Talk to chef John Kolar or owner James Bell of Lakewood's Three Birds Restaurant for even a few minutes and you'll quickly feel the warmth of their passion for food. And along with that passion comes pride, because only a few months after its opening, Three Birds was named one of the 20 best new restaurants in the nation by John Mariani, restaurant critic for Esquire magazine. That's like an actor winning a Tony for his debut performance in a Broadway show.
Of course, like most "overnight" successes, this one came only after years of preparation, hard work and training. Bell his family business is Bonne Bell Cosmetics worked in food service and took whatever food-science classes he could squeeze in while studying finance in Laramie, Wyo. Degree in hand, he then became chef/owner of a very successful white-tablecloth restaurant in Laramie.
After later returning to Lakewood and the family business, he spent years dreaming of getting back into the food biz and imagining how he'd fit a restaurant into the Bonne Bell headquarters campus on Detroit Avenue at the western end of Lakewood.
When he finally decided to take the plunge, the basic shape of the restaurant was clear in his mind's eye. He enclosed a courtyard that formerly housed a platform tennis court, left two of the brick walls of the original Bonne Bell structure exposed and, with the help of designer Ida Gawthrop, turned the newly created interior into a smashing, elegant space.
The restaurant takes you by surprise. The exterior is all 18th-century Federal-style row house like something from Alexandria, Va. Inside, the bilevel dining room is pure 21st century with its polished floor, high-tech lighting, lofty ceilings and wall of glass overlooking a dining courtyard. A huge portrait of singer Bob Marley, in all his dreadlocked glory, presides over the bar.
"Bob Marley's song ‘Three Little Birds' was the basic inspiration for the restaurant's name," Bell explains. "And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that good things have always happened for me in threes: I have three kids; when I was growing up, I was lucky enough to be cared for by three wonderful nannies. I want my food to appeal to three senses: sight, smell, taste. So choosing the name Three Birds was an easy step."
Bell selected John Kolar as his executive chef after interviewing "dozens" of candidates. "I wanted this to be a ‘chef-driven' restaurant," he says. "After talking with John and sampling some of his food, I was convinced he was the person who could help me to turn my dream into reality."
Kolar is an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America, cooked at various restaurants in the Hudson Valley and worked in Manhattan for superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the latter's French/Thai restaurant, Vong. Just before joining forces with Bell, Kolar cooked at Moxie in Beachwood.
Like Bell, Kolar is passionate about food. He describes his approach as "modern American. It's food from the American melting pot. Our food is oriented to the seasons and the availability of fresh produce." Accordingly, his creations blend ingredients and techniques from classic French, Mediterranean, Southeast Asian and Latin American cuisines, sometimes all on the same plate. His cooking is about big, often unexpected flavors. His sea scallops, for example, are skewered on a spear of licorice root; he sauces the ahi tuna appetizer with a surprising, and surprisingly satisfying, blend of soy sauce, ginger and rosemary.
"When James Bell and I devised the menu, we decided to raise the bar, not to give the public the same things they could find at any number of other restaurants in the area," Kolar says. "I think our food is more metropolitan, more cosmopolitan than most and it's wonderful to see how enthusiastically the public has responded."
A great way to start your Three Birds experience is with lobster pizza ($13). It's big enough for several diners to share (served cut into six good-sized wedges) and combines chunks of Maine lobster meat with sweet caramelized onions, nuggets of roasted garlic and velvety manchego cheese, all on a crust deliciously crisped in the restaurant's wood-fired oven.
Don't leave without trying Kolar's ahi tuna trio ($11). The tuna Kolar has it flown in from Hawaii is ocean fresh, ruby red and delicious. He shows off the perfection of his basic ingredient by offering it three ways on the same plate: seared, minced into tuna tartare and rolled with rice and nori into sushi. The dish is finished with the traditional accompaniments pickled ginger and a mound of wasabi and with a drizzle of not-so-traditional but maddeningly delicious soy/rosemary/ginger sauce.
Other appetizers well worth a try include skewers of coconut shrimp served with papaya mustard and the chef's take on peanut sauce ($11). Sometimes offered as a daily special is a terrine of sumptuous duck foie gras encased in a mashed-potato crust and served with a peppery watercress salad and a side of crisped flatbread for slathering ($12).
Salads, like everything else at Three Birds, are beautiful to look at and a real taste treat. You can go for simple, such as the mixed-greens salad of impeccably fresh greens (various lettuces, radicchio and arugula) with enoki mushrooms, crisply fried shallots and a truffle-oil vinaigrette ($5). Or let the kitchen rev up with its version of Caesar salad ($7). Here, it's made of romaine hearts with grilled vegetables, a mild dressing with just a hint of anchovy and a frico (crisp-fried wafer) of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Our favorite, which Kolar calls his "signature salad," starts with a tender and luscious poached pear, adds a dollop of salty-sweet Roquefort and completes the plate with a chiffonade of mixed greens molded into a perfect cylinder, a raspberry vinaigrette and a sprinkle of candied walnuts ($8).
The entree list includes something for everyone with beef, pork, seafood and vegetarian selections. The kitchen treats beef very well indeed not surprising in light of the fact that Kolar's family have been retail butchers for generations. We recommend the grilled beef tenderloin, an oversized chunk of filet grilled until crisp outside, still juicy and full-flavored within. It's teamed with a crunchy-yet-tender potato cake, a medley of root vegetables and a demi-glace flavored with caramelized shallots ($27). Spicy beef short ribs ($20) come with mashed Yukon gold potatoes, ginger-flavored carrots and pearl onions.
Duck breast ($25) is well crisped in the wood-fired oven and served with a slab of delicious and perfectly seared foie gras, a lightly sautéed cake of corn grits and a few slivers of sweet and crunchy Asian pears. The combination might prove a bit too sweet for some diners, but if you're into duck with an orange or cherry sauce it should be right up your alley.
Seafood entrees shine. We were especially taken with the scallops grilled on a licorice-root skewer, perhaps an homage to Kolar's mentor, Vongerichten. The jumbo scallops are fresh and sweet and the licorice root (imported from Italy) imparts just the faintest grace note of licorice that's echoed in the braised fennel and chervil oil that complete the dish ($23). Wild salmon, in all its sea-gamy splendor, is served on a cedar plank with a medley of seasonal vegetables, including squash and Brussels sprouts for autumn, and a tangy-sweet sauce of zinfandel and wild huckleberries ($23).
Desserts are the work of pastry chef Jody Stephen. Her warm apple crisp with a pecan streusel topping ($7) makes a great finish. The sweet and tender apples are seasoned with a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg, topped with crunchy pecans and set off with a dollop of Woo City vanilla ice cream.
If dessert means chocolate for you, choose the molten chocolate cake that miraculously turns from solid to gooey liquid at the touch of a fork. It's served with a caramelized banana and more of that great Woo City ice cream ($7).
If you're too full for any of these, Stephen also offers a selection of cookies, fresh from the oven, with a ramekin of espresso-flavored whipped cream for dunking or slathering ($5).
The wine list, largely the work of Bell and front-of-the-house manager Michael Yih, offers a good selection of vintages, mostly from California but with some French and Washington state bottles. It's organized by style, so you'll find, for example, a collection of "medium-bodied whites" or "full-blown whites," "medium reds" and "voluptuous reds."
Kolar admits that the restaurant's great press is a mixed blessing. "It's great to be recognized for your work," he says, "but the other side of that coin is that people come to Three Birds with very high expectations. It keeps us all on our toes and makes us work that much harder to continue to earn their respect."
With all their passion, fueled by pride, it's hard to see how Kolar and Bell can miss. Or, in Bob Marley's words, "Every little thing gonna be all right."
Three Birds Restaurant, 18515 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, (216) 221-3500. Hours: Mon-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri and Sat till 11 p.m., closed Sun. Access is easy, with handicapped parking right at the rear entrance. All major credit cards are accepted. At press time, the autumn menu was current, but the winter menu will be in effect by the time you read this. Check with the restaurant for any changes.