Friday, April 9, 2010

The Greenhouse Tavern and White Flower Cupcakes, Cleveland OH

Following our fantastic brunch at Melt our sites were turned on shopping – a visit to Beachwood and Legacy, The West Side Market, and some of the shops surrounding the ever impressive revamped 4th Street area. The Cavs were in town and the town was abuzz despite the King sitting out to rest for the playoffs and despite the down economy people were out in plethoric numbers. With dinner reservations scheduled for late we did a little sampling at the Market and also picked up a couple of cupcakes from a new vendor at Beachwood Place while waiting to have the strap replaced on my watch.

Entitled White Flower Cupcakes this shop is apparently the second location of 16 year friends Lauren Bozich and Marianne Carroll – their first at LaPlace Shopping Center and featuring larger designer cakes. A limited but delightful collection of well decorated and pricey cakes ($2.95ea) it took a few moments to decide but we eventually settled on something old and something new - Red Velvet and Pancake.

Starting first with the Red Velvet – without a doubt the best I’ve had in Ohio. Dense and aromatic cocoa cake with a somewhat subdued sweetness was a perfect counterbalance for the luscious and glossy cream cheese frosting. Everyone in the car agreed this was not just good, but “wow” worthy. The second selection proved another stunning option with an equally dense cake packing high notes of cinnamon and butter topped with a delectable maple butter cream and a vein of buttery maple syrup running down the core of the cake. Smaller and more costly than the average cake I have to say I’d go back without hesitation – sometimes you get what you pay for.

After more shopping, cheap valet parking, and a visit to Erie Island Coffee Company and the House of Blues Gift Shop we made our way to our dinner destination – a restaurant that for all intents and purposes is becoming a destination due to the chef’s growing critical and popular acclaim. Located only two doors down from the oft celebrated but vastly overrated (in my opinion) Lola a single look at Chef Jonathon Sawyer’s mission statement “…guided by two principles: the idea that the proximity of the farm and soil to a restaurant correlates to the quality of its food and that environmentally conscious or green business practices are fundamental” put it high on my list. A quick perusal of the menu made it a must visit – especially having experienced two of Sawyer’s well conceptualized Pizzas at Bar Cento during his tenure there (shortly after Gayot recognized him as one of their five rising-star chefs)

Arriving rather early in the dinner hour we arrived to find the enormous restaurant already bustling – clearly being featured on Michael Symon’s Best thing I ever ate and in Food and Wine’s 10 best New Chefs of 2010 hadn’t hurt business. Checking in with the hostess we were led to a nice table at the angular front windows at the top of the staircase – a great view of 4th Street one way and a nice view of the strictly green/recycled décor in the other direction. Stairs coursing up above us to the upper floors and others leading down to the controlled chaos of the open kitchen below I must note that the servers at Greenhouse Tavern likely log 500+ stairs a shift. With the varying levels of the restaurant and the elaborate (and enormous) bar centerpiecing the whole room Greenhouse Tavern certainly is not a quiet place, but at the same time it felt more “energetic” than “loud” – think Babbo without the Stones.

Seated without delay our water was filled immediately and along with the menus we were brought a loaf of cool-to-touch crusty bread served alongside a light and airy smoked pork rillet with ample notes of onion, cumin, and bits of sea salt. With my dining partners not enjoying pate I was able to enjoy the whole rillet myself – they wished there would have been some butter and were largely bored by the bread.

Greeted next by our young waitress, Corrine the menu was explained to us – a collection of firsts (essentially amuse bouche sized bites,) second (appetizers,) thirds (mains,) halves (sides,) and desserts. Available a la carte or as a “Chef’s Tasting” consisting of either first/second/third/half or first/second/third/dessert at a bargain $39 (some items at a surcharge of $4-7) we were left to decide – my mother and aunt opting to go a la carte and myself going for the Tasting. While I will note that Corrine was working a substantial portion of the restaurant (upstairs, down, front, back) I found her to be a rather poor waitress – food was dropped off with no explanation, we were checked in on infrequently at best (IE, when receiving a dish,) and drinks required requests to be refilled. While some of this blame may fall on the ancillary staff (I had to make a point of setting my glass down harder than normal to get a water refill) there is a point where the primary server has to be sure guests are taken care of. Without belaboring my service complaints I will say that my biggest pet peeve aside from bad food is when the front of house doesn’t match the chef’s skill and vision – this was my complaint at Lola and it most definitely extended down the street to Greenhouse Tavern (more details to follow.)

Waiting for a long time (25 minutes) before our first courses arrived the dishes finally made their way up the stairs and were set down in front of us – in front of the wrong people – and they looked and smelled tremendous. Beginning first with my aunt’s selection, entitled Bread and Butter - grilled bread, goat's milk butter & sea salt the dish was small and simple yet substantial in taste. Featuring the smoke of the grill the crispy bread was very nicely complimented by the creamy and grassy yet sweet butter with lemon zest and sea salt atop. Quite possibly the same spread as the dearly departed goat butter at Alinea – the second best butter I’ve ever tasted.

For my appetizer I selected the standard - Salted Foie Gras Torchon with Pickled Lemon Peel, Shallots, Brioche. Potentially the cheapest foie gras appetizer I’ve ever tasted the flavor was anything but cheap. Unctuous foie and buttery brioche proved a standard pairing and both were excellent – what picked this dish up was the sweet/sour lemon peel – a flavor quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted and a nice balance for the foie and shallots. The sea salt added a nice textural component.

For my mother’s appetizer – one of the best tastes of the night. Named Devils on Horseback – Dee-Jay’s Bacon Wrapped Dates, Almonds, Bitter Chocolate, Roasted Pepper, this dish is a must order. Served on a skewer atop a creamy hummus the dish featured a roasted almond stuffed in a date and subsequently wrapped with pork belly. Sweet and salty, relatively common on its own, the bites were vastly improved by the interesting pairing of sweet yet spicy roasted red peppers and bitter dark chocolate shavings.

Finishing our firsts it was a matter of only 1-2 minutes before my second was brought by an ancillary server – it was set down without explanation and he ambled off without filling my now empty water. Entitled Soft Egg Omelet - w/ tarragon, chive, stinky cheese, city fresh egg & frisée salad this dish was the weakest of the evening largely because it lacked the subtleties of the other selections. While the egg was certainly fresh and well made the flavors of tarragon and chive were almost entirely lost under the weight of the potent cheese. That certainly isn’t to say this dish was “bad” just that it wasn’t quite as well conceptualized as others – I’d not order it again, though.

With my water sitting dry as a bone even as I finished the egg I tried to make eye contact with one of the servers, alas to no use. At this point I set my glass down with some force on the wooden table and apparently someone noticed as we saw a young bearded man walk over to the bar to pick up the pitcher and fill the water. After this our waters remained filled – a nice touch – unfortunately service continued to suffer as my next plate was brought incomplete. As featured on Symon’s best thing I ever ate I ordered the Animal Style Frites. Featuring, reportedly, hand cut potatoes fried in duck fat and topped with fried bacon, two fried eggs, mozzarella cheese curd & brown gravy this is not what I received – instead I received potatoes, cheese, and gravy – no eggs, no bacon. Thinking perhaps that the pork and eggs had been baked into the poutine I dug in and will admit it was some excellent comfort food – the crispy fries standing up handily to the curd and gravy. Allowing my mother and aunt to take a bite and slowly enjoying the fries a good 5 minutes passed before Corrine appeared with a plate of eggs and bacon – she fully admitted it had been forgotten and was “just sitting there” in the kitchen until they realized the error. Promising to take off the surcharge (a surcharge unlisted or unexplained earlier – and a surcharge of $4 that was still present when the bill arrived) for the mistake she topped the dish with the eggs and bacon and the resultant dish was even better than before – an exercise in excess to be sure, but delicious just the same.

When our mains started to arrive I was already starting to feel a little full – portions at Greenhouse Tavern are substantial to say the least. Beginning with my aunt, she selected Chef Sawyer’s award winning Aaron Miller’s Ohio Beef Burger - raclette cheese, preserved tomato, guss' pickle, pommes frites & GHT beer vinegar – as I do not eat burgers I cannot comment on it, but she ooh’d and aah’d through the dish and said it was the second best burger she’d ever eaten – second only to that at Boulevard.

My mother’s selection was the item I’d originally considered before deciding on my main. Entitled Pan Fried Pork Chop Saltimbocca with Sage, Country Ham, Pommes Puree, Red Eye Gravy. Served meaty and delicate the juicy pork was prominently buttery with ample notes of sage – it was delicious. Further enhancing the dish was a homogenous mix of buttery potatoes topped with chunks of smoky country ham and a gravy that tasted much akin to a pork pan sauce spiked with espresso, notably much less thick than I think of Red Eye Gravy, but better for it.

My selection was a $7 upcharge (this time announced) on the tasting and worth every penny – even if there was no chance I could finish it. A restaurant signature dish the Half Roasted Chicken in Brioche with fennel, onions, herbs & jus was first presented by Corrine still sealed in the flaky Brioche shell before returning downstairs for plating. An enormous half chicken the preparation of this dish provided a nearly sous-vide texture to the meat with ample notes of fennel, onions, and herbs much akin to a Thanksgiving Turkey. To be honest I really have no idea how the brioche maintained its composure with the significant juiciness of the meat and accompanying jus, but none the less it did, providing an almost “fried chicken” quality as I paired it as breading for the bird. A dish absolutely worthy of being called signature this dish was nearly as exceptional as Michael Mina’s Lobster Pot Pie as comfort food served in perfect form. Alas, as good as the chicken was, the previous items had left me already quite full and I only managed to finish 3/4 of the chicken and 2/3 of the frites – the rest going home for my aunt’s dog who has been given carte blanche for human food since his cancer diagnosis.

Completely stuffed I deferred on dessert while my companions wanted something sweet to finish – browsing the menu the “Petit Fours” plate seemed a perfect option. Purportedly featuring six small bites ours actually featured only 5 as one was duplicated. Lacking any description from our server my best guesses as to what was on the plate are a pistachio Lime Cupcake,a Cayenne Truffle, two Cream Cheese Brownie, a Coconut Macaroon, and a Chocolate Chunk Cookie. All items were clearly pre-made and served cold with only the brownie being better than average – the rest could have easily come from a supermarket bakery and the cookie was worse than Chips Ahoy. If this is what Greenhouse Tavern offers in the dessert department perhaps they should contact the ladies at White Flower – there is definitely room for improvement.

Receiving our bill I didn’t want to raise a fuss since the prices at Greenhouse Tavern are a downright bargain – but I did circle the Anima Frites supplement to make a subtle point – it was removed. With incredible savories and an extremely subpar dessert I left the restaurant with mixed feelings. Certainly if I lived in or around Cleveland I would gladly return to see what Sawyer was putting out of the kitchen, but with so many other options yet to explore (Dante, Moxie, etc) it would be hard to justify rushing back – great food and poor service does not make for a destination restaurant. In the end I echo my comments above about the front of house not keeping up with the chef – I found this to be the case at Lola and Spiaggia as well – each chef putting out superb food but the service lackluster to the point I don’t know I’d return – for Spiaggia – no way, for Lola – maybe, for Greenhouse – the verdict is still out.


Anonymous said...

Good Review, and interesting contrast. I was there a few nights after you it would seem, and had great service, but some of the dishes were a bit off. I would second that the Devils on Horseback are a must, and there were a number of great plates. That said some things were just wrong; ordered medium rare steak and received medium while dining partner had the opposite experience. on the charcuterie plate the country ham was watery, loose and frozen in the center; not how that's supposed to taste. The deserts were amazing, and some other dishes were knockouts, but the inconsistencies here stand out. Here's hoping that those get ironed out in the near future as this new restaurant finds it's footing.

Jenny Cleary said...

Found ya repeatedly on Yelp while planning for Vegas. So jealous of your many food adventures, especially the desserts!

Enjoying the blog and adding your blog link to my blog.

Have a good weekend!