medieval castle.
Despite its architectural formality, Rockefeller's is meant to be a casual spot, equal parts dining room and lounge, which attracts diners weeknights and weekends for a few microbrews or a fine meal. With the transformation of this historic landmark into a dining and drinking destination, it's well on the way to being just that.