Cleveland may suffer from brain drain in the industrial and financial fields, but in the restaurant arena, many of the region’s top chefs sing the mantra, “There’s no kitchen like home’s kitchen.”
The restaurant world’s gains here aren’t new. Twenty-three years ago, when chefs weren’t superstars, Zack Bruell bolted from his job as chef at Michael’s in Santa Monica, Calif., to return home and open Z. Years later, other native sons made a similar pilgrimage: Doug Katz from Colorado to head Moxie’s kitchen before opening his own place, fire, Rocco Whalen from California to open Fahrenheit in Tremont and James Bell from Wyoming to open Three Birds.
There are many more, including Dante Boccuzzi, who came home to transform Lockkeepers into a namesake restaurant, Dante. The executive chef brought along quite a résumé, including years working with Charlie Palmer (the past five were as executive chef at Palmer’s four-star restaurant Aureole), and a stint as opening executive chef at Nobu in Milan.
“I think these days there are a lot of opportunities in Cleveland, and I would like to be a part of it,” says Boccuzzi. “It is a lot easier getting things done here than in New York.”
Easier and cheaper. Boccuzzi is using the tag, “Enjoy New York food at Cleveland prices” — which is pretty much what you get.
I like the menu. Not just the content, but its variety and the choice of three portion sizes for pasta.
Ahhh, the pasta. It’s terrific.
A starter portion of truffled tagliatelle alla carbonara with a five-hour poached egg ($9) was decadently rich. The egg, poached for five hours in a tepid circulating water bath, is served atop the al dente pasta and quickly becomes part of the sauce. The truffle flavor is distinct, but not overpowering, simply one of many ingredients that combine into one luscious flavor.
There may not be any richer pasta dishes on the menu, but there are certainly heartier ones, including a soft potato ravioli with toasted walnuts and balsamic glazed chicken livers ($9). The accompanying large, mild-flavored livers seemed like a meal themselves. The ravioli and sautéed spinach received the balsamic glaze, while the walnuts stood their ground helping to balance the tart and savory flavors.
I must go back for the ricotta cavatelli and 48-hour braised beef shortribs with sweet garlic-stewed wild mushrooms. It is a huge favorite in this city of beef shortribs lovers.
We never hit a loser in choosing our starters. A semi-vegetarian drooled over the crisp goat cheese fritters with rosemary roasted gala apples ($8), which became a puree on the plate and made a sweet statement for the slightly tart goat cheese.
The yellowfin tuna tartare ($14), served atop a shallot-potato cake with a chive caper remoulade, was among the most inventive presentations of fish tartare I have seen. The fish here was impeccably fresh and the crispy cake was a nice spin for this dish.
I don’t eat much foie gras anymore. It has nothing to do with the ridiculous efforts to ban the delicacy. Rather, I’ve eaten hundreds of pounds of it and I probably should back off of it for health’s sake.
It was quite nice to jump back into the fray for this tasty appetizer. Dante’s foie gras ($19) is served with aromatic French toast stuffed with raisins and a vanilla pear compote and puree. The sweets balanced well with the rich slab of duck liver, which allowed me to continue with my glass of Rhone Valley Viognier-Marsanne instead of moving to a Sauterne.
Boccuzzi’s version of surf and turf started out with short ribs and scallops, but he felt that it conflicted with the short ribs and pasta dish. The substitute works just as well, if not better, consisting of three jumbo scallops, hanger steak, black trumpet mushrooms and celery root puree ($29).
The serving size didn’t seem huge, but the sweet scallops were a much larger portion than I expected. The portion of beef seemed normal, though by the time I downed the tender, flavorful cut I was too full to even think of dessert, coffee, more wine, anything but a nice warm bed.
On another trip, the pan-seared striped bass with chanterelles, quinoa, butternut squash and red wine onions ($27) was sheer comfort food. Striped bass is an excellent eating fish, easy to prepare and one that pairs well in a variety of different preparations, yet it doesn’t seem to be nearly as popular as one would expect.
The only dish that did not stand up as well as the others was a caramelized organic chicken with a soy lime vinaigrette ($19), paired with a crisp spring roll and ginger carrot puree. The bird was cooked to perfection, but there didn’t seem to be a hint of soy or lime.
I love chicken, eating it a couple of times a week. Whether prepared by stuffing herbs, spices or truffle under the skin or putting it in a good marinade bath, chicken should never go to the table naked of spice or other enhancements. But given the rest of the food, I have to regard the chicken as a minor hiccup from the kitchen.
There are more changes than just the food at Dante. The biggest — beyond the new carpeting, draperies and minor changes — is the addition of painted glass panels that now make a total separation between the bar and dining room. The change makes for two nice dining rooms, both far quieter than when noise from the bar or vice versa could darken an otherwise fine evening.
Dante, 8001 Rockside Road, Valley View, (216) 524-9404, www.danteboccuzzi.com; Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m. - 10:30 p.m., Fri & Sat 11:30 a.m. - 11 p.m.