It's easy to spot Ken Stewart's East Bank, the upscale restaurant that opened in June on the ground floor of the Aloft Cleveland Downtown hotel overlooking the Cuyahoga River. A larger-than-life neon sign over the front door features a cartoon version of owner Ken Stewart's face, complete with fashionably nerdy eyewear and spiked hair a la rocker Rod Stewart. The caricature appears on everything from the menu and house wine labels to stickers that seal boxes of leftovers.
"I thought it would communicate that we're not pretentious and don't take ourselves too seriously," says Stewart. "People come up to me all the time in the restaurant and say, 'You look just like the guy on the sign.' I tell them, 'That's how I got my job.' "
Stewart was also motivated to brand the place with his image as a way of introducing himself. He's well known in Akron — where he operates popular dining spots Ken Stewart's Grille, Tre Belle and Ken Stewart's Lodge — but he's not so familiar to Clevelanders.
"I've always wanted to be in Cleveland, but never found the right location," says Stewart. "I love what's happening here in the Flats. Moving into a brand new building appealed to me, but more importantly, I think this area will become the entertainment epicenter for the city."
Supporting his prediction, the Aloft houses two other restaurants, Lago and the Willeyville. And others are in the works for the Flats neighborhood, including two from Crop chef and owner Steve Schimoler.
After more than 20 successful years in the business, Stewart knows how to please his customers. "I create a culture using a simple formula: the very best of fine dining without any of the stuffiness or snootiness," he explains. "We make everybody feel welcome."
The hallmark of his style is old-school, customer-oriented service. Stewart's staff is trained to say, "Yes," before a guest has even finished asking the question. Executive chef Anthony Seminatore and his team give customers what they want, the way they want it.
Like every diner, we received VIP treatment from attentive, accommodating and deferential servers. We also enjoyed the perks: complimentary warm butter-brushed Parker House rolls and some friendly chitchat with Stewart, who makes his way around the dining room most nights to personally welcome people, tell them he's glad they came and ensure they have everything they need.
"I call it the Ken Stewart experience," he says. "That's what people expect and that's what they get when they eat in my restaurants."
The core of the culinary concept at this location is steak and seafood — for those with money to spend. Most dinner entrees are priced between $35 and $50. A burger will set you back $25, and the version with foie gras is $10 more. Those in a position to splurge can start off a meal with the $110 caviar tier or an $85 or $140 shellfish tower and then move on to a 12-ounce, 28-day aged USDA prime filet mignon for $65 or spend $140 on a 6-ounce Japanese waygu beef sirloin.
It appears there's plenty of people ready and willing to pony up: the restaurant has been busy at both lunch, according to Stewart, and dinner almost from day one. Our two visits confirmed this observation.
Some of the most popular items from menus at his other places — the oversized wedge salad ($12), French onion soup ($9) and potato-crusted halibut ($39) — are precisely replicated.
Others have gotten a Cleveland makeover. We liked the ultra-thick, long bone double-cut pork chops ($42) presented with a sweet and tart cranberry quince demi-glace. The East Bank version of mussels ($14) is superb. Pan-roasted, they're heaped in a bowl with fennel, tomatoes and a splash of Pernod that provides just a hint of licorice flavor, then drizzled with cream and saffron aioli.
Crab cakes, available at lunch ($17) and dinner as either an appetizer ($18) or an entree ($38), are wonderful, all luscious chunky shellfish and only enough other stuff to bind it together. They share the plate with arugula, roasted tomatoes, a smear of green winter cress aioli and crunchy fennel salad.
Although the scallops ($38), served with a bit of sweet potato puree and a few Brussels sprouts, don't push any culinary envelopes, they are excellent: fresh, expertly prepared with a perfect caramelized sear on the outside and enhanced by a touch of pomegranate molasses. In contrast, a New York strip ($25 for 8-ounces during lunch, $45 for 16-ounces during dinner), although properly cooked as ordered, was woefully under seasoned and rather bland.
High-end ingredients are evident in all category. Fries, browned just right, are dressed in truffle oil ($11). The carpaccio ($30) is made with Kagoshima beef, the genuine wagyu product imported from Japan and unavailable anywhere else in the state, Stewart says. The King Crab legs ($88), at about 1 pound each, are the largest money can buy. And only lamb from Colorado ($42), currently in the form of kirsch-braised shank, is served.
This is a nice space to spend time. It's posh, but not intimidating. There's a glass-enclosed fireplace, a few spacious half-moon booths and almost every seat in the main room has a dramatic view of metalwork bridges and a factory on the horizon. Elements of the decor pay homage to the city's shipping history: There are a few porthole windows, light fixtures inspired by nautical smokestacks and a wall of riveted metal sections that resembles a freighter's hull. The lounge has an eye-catching backlit three-shelf display of spirits — organized by color — while the wine list includes rare and hard-to-find bottles.
Little touches like these are further evidence that the Ken Stewart dining experience is now a vital part of this developing waterfront neighborhood.