When I craved a classy cocktail and some upscale nibbles — say a platter of Greek-inspired mezze, a Caprese salad made with fresh mozzarella or a Kobe beef burger — East 185th Street was not exactly the first place I’d thought of going. Until last February. That’s when Marc and Ruth Levine opened Bistro 185 there, and this old, ethnic, working-class neighborhood hasn’t been quite the same since.
On Friday and Saturday nights, it feels as though you’ve wandered into the Warehouse District: High-end, late-model cars fill the parking lot, a line of hungry hopefuls snakes out the door, and those without reservations are in for a long wait.
Once inside, the space is filled with the buzz of conversational surround-sound. People are three deep at the bar, and many sip from brimming retro-chic martini glasses. There are a dozen premium beers on tap and a list of 40 handpicked wines to choose from. And like fashionable kitchens everywhere, this one favors uncommon ingredients and inventive combinations with international flair, so the menu offers up such treats as slow-roasted long bone pork shanks with raspberry chipotle glaze, tempura-battered calamari, and a center-cut salmon filet with ginger lime butter.
But when the bill comes, Bistro 185 bears little resemblance to any of the trendy downtown venues. Two of us ate and drank lavishly on more than one occasion for around $80 plus tip, and we were never able to finish everything we ordered.
The Levines’ aim was to create a sophisticated dining destination with a friendly, informal atmosphere. They found the perfect place to do it in this former tavern that came complete with character, dark, wood-paneled ambience and a crew of regulars. The Levines kept all that along with Bud and Miller in the cooler, the original bar and stools, the high-backed booths and the tables that have game boards permanently laminated on top.
The couple added a few decorative touches of their own, along with contemporary pinpoint track lights, a well-dressed hostess to greet and seat guests, and servers who are likely to call you honey but just as likely to know the right bottle of white to go with your ruby-red trout.
Then there’s Ruth’s food. Like everything else about Bistro 185, it combines the homey and the hip, which is exactly what makes this place so appealing. The menu is a mix of creative fare, familiar ethnic favorites and simple, timeless stick-to-your-ribs dishes. You’re as apt to find mac-and-cheese as pecan-crusted goat cheese, while liver with bacon and onions, mashed potatoes and gravy ($13.50) shares the bill with a rack of veal in Marsala pan sauce ($19.50). The short list of always-available entrées includes a New York strip steak ($22), a half-slab of St. Louis style ribs with fries and slaw ($13.50) chicken schnitzel with pierogi ($13.50) and a not-to-be-missed chicken paprikash ($11.50).
A much larger and constantly changing selection of daily specials runs the gamut from a Friday fish fry ($12.50) to eggplant rollatini with pasta marinara ($14.50) or medallions of pork in a creamy Dijon mustard horseradish sauce ($17.50).
Lobster-filled ravioli presented with seared day-boat scallops and shrimp in a lobster cream sauce ($19.50) shows up on the menu fairly often. That’s a good thing, because it’s scrumptious. Another recurring entrée is roast duck with orange sauce ($17.50). I find it overly sweet but my dining companion is a devoted fan. I’d much rather tuck into a big bowl of beef short ribs osso bucco ($17.50). This classic peasant preparation, slow-simmered and intensely flavored with shallots, carrots, beef stock and red wine, is winter-worthy and impeccably executed.
Salads rarely merit their own paragraph, but two on the menu are really impressive. In one, roasted beets are matched with goat cheese, field greens and a balsamic vinaigrette. For the other, those same greens take on the earthy taste of the warm wild mushrooms that sit on top, wilting them just slightly. Caramelized pecans provide a crunchy counterpoint and a raspberry vinaigrette holds all the elements together ($8.50 each). In both, the combination of quality ingredients, a deft touch and some imaginative flair turn this normally prosaic course into something truly delicious.
The lineup of starters offers some great options, including pot stickers ($6.50), sausage-stuffed mushrooms ($7.50) and lamb chops with a pomegranate glaze ($9.50). Levine really struts her culinary stuff, an expertise developed over 22 years as a caterer, in her house-cured gravlax ($8.50). The thin slices of salmon, luxuriously soft and tender and tasting neither salty nor fishy, are served with potato pancakes, a scattering of capers and scallions, and a generous dollop of sour cream. Ruth also makes her own creamed herring, a rare delicacy in these parts ($7.50), while her crispy, panko-crusted crab cakes are another seafood standout ($8.75).
I’d be remiss if I did not mention lunch. Ruthie Hellman is at the stove by day, reprising many of the diner favorites she used to serve customers at Ruthie and Moe’s, including made-from-scratch soups and the hot turkey special that drew crowds every Thursday. Big sandwiches, burgers, and chili round out the noontime fare.
When it comes to dessert, those with a sweet tooth have plenty to please them. Ruth Levine bakes strudels and fruit tarts and a friend whips up cheesecakes and tortes galore. Then again, you can always opt to end the meal the liquid way. I recommend finishing with a pineapple upsidedown martini. Made with fruit juice, Frangelico and vanilla Stoli, it’s cake with kick. Or try the Lambic Pomme, a Belgian beverage made from green apples that tastes like a cross between beer and sparkling wine.
If you’re looking for some affordable romance this Valentine’s Day, you can’t do better than Bistro 185. It won’t break the bank to have candlelight, fresh flowers, a really good bottle of Napa Cabernet, and a nice dinner that ends with something lusciously decadent, say a five-layer dark frosted wedge of chocolate mousse cake big enough to share, and a glass of St. Supery Moscato desert wine. You both might find yourself falling in love ... with this unique, laid-back little restaurant where cozy and cool come together.
Bistro 185, 991 E. 185th St., Cleveland, (216) 481-9635. Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., Dinner Mon-Wed 5 - 9 p.m., Thu-Sat 5 - 10 p.m. Not handicapped accessible. All major credit cards accepted.