I’ll let you in on a little secret.
Often, when a food writer reviews a restaurant, his two visits are the first and last made to the establishment. On occasion though, the food writer is given the serendipitous chance to write about one of his favorite restaurants. And for me, one of those places has long been Ohio City’s Flying Fig.
Before we go any further, however, I have to break with the jovial mood for a moment to say that Karen Small and her wonderful eatery seem to receive too little recognition in this city. The Fig (as it is known among the faithful) has been producing consistent, high-quality, accessible cuisine for six years; no small feat in a town with a one- to two-year dining memory.
Nestled in a neighborhood that includes Great Lakes Brewing Co., The Fig enjoys a wonderful, trendy urban setting in the shadow of the venerable West Side Market. Warmer months allow for plenty of enjoyable patio dining, while there’s also parking close by for those other months, when the weather is less hospitable.
Once inside Flying Fig, a large bar with adjacent booths and high-top tables allow guests to enjoy one of the city’s best upscale (yet comfortable) happy hours (more about this later), an ample, thoughtfully chosen and moderately priced wine list, and the usual vast array of pretty liquor bottles that seem to be begging me to drink from them. Just past the bar, a softly lit dining room blends cozy and contemporary with complete success, employing illuminated white-cloth ceiling decorations and sage walls to create a relaxed environment.
Chef/owner Karen Small has kept the feeling of her eatery accessible. From the decor to the menu to the staff, Flying Fig is refreshingly devoid of pomp and pretense. It is, really, one of the few local “white-tablecloth” restaurants where I feel at home in a suit or a pair of shorts. (Obviously, the latter should be paired with a nice short-sleeve button down or polo, so leave your Black Sabbath concert T-shirt at home.) The Fig’s overall vibe is that of a place that is cool without trying to be.
From 5 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, Flying Fig provides guests with one of the more attractive happy hours in town. While the drink offerings change to reflect the season, expect a cheap martini ($5), cheap beer ($2) and unusual wines ($4.50 a glass). But the real genius in The Fig’s happy hour is the inexpensive and awfully good short menu. The two-dozen mussels ($2.50) have never failed to please. Calamari ($3.50) is served Asian-style with pickled ginger aioli and daikon slaw at less than half the regular menu price. For quasi-traditional bar fare, Small offers a juicy, perfectly cooked blue-cheese burger ($4.50) with tiny, crispy potato frittes and feesh (fish, in case … oh, never mind) and chips ($4.50) with a zesty red beet and horseradish remoulade. Chicken dumplings ($3.50) and crispy fish tacos ($4.25) round out the selections and provide revelers with plenty to choose from to cushion those after-work libations.
Planning a full night out? The dining at Flying Fig is consistently excellent and shows a kitchen with an experienced handle on flavor and technique. Where Small’s compositions are, by her own admission, rarely breathtaking in terms of inventive plating (no towers or frills here), they are really good and evoke a time when the flavor of a dish was more important than its looks. (Not that the food isn’t nicely presented, it’s just, well, more simple and comfortable.) From top to bottom, the menu offers something for everyone, though Small and company seem to favor the farm over the fishery, much to my satisfaction.
Over the course of my visits to Flying Fig, my guests and I have tried the entire menu — every bit of it. Therefore, I beg your indulgence and will proceed with an all-encompassing statement: “Ahem … Dear (your name here), when dining at Flying Fig, if you like the way a dish sounds, you will love the way the dish tastes. Order without hesitation. Thank you.”
Now, I’ll hit some highlights for you, beginning with my favorite part of the menu, Small Plates and Little Bites. As you may have noticed, the small-plate or tapas thing has been gaining popularity lately, and for good reason. It gives you a great opportunity to sample lots of different dishes for what one normally spends on a single entrée. During a recent visit with three other diners, we opted out of entrees entirely and instead ordered several appetizers and all of the small-plate selections to share among us. It was a fun and relaxed way to enjoy dinner and even ended up costing less than a normal dinner for four. The grilled hangar steak ($9), roasted pork empanadas ($8.50) and grilled short rib ($8.50) were my favorites, though every dish was excellent. The tempura-battered baby green beans ($5.50) began as a way for Small to use a ton of locally grown legumes and have turned into the item she can’t take off the menu without inciting a riot among regulars. If there is a veal sweetbreads special ($8.50) when you visit, absolutely order it regardless of preparation. The Fig’s treatment of this epicurean delight is always on the money.
The salads are very good, with the roasted beet salad ($7) appealing to our table of root vegetable fans and the house greens ($6) featuring local blueberries, goat cheese, spiced nuts and honey yogurt vinaigrette.
During my many visits to Flying Fig, I have never met an entrée I didn’t like. Recent standouts include a grilled top sirloin steak ($22) that was everything a steak should be, a masterfully prepared double-duck dish with perfectly seared breast and a tender roasted leg ($22) and a surf-and-turf-style mash-up of gingered beef short rib and seared scallops ($23). Far and above these, though, was the grilled pork shoulder with sweet corn polenta and mustard butter ($20), wherein the pork is braised then grilled and set off by rich, creamy polenta and a mustard butter that successfully supplies the flavor of mustard without the overpowering acidity that can easily overwhelm a dish.
Desserts are all made in-house and feature classic “kitchen desserts” such as crème brulee and bread pudding. Our favorite offering at the end of the meal, however, was the cheese plate ($12.50), with its satisfying assortment of domestic and imported varieties.
Flying Fig is, and has been, an excellent and consistent dining spot where you and your friends, loved ones and sundry hangers-on should go eat, whether for the first or 40th time.
Flying Fig, 2523 Market St., Cleveland, (216) 241-4243. Hours: Tue-Thu 5-11 p.m., Fri & Sat 5-11:30 p.m., Sun 5-9 p.m., closed Mon. Bar open until 1 a.m. Tue-Sat and midnight on Sun.