In the beginning, when chef Matthew Mathlage dreamed about creating his own restaurant, he said, “Let there be a place called Light Bistro.” Now there is Light Bistro, and it’s good. To separate himself from all the rest, he called his style Progressive American, with a menu of small plates and share plates. And so began the genesis of a very bright idea.
Light Bistro opened in March, taking over the Ohio City space that was once Parker’s. Like Parker’s, it operates under the same fundamental principle that the best food is fresh, seasonal and local.
But Mathlage wants to set himself free from the formality that defined both the building’s previous occupant and his former role as executive chef at The Leopard, the AAA Four Diamond restaurant in Aurora.
The vision is to be adventurous and audacious with ingredients, playful in presentation and free from the standard appetizer-to-entrée dinner progression.
So rhubarb goes in risotto, and olives become the primary constituent of a mousse. Slices of house-baked baguette and prosciutto Parmesan bread arrive at the table in a brown paper bag, as do the miniature cinnamon-coated beignets in a delightful dessert dubbed Donuts & Coffee, which substitutes a scoop of espresso ice cream for a cup of joe ($10).
White platters function as the canvas for artful arrangements of color, shape and texture. A splendid blue crab and shrimp cake, 1 1/4 inches thick and formed from coarse slivers of first-rate shellfish, is offset by painterly dribs and drabs of bright green curry honeydew sauce and yellow pepper ceviche.
But a course can be just three bites. The server won’t think you’re bizarre or cheap if you order a few $4 to $6 items and a terrific $7.50 glass of Sophia, a blanc de blanc bubbly from the Niebaum-Coppola Winery, and call it a night.
Trained in the classic French tradition, Mathlage is as much inventor as chef. He’s doing ambitious, labor-intensive, high-concept cooking.
Most of the time he pulls it off with great finesse. Occasionally it feels like he’s trying too hard. Unexpected and original flourishes such as truffle perfume, Thai basil syrup, ruby quinoa and foie gras mayo can astonish and seduce the palate. But such things can be overdone.
Mathlage says he’s aiming to chart new territory within the limits of what Clevelanders are willing to accept. Thus far, diners have surprised him with their taste for the unconventional — frog legs and ostrich regularly sell out. (My guess is that the reduced portions and the culture of sharing make it less intimidating to try new things.)
Mathlage is dead serious about what he prepares, but wants eating it to be fun. And it is enjoyable to nosh and nibble your way through a communal spread of Marcona almonds ($6) or edamame with hoisin lime dipping sauce ($6).
The cheese course, listed among the desserts, made everyone at my table laugh out loud. Instead of wedges and rounds, we got what looked like a muffin (actually, it’s a soufflé) that oozed melted buttermilk bleu when poked with a fork. And the mulled port sorbet nicely complemented the rich, warm cheese ($12).
There are twists on the standards and clever tongue-teasing condiments in every preparation. A honey aioli adds interest to roast quail ($10), and onion fondue keeps company with Ohio sirloin ($26). In a beet “carpaccio,” the whole goes well beyond the sum of its humble parts ($10). The root vegetables, roasted and then marinated in sherry, replace the beef and are presented with a snowfall of white feta and some pinky rhubarb puree.
It was featured on the Market Menu, a five-course lineup that changes weekly depending on what’s available from purveyors. You can go for the full monty, as the kitchen has conceived it, with suggested wine pairings, or cherry-pick, mixing it up with items from the lists of tapas, taste and share plates.
The more people in the group, the merrier the meal, provided all agree to opt into the credo that what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine. Costlier and, in general, heavier dishes such as a five-hour veal shank with spiced pear and toasted almond fondue ($23) or pheasant and sweet potato gnocchi ($24) are the equivalent of an entrée and are just the ticket for those who prefer to keep their forks and their food to themselves.
Happy hour offers an exceptional opportunity for sampling and swapping. Cocktail specials ($5) really are special: The bartender uses house-made mixers and infused spirits. The same fiver buys a pour of some quality red and white wines or selected snackers. Two of us spent a leisurely and economical couple of hours at the bar with mojitos and margaritas, plus an order of grilled flatbread topped with peppery arugula and soft lumps of goat cheese, and another of pickled shrimp, dense, chewy and served soup-style in a brew spiked with chili, lemongrass and chive (each regularly $12).
That left ample appetite for a dining room graze. Our self-designed feast included a bowl of spiced pecans (which are addictive); wild mushrooms marinated in sherry, garlic and herbs and packed in their own glass jar ($5); bacon-wrapped dates ($6); Amish chicken roulade with shaved fennel and smoked paprika sauce ($13); and a delicious eggplant flan ($9).
I have a soft spot for this last dish. Micro greens and a schmear of red pepper puree can’t hide the fact that the custard is an unappealing brownish gray. One bite, however, and looks don’t matter. It’s like discovering that the most unattractive guy at a party is the one with best personality.
Figuring out how much to order can be tough, especially for first-timers. It can also be challenging to build a satisfying, balanced meal from so many possibilities. The servers are quite helpful when it comes to sorting it all out. They know the menu and the food well and can get you where you want to go.
A word about the relishes, flavor elements and sides. These accompaniments are often present in what can best be described as cerebral quantities. An absolutely superb savory-meets-sweet butternut squash ravioli in a cinnamon béchamel comes with heirloom apples — 12 fine diced cubes of apple to be precise ($11). Cuba libre-braised pork belly — a fantastically flavored 2- to 3-ounce piece of moist meat — is surrounded by just a dozen plump grains of couscous and dots of chipotle sauce ($12).
It takes a certain attitude adjustment not be disappointed when faced with such diminutive offerings. The intent, of course, is to leave room for something else.
Looking ahead, Mathlage foresees a menu showcasing nature’s fall bounty — zucchini, pumpkin and heartier greens such as kale and chard. What he’ll do with them is anybody’s guess, but odds are, the results will be like nothing else in town.
Light Bistro, 2801 Bridge Ave., Cleveland, (216) 771-7130. Lunch: Wed-Sat 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.; Dinner: Mon-Thu 4:30 - 10 p.m., Fri-Sat 4:30 - 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible, all major credit cards taken.