Used to be, you had to head downtown to find dining venues offering creative, sophisticated fare.
Amuse bouche was not a term heard in suburban strip malls. Heirloom beets, local goat cheese and caramelized shallots were rarely served far from the city. But all that has changed.
Truly great, stylish restaurants are cropping up in the suburbs as fast as the housing developments that preceded them. And Geauga County’s ML the Restaurant, named for chef/owner Michael Longo, is one of them.
A fixture on the Northeast Ohio dining scene since 1991 when he was part of the original Piccolo Mondo team, the talented cook soon opened Market Square Bistro in Bainbridge Township.
After a successful run, Longo reinvented the space and the menu, calling his creation Firefly. The reviews were kind, but fate was not. An electrical fire destroyed the interior in March 2006.
A year later, ML debuted in exactly the same location, but with a shift away from formality. Following a national trend, the fancy trappings disappeared, and Longo’s original, well executed food remained.
That includes popular dishes such as meatloaf, made with veal and wild mushrooms and lacquered with a rich brown gravy ($19.90). Recently Longo tweaked the recipe by adding American Kobe beef, and nobody’s complaining. (For Longo’s meatloaf and more comfort favorites, see page 138.)
Longo uses that same tasty high-end ground meat for his big burgers stacked with bacon and aged cheddar, and slathered in roasted garlic aioli ($16.90).
The woman at the next table threw in the napkin with half of it still left. “Please,” she begged the server, “box it up. I can’t stop eating, but I’m so full I can barely breathe.” An appetizer version, called surf and turf sliders, offers two mini burgers topped with smoked shrimp ($12.90).
I like everything about the place from the soothing blue-gray color scheme and arts-and-crafts wood accents to the manageable two-page menu that offers plenty of variety for purse and palate. You can spend a lot (especially if you go for some of the excellent — and pricier — bottles on the wine list) or a little. You can also push your culinary boundaries or eat in your comfort zone.
When you’re in the mood for the unusual, try the Hawaiian Bigeye Tuna Trio, available in either appetizer or entree size ($12.90/$25). The exceptionally fresh fish is prepared three ways: seared in an Asian five-spice blend and lightly flavored with vanilla and saffron; raw, salted with crunchy crystals of sel gris and dressed in olive oil and blood orange juice; and grilled, tickled with wasabi mayo and soy.
Longo also plays with a single ingredient (shrimp) in Fire & Ice ($12.90) to produce an edgy, outstanding dish. In this eye-catching presentation, spicy seared shrimp and a swirl of seaweed arrive chilled atop a bed of crushed ice with three small cups holding a zesty cocktail sauce, real wasabi from the root and a sweet red chile sauce.
The kitchen also ups the ante on familiar fare. Pot roast gets a Southwestern kick from a smoked tomato and sweet chile broth ($19.90). The perfectly grilled and exceptionally tender flatiron steak was dusted with Cajun spice and decked out in a delicious, fresh horseradish demi ($24).
Yet since I believe vegetables are not merely a garnish, I wish there had been more than three stalks of broccolini.
Upscale ingredients and out-of-the-ordinary combinations show up in every menu category from an Alaskan king crab starter with wakame and miso-mustard sauce (1/2 pound $17, 1 pound $32) to a sublime corn chowder.
To achieve its lick-the-bowl quality, the chef starts with fresh local corn, adds crisp bits of Niman Ranch guanciale (cured pork cheek) and laces the golden soup with chunks of potato and a bright lemon-pepper oil ($8.50).
Slices of roasted pear, toasted walnuts and pungent buttermilk blue cheese transform a red oak leaf lettuce salad into a memorable course ($7.50).
But when you’re not quite up to the challenge of balsamic glazes or cilantro pesto, there’s pizza ($12). Here, they’re Napoletana-style pies made with a special flour imported from Italy that ensures a thin crust and puffed, crunchy rim.
You can watch the guys slide them into a wood-fired oven from most tables in the dining room. Extra toppings range from $2 to $4 and go from the typical (pepperoni and mushrooms) to the classy (arugula, prosciutto and roasted red peppers).
An order of four-cheese tortellone in a tasty Bolognese sauce is also a good bet ($25).
In fall, game returns to the menu — venison, buffalo and pheasant — along with duck confit, Longo’s famed mac and cheese, and seasonal produce, much of it from area farmers.
I have only one complaint, and it’s almost a compliment. Roasted sweet-and-spicy cashews ($5) are terrific, the ideal munch with a Duvel Belgian ale, a glass of Barossa Jack Pure Love Shiraz or a blood orange martini. But they came to the table piping hot. As soon as they were cool enough to handle, we started popping them into our mouths and didn’t stop until they were almost gone. When we finished them off between appetizers and entrées, we discovered that they were even better at room temperature. My suggestion to the staff: Either wait longer before bringing the nuts from the kitchen or deliver with an injunction to be patient.
The signature dessert is a sun-dried cherry and white chocolate bread pudding with caramel sauce ($8.50). A sort of French toast to the 10th power, it’s extremely sweet and more than enough for two. Also holding pride of place at the finish line is a molten chocolate cake that’s like batter, hot cocoa and pudding rolled into one ($9). My personal preference was a much lighter, mild-mannered yogurt panna cotta special ($9).
The wait staff is competent, responsive and friendly, just the right mix for this casual setting. And they know how to take care of their customers. When I asked about an unfamiliar wine, Folie a Deux Menage a Trois white, our server immediately offered to bring me a sample. I liked it so much, I chose a quartino instead of a glass. The flask holds about a third of a bottle, and, as far as I know, this is the only restaurant around offering that welcome option. The bottle offerings are noteworthy for the number of small boutique producers.
If you enjoy exciting, imaginative food, there’s every reason to get yourself here and no reason not to. And besides, this is the ’burbs, so there’s plenty of free parking.
ML The Restaurant, 16725 Chillicothe Road, Chagrin Falls, (440) 543-6567. Hours: Mon-Thu 5:30 - 10 p.m., Fri & Sat 5:30 - 11 p.m., Sun 4 - 8:30 p.m. Major credit cards accepted, wheelchair accessible.