At the heart of the classic children’s story The Secret Garden, a novel I loved as a kid, is a hidden and neglected patch of paradise. A special and hard-to-find spot is also at the center of this story. Americano is a wonderful new bistro on the ground floor of the Bratenahl Place condo tower. It opened in July but has thus far remained largely unknown and out of sight.
That’s no surprise, as it feels more like a private club than a restaurant. To get there, you must go down a long, unmarked drive off Lake Shore Boulevard, check in at the gatehouse and cross the apartment building’s lobby. But it’s worth the effort.
Don’t be deceived by first impressions. The formal dining room décor, complete with smoked glass mirrors, is on the stodgy side, suggesting the menu will be the same. But what comes out of the kitchen is just the opposite: contemporary, creative and, most importantly, delicious.
The shrimp baked in a clay pot with tomato wine sauce and creamy corn pudding ($10) and a succulent chipotle-cocoa pork tenderloin in a pomegranate-maple glaze ($16) had me gushing for weeks.
Credit for the food goes to Vytauras Sasnauskas, who has put in time as a chef for both restaurants and private clients. The Lithuanian immigrant attended culinary school in his own country and then did it again after coming to Cleveland in 1996, taking classes with Loretta
Paganini in Chesterland. But he’s got a culinary sixth sense when it comes to flavor. And his dedication to the craft drives him to cure his own bacon and sausage, simmer garlic in olive oil for five hours to bring out its sweetness, create his own spice blends and make everything, including pickles, ketchup and mustard, from scratch.
This leads to the kind of unusual, high-impact dishes you’d expect at an upscale restaurant. However, prices here are surprisingly reasonable. To make that possible, the chef relies on classic labor-intensive and time-consuming French techniques to tease out the best from simple and less expensive ingredients.
This value-oriented approach reflects the shared vision of Sasnauskas and his partner, Cole Davis, who handles the front of the house and the eclectic and exceptional wine list. The two hit it off when they briefly worked together at the Grovewood Tavern, where they soon began cooking up plans for their own restaurant.
The location they chose is at odds with their concept of offering genuine bistro-style fare in a casual atmosphere, but once you get over that disconnect (and realize it’s OK to dress in jeans), Americano is just what the pair wanted — a place where people can afford to eat well and eat often. Its friendly, take-your-time vibe invites guests to linger at the table with friends and order another glass of Rioja ($6) or a perfectly brewed cup of cappuccino ($3).
You can come twice a month and not get bored with the food or the wine selections. Cole generally purchases wines a case at a time, going for uncommon, easy-drinking vintages with an emphasis on those that are crisp, fruit-forward and food-friendly. The list is not large but changes often, covering a lot of territory over time.
The “spread and bread” starter is different each week ($7). The bread is cut from loaves of chewy sourdough, baked fresh daily using a starter imported from Italy that’s said to be more than 100 years old (the yeasty sponge is kept alive by regular “feedings” of flour). The spread I had was a dense ricotta and cream cheese mixture laced with chopped figs, olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Pours from a bottle of River Road Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, all earthy scent and soft tannins, proved to be an excellent counterpoint (Stephanie’s Vineyard, 2006, $38).
There are always two seafood options on the menu — one shell and one scale — plus a pork, a poultry and two beef dishes. Every 10 to 14 days, the chef does some subtraction and addition, changing how he prepares a couple of the main course items.
On my first visit, I had short ribs ($17). The meat, seasoned like a goulash and cooked for 24 hours, had an almost buttery texture and a deep, nuanced taste. The accompanying mashed potatoes were comfort food’s finest.
The next time I ate here, the ribs had been replaced by slow-cooked, molasses-glazed brisket (which was tempting), but I opted for the espresso-rubbed hangar steak ($18). It was grilled and splashed with a root beer-bourbon sauce that prompted some surreptitious swipes with my finger to get every last bit of it off the plate.
The multifaceted salmon two ways entree ($18) serves as a testament to the kitchen’s exacting standards and virtuoso skill. A piece of seared fish, coated with a tarragon-mustard spice rub, was tucked into a nest of petite beluga lentils mixed with vegetables — orange squash, zucchini, onions, fennel and red peppers — brunoised into a perfect dice and cooked just until tender but not mushy. A potato pancake was topped with a pink curl of cured salmon and set off by zesty horseradish cream sauce.
Even salads show off the chef’s talents here. In a fall version, roasted beets and pear slices were paired with field greens, spiced pecans, bits of gorgonzola dolcina — a younger, milder, almost sweet blue cheese — and a maple-mustard vinaigrette ($8). This was good, but an off-menu special another evening was even better with fresh spinach, crisp bacon, goat cheese rolled in ground poppy seeds, a poached egg cooked sous vide and a few tempura-battered apple rings ($8). When I broke the slightly runny egg yolk, it became a component of the pumpkin ale dressing.
Dessert options are few but first-rate. I had clafouti ($5). The old-fashioned egg custard is rarely offered, and this presentation with figs, dried cranberries, apples and vanilla ice cream was truly a treat.
If you crave a pre-dinner drink, the cozy bar and an airy, window-lined lounge are pleasant spots for sitting and sipping. I can confirm that the bartender shakes up a nice French 75 ($6). You can eat there too, even when the dining room is closed. Panini sandwiches are served along with artisan cheese boards ($10) and a top-notch charcuterie platter. Mine included three meats, pickled onions and a terrific fruit condiment called mostarda made from apricots and cranberries ($10).
The out-of-the-way location may keep Americano from quickly becoming a happening place. But what chef Sasnauskas and Cole Davis are doing is sure to gradually win the restaurant a loyal following and generate increasing and well-deserved buzz. It won’t remain a secret for long.
Americano, One Bratenahl Place, Bratenahl, (216) 541-3900, dining room open Tue-Sat 5 - 10 p.m., bar open Mon-Sat 4 p.m. - midnight